From its base in Hong Kong, Alvanon has come to dominate the world’s physical and digital mannequin industry. Its goal now, says CEO Janice Wang, is developing technologies that will make the clothing industry far more efficient.
Asian hub • 9 min readPublished 19 January 2022 in
Alvanon was founded in 2001 by my father, Dr Kenneth Wang. Although he had trained as a doctor, he had spent the previous quarter of a century running a children’s clothes manufacturer – one of the world’s biggest, supplying companies such as Walmart. Being a successful business person, however, was not his main interest. Rather, he was a visionary, always looking for better ways of doing things. In the 1990s, he built the world’s first body scanner, using cameras that went around the body on a track. When the Internet appeared, he instantly recognized its potential for selling clothes and transforming the fashion industry.
After quarter of a century working in the clothing business, he also knew that the industry badly needed to change. One issue that bugged him in particular was that designer partners in the United States were continually rejecting samples sent to them saying they didn’t fit. He figured out that the problem lay in the papier mâché used to make fit forms – the industry name for the mannequins used for sizing and designing clothes – and its tendency to shrink at a different rate depending on the humidity of the location where it was dried.
What the industry needed, he realized, was to have consistent standard fit forms on which to design and develop garments, so he set up Alvanon to address this need, installing me as CEO and one of my brothers, Jason, as COO. Using his medical insight on human morphology, Alvanon began by making and selling robust fiberglass fit forms that matched the range of body sizes found around the world.
With their set measurements for all body types, these fit forms became the industry standard. Our two main competitors – Wolf Form in the US and the UK’s K&L – failed to react, and so every year for the first six years, our turnover grew by more than a third as we established relationships with almost all of the world’s leading clothing brands.
‘All we can do is evolve’
Alvanon grew rapidly in the next few years. Based in the US and Europe, I took charge of strategy, legal, finance and all external comms. Jason was the business’s tech visionary and operations person. And in 2005, another of our brothers, Jonathan, joined us. His first assignment was to fix our factory: as a toy designer, he understood injection molding and the various manufacturing processes we needed to have in place. Driven by curiosity, and always wanting to tinker and experiment, he became our head of R&D.
Our father, meanwhile, continued as chairman. He was very much hands off when it came to operational matters, but hugely supportive with ideas. From the start, he instilled in us the importance of innovation. His tagline, which is still our mantra, was “All we can do is evolve”. And so, even though the dotcom bubble was bursting around us as we launched, we already knew that making all of our business as digital as possible had to be one of our goals.
It wasn’t always easy to explain why this was so important to other businesses in the fashion industry. Our first fit forms were designed using Maya, the animation software used by Pixar to make its animated movies. At that time, it could take days to render a tee-shirt that could be physically made in 15 seconds. But we persisted, using body scanners to gather our own body data while also tapping into external sources, such as a mid-2000s US body sizing study conducted by North Carolina State University which we also participated in.
As a result, we have generated the world’s largest database of nearly two million 3D body scans carried out in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Now, we apply this 3D body shape and size data with our family’s deep knowledge of the apparel industry to bring discipline, science and technology into what historically has been seen as a creative industry.
Our approach supports creativity but also delivers end products in a digital and sustainable way. Today, we work with our clients to become much more time and cost efficient by digitalizing their product design and development processes across every critical element of their supply chain. We help them identify and define their sizing schemes so they can produce clothes for every size and shape of body among their target customers. To our body scan information, we add data drawn from health and demographic statistics. We merge this with information from a company’s own competitive analysis to help them figure out their inventory ratios – how many extra-smalls they should make, how many extra-large, and so on.
We also help our clients determine what standards their suppliers should be following – something that’s becoming more and more important now most American and European brands have no direct involvement in manufacturing and so no knowledge of manufacturing processes and how they are evolving.
Our platform also supports their designers by transforming sketches produced on a 3D software into fully digitized garments fitted on accurately sized and shaped virtual bodies. These virtual bodies, available on the Alvanon Body Platform, can be rendered with all the physical characteristics of people in their target demographic.
As well as giving designers their very own muse in the virtual world, garments created this way can be used to generate patterns automatically. Any edits to the garments on the bodies automatically leads to change in the pattern. No physical samples are created until everyone in the creative and technical team is happy with the virtual representation. This can save weeks of development and sampling time, especially when dealing with offshore vendors.
