The Industry

How Amazon’s Fashion Business Continues to Evolve

It became the biggest online clothing retailer in 2016. Its latest reported move is another step in its growth.

A chrome sculpture of a woman made from a 3D body scan surrounded by silhouettes of dresses.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kecko/Flickr CC.

Amazon’s presence as an online retailer is always evolving. The company’s push into clothing sales illustrates that well. For many years, Amazon’s apparel options and shopping experience were decidedly lackluster. To turn that around, it made a handful of acquisitions in the 2000s, which included popular women’s shopping destination Shopbop. Amazon began breaking into the apparel space in earnest around 2012, but in recent years its push into fashion has been more serious. After debuting its Amazon Fashion vertical, the company introduced a handful of in-house fashion labels in 2016 to bridge the gap left by brands unwilling to sell their products on the platform. Since then, it’s also introduced a baby-clothing store and celebrity fashion partnerships. Last June, it added a Stitch Fix–style clothing box for Prime members, allowing them to buy items, try them for a week, and return what they didn’t like. Even the Echo Look, one of the company’s recent smart speakers, is centered around fashion; it helps owners document their outfits via photos and, using machine learning, suggests which styles look best on the wearer. Amazon became the biggest online clothing retailer in the U.S.
in 2016. It kept developing its fashion business last year, including partnerships with high-profile brands like Nike and Calvin Klein and expansion into new regional markets. In 2018, it’s continuing to build on that momentum.

Most of its moves so far have centered around expanding Amazon’s apparel options and making its shopping experience feel more like that of other retailers. Amazon offers higher-end fashion styles and in-house labels, and its Amazon Fashion vertical highlights specific collections and trends. It also offers Amazon Prime Wardrobe, so shoppers can sample a selection of styles and easily return ones they don’t like. Now the company is targeting an age-old reason clothing purchases don’t work out: They don’t fit properly. In October, Amazon purchased New York City–based Body Labs, a startup that conducts 3D body scans for applications such as gaming and virtually trying on clothes. The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon, using Body Labs and its technology, is in the process of recruiting people to participate in a 20-week body-scanning study in order to better understand “how bodies change shape over time.” According to the invitation, participants will be invited to New York for 10 bimonthly body scans. Participants reportedly will also be asked to give additional information about their body and weight, such as if their fitness routine has changed dramatically over the past year or if they have any specific exercise or weight-loss goals. Using its 3D scanners, Amazon will then observe how their body shapes change over the course of five months.

Other startups are delving into 3D scanning for fashion as well. Alton Lane uses the technology to craft custom-tailored suits, for example, while other companies like Bodi.Me help you figure out exactly what size to wear from dozens of retailers. Amazon’s survey is interesting because it seems to have a different aim. No doubt the data and scans it gets through this project will be useful in eventually helping predict what clothing sizes people should order—or what brands or styles will suit their body types over others. If you’ve got unusually wide shoulders, for example, it could find shirts that fit your body and steer you toward designs that balance out your shape. But the fact that Amazon is also trying to learn about how the body changes as people gain or lose weight is clever. Between the ages of 25 and 44, the average adult gains 3–5 percent of their body weight each year. A “Have you gained weight since you last shopped here?” dialogue box isn’t the most welcoming entrance to an online shopping experience, even if it is one that could better help you find clothes you’ll look good in. But given Amazon has several in-house fashion brands, the data it gets from the body scanning could be used instead to develop styles that lend themselves to figures trending slimmer or larger over time—learning where it should add some stretch, seams, or other details that can lend a piece toward an evolving human body. (Amazon hasn’t commented on its survey.)

Amazon Fashion competitors who are complacent with the status quo should be worried. Amazon has the financial resources to create both splurge-worthy and budget-friendly clothing designs, making it a foe of both the Walmarts and Targets of the world as well as Bloomingdale’s. But it also has an eye on the future: It’s aiming to make shopping more fun and capitalize on those interested in sharing and expanding their personal style through endeavors like the Echo Look. And now, it’s working on something else—a way to make operations more cost-effective by minimizing size-related returns, and a way to design better-fitting and better-looking clothing items. Technology is fueling changes in the fashion industry, and Amazon is now at the forefront of both.