The Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University feels more like a robotics lab than a fashion school. White mannequins line the glass corridors, some of them pinned with half-made dresses or jackets. There are tall mannequins, short mannequins, mannequins with arms, mannequins without heads.
“Companies get rid of dummies every few years,” says Allan Chan, a professor in the department. The average body size of clothing customers is constantly shifting, he explains, and the fashion industry needs to keep up. Some of the mannequins (or dummies, as they’re called in Hong Kong) the students are using were donated from Target and Marks and Spencer, who got rid of them when they needed new models.
That was the problem Chan was aiming to solve when he created iDummy, a mannequin that “grows” electronically to resemble different body shapes and sizes.
We enter a glass-walled room marked “iDummy Demo Lab,” and Chan shows me his invention. There are two iDummies in the room, one that is a body from the waist up and another that has legs. They’re both made of gray plastic segments that can move separately or together, driven by tiny motors connected by wires to a laptop. Chan fires up his computer and enters some numbers in the iDummy software. Suddenly, with a futuristic whirring noise, the smaller iDummy begins to grow. It’s upper arm segments separate, making the arm diameter larger. Its waist drops down, making it taller. Its breast segments pop out. Once a size 2, it’s now a size 10. One of Chan’s students slips a pair of tight jeans on the full-body iDummy and—whizzzz, click—the iDummy shrinks to fit them. Chan slips a stretchy fabric “skin” on the torso dummy to smooth out its profile as he demonstrates how it can change sizes to fit specific measurements—the stomach can grow while the arms shrink, or the hips can widen as the shoulders narrow.
“We see this as a breakthrough in robotic mannequin technology,” Chan says.
There are three main uses for the iDummy, Chan says. The first is for fashion brands, who can use the iDummies to design clothing in a range of sizes. The iDummy is expensive—$12,000 (US) for a torso or $16,000 for a whole body, versus about $1,800 for an ordinary soft-bodied mannequin. But since companies will need far fewer iDummies, Chan expects it will save money in the long run. The second use is for custom fitting. A customer could send their measurements to a designer and the designer could plug them into an iDummy and use that to create the product. Or perhaps iDummies could be used by online retailers to model for customers what a particular item would look like on them. A third use would be in retail stores, which could use iDummies to display clothing in a range of shapes and sizes.
“I realized this was an area that required something new,” he says.
Chan invented the first prototype of the iDummy in 2013, and has now contracted with a Hong Kong company to improve and manufacture the product.
The current female iDummy can grow from a British size 6 to size 16 (US size 2 to 12). Chan just finished working on a male version of the mannequin, and he is in progress on a bra-fitting dummy. His next goal is to make a plus-sized iDummy, with curvatures better representing the body of a larger person. He’s also interested in working with some of his Polytechnic engineering colleagues to embed the mannequins with pressure sensors, so they can “feel” how tight clothing is.
So far Chan has sold more than a dozen iDummies, mostly to fashion companies in China and other Asian countries. He hopes to see the iDummy in stores across America and Europe in the next several years.
“It saves a lot of space, it saves a lot of money, and it’s very sustainable,” he says.