I was barefoot and naked when the cameras came for my data.
In a makeshift room no bigger than a phone booth, standing on a plush carpet that had hosted who knows how many naked men before me, I could see the vertical array of cameras surrounding me on six or eight sides. I stood where I was told, put my hands at my sides and pressed a button. The walls burst to life: three camera flashes in front, three to the side, three behind my exposed buttocks. The light spun around me, detecting how my shoulders sloped, how my hips popped, how my chest caved. After just a few seconds it was done. I put my clothes on, left the scanner area and saw something that looked like this:
I was in the midtown Manhattan showroom of Alton Lane, a bespoke suitmaker that’s been around for seven years. I came to fulfill a friend’s request that all the groomsmen at his wedding wear the same Alton Lane suit. I knew that meant there’d be a body scan involved1 — I just didn’t expect to have to get naked to do it. After a few seconds in the scanner, the company had grabbed 70 measurements,2 including my inseams, my outseams, and, yes, my “crotch length” front and back. The company has since assured me that no conventional photos were taken, and they keep no record of anything but my data-point silhouette. But I keep returning to that moment when the clerk asked me to strip down. I hesitated3 but stepped in anyway. The lure of the data was too strong: I was promised a suit that would fit like no other because Alton Lane would measure me like no other. If all it took to get that perfect, data-optimized suit was letting a company scan my naked body without any way of being sure they weren’t also taking naked pictures of me, surely that was worth it … right?
Alton Lane got its start in 2009, and from the beginning its promise was that it could make a better suit because it had better technology. It does what a traditional tailor does, but in less time and for less money. First it would scan a customer’s body, then an employee would take hand measurements to double-check some of the scanner’s measurements and discuss any alterations, and finally a blueprint would be sent away for the suit to be made. The goal is to get a better fit than an off-the-rack suit, which can only be altered at the margins, and to do what old-fashioned tailors do, but faster. “We’re taking a lot of the information that would happen over the course of five fittings on Savile Row and condensing it all the way up front. So the first garment you try on is going to be much closer to, ‘Hey I really like this,’” Colin Hunