The Ass Master

Photo by Tenaya HillsAfter a century's worth of fashion magazines—and a few too many years of makeover shows—we still can't dress ourselves. (We probably never could—it's just that, periodically, design fillips like the Hollywood waist, the pleat and the straight-across shirt hem conspire to hide our collective gut and make us look passable.) But now, more than ever, we'd like to look sharp, which explains the recent materialization at the Levi's South Coast Plaza store of something resembling an atom splitter—and, in the fashion world, just about as significant.

Levi's calls it the Levi's Fit Experience, and they're sending it around the country on a trial basis—it comes to select stores in November. It tells you what size Levi's will actually fit you. This is revolutionary because there are people—mostly women, now some men—who routinely devote a day to shopping for jeans. After a swimsuit, a pair of jeans is a woman's most agonized-over purchase, the Levi's people say with not a little pride. The Levi's Fit Experience takes the guesswork out of buying Levi's—though, as yet, it will not subtract 10 pounds or tell you what size you are at the Gap, a few doors north.

How it works is, after punching in your ZIP code and what type of rise you normally wear—we'll call them "Nip/Tuck," "Sex and the City" or "Seinfeld"—you step into the center of the chamber, which is cylindrical and about six feet around. Your handler puts metal weights on your shoulders to help it guess your height. She closes the door and pushes a button, and a small motor atop the chamber spins a foam-covered rod the height of a Laker (remember them?) and the circumference of a Thermos twice around the inside edge of the chamber to take your measurements. I am not making this up.It uses radio waves "one-thousandth the strength of your cell phone" to "read the water in your body," then translates that into size measurements using the power of computers—much like those x-ray machines department stores used in the '50s to see if your kid's shoes fit—only without radiation.

And it works. They hand you a slip of paper with your measurements, and a member of the sales staff will more than likely help you pull on a half-dozen pairs of boot-cut, low-rise, skin-tight or 501 Levi's. After trying on about three pairs, the enormity of it starts to sink in, and you realize that by next Christmas, a machine like this should—could—be in every denim boutique from here to Mound City, Missouri. Because now things fit, you have a butt, and the relevance of jeans as the new slacks is clear.

You need the Fit Experience because in the years separating Seinfeld and The Larry David Show, denim makers have accomplished the equivalent of a mission to the moon; yet most—some—of us—okay, me—are still buying jeans as if it's 1968. The fit now is almost invariably close and low-rise—it's definitely not 501s—and it's for everyone. Which brings us briefly to the much-documented practice of guys—hipsters/twentysomethings/MySpace users—who buy women's pants not just because they need a 27-inch waist but because they realize that for men, the butt is irretrievably in play.

And no one—not American Eagle, not the Gap, not even your government—knows your ass the way you do. Except perhaps Levi's. This is of somewhat diminished consequence as long as they deliver on their promise and install a Fit Experience in South Coast Plaza by next month—but consider: Levi's spokespeople say the American Standards of Tables and Measures, which sets guidelines for the clothing industry, hasn't issued a new set of clothing measurements since the 1940s. It's not like they'd be judiciously followed (remember Hammer pants?), but it's a little disconcerting to consider that the last time your government took a long, hard look at your tuchis, you were an average of 25-26 pounds lighter—and at least an inch shorter. (Also: Eisenhower was still figuring out what party he belonged to.)

If no one but Levi's knows you and your jeans and your sizing, is it any wonder you need a day to find good denim? Admittedly, part of the reason you need eight hours of shopping is because you like to shop—and because jeans are ever more numerous. But what does it say about the denim—or the clothing—industry if you still resort to trial and error to find your size? That apparently, it takes a precariously balanced corporate giant—whose wares ironically are all now made offshore—to show us the way to a good fit? There's no word on exactly how Levi's feels about any market share slippage—but sometimes one's best comes from desperation. Its 501s are out of style, perhaps permanently, but the Fit Experience is quite possibly the best reason to step up to a set of 527s (low-rise boot-cut) since, well, the low-rise. And not just because a big, expensive machine is ordering you around. You can go home to get that. This is well-informed, hands-on customer service: what every store should have—but, of course, does not.


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