“It was very tough when our father died … but as he had taught us, we had to be able to evolve and move on, drawing on the belief he instilled in us to accept change and see where it might lead” – Janice Wang
The fashion industry is still a conservative industry, wedded to doing things in the way they have been done for decades, so until recently take up of our digital products wasn’t as fast as we would have liked. This changed with the coronavirus pandemic, which has proved to be the catalyst our industry needed to speed up the digitalization process.
When the pandemic first started, we got calls asking us to ship mannequins to homes rather than offices. Yes, we said. But as we also now have a set of very strong standard digital operating protocols – something we had been building up in the two years before the pandemic –why don’t you start using them instead?
And they did, leading to a hockey stick rise in revenues from the digital side of our business. Pre-pandemic we had been working with several forward-thinking companies, most of them in sportswear, in digital formats. Now we are helping nearly all the companies stuck in the old physical world of producing clothes transform themselves to digital ways of working – allowing us to move towards realizing our mission of providing our retail and brand clients with the ability to make clothes that fit every body.
What helps here is that every person in our company is committed to continual learning and change. In this respect, the company we have remains very much an extension of my father’s thinking. We’ve continually evolved by making lots of experiments to try out new things, seeing how well they work, modifying them to make them better, and then making them part of our standard procedure. We value depth and substance, the willingness to learn, and a willingness to share learning with others.
Alvanon is still a family company, run by my two brothers and myself. Our personalities are very different, but we work with and off each other really well, bringing different strengths to the table. It was very tough when our father died 10 years into the business. But as he had taught us, we had to be able to evolve and move on, drawing on the belief he instilled in us to accept change and see where it might lead.
We’re also fortunate in where we are from – Hong Kong. We have had offices in New York, San Francisco, London and Shanghai, each with a culture of its own. But we’ve always been able to build bridges between all of those places. That’s in part because we are committed to constant learning, hard work, substance over superficiality, using science as a guide to experiments – but also because being raised in the city before going to university in the US allowed us to see both East and West and how different cultures can mix to great effect.
Also, for me, there’s no other place that’s as dynamic, nor with more opportunities for what we do. Although almost all garment manufacturing has long since left the city, its rich textiles and apparel history has left it with multiple layers of product and sourcing experience and a lot of garment science know-how. Across the border in China, it has access to manufacturing facilities, its trade and logistics know-how is still world-leading – as is its port – and its economy remains free.
Time for a new model
Hong Kong’s dynamism can also be used to drive change. In the past, fashion has been a greedy industry, preferring to make money than embrace change. For decades, brands and manufacturers have been stuck in the old way of doing things: drawing pretty pictures of new clothes, producing samples, guessing what people might buy, getting those guesses wrong, and then having to discount mountains of unsold stock at the end of each season. That model must go. It’s become less and less profitable, and its way of operating is environmentally disastrous.
To move the industry towards sustainability calls for abandoning our old ways of doing things and replacing all the efficient processes that digitalization can deliver. Alvanon can contribute to this in various ways, most of all by helping the industry streamline inventory. Our technologies are playing a crucial role in creating a world where every single body can have clothes that fit. We want people to be able to go online and buy something that they know will fit the way it should when it arrives at their door. And we want companies to be able to make just the garments that people need.
Already, we have enough knowledge and insights to work with fashion companies as they navigate their way into the complex and often confusing digital arena. But to get to where we want to go calls for more than being successful as a business. It can’t only be about making more money. For the longest time, we’ve talked about companies principally existing to benefit their shareholders. That must change. Instead, we need to be holistic: running companies for their stakeholders, who as well as shareholders include the people who work for a company, the industry in which it finds itself and those who benefit from what it makes, its customers.
For this we must create new business models that make sense for companies. There are always better ways of doing things. With the new technologies now becoming available to us, I would like to see an emboldened leadership that makes the garment industry better. We need to take the resources that we have and build on them. Don’t be static but evolve in line with both market and social needs – creating value and continuing to grow, to learn and to think beyond profitability to doing things that are necessary, productive and useful.
If Alvanon can make a dent in the way things are done by making the fashion industry a little more efficient and sustainable as we move forward into the digital era, then we will be able to say we’ve created a successful business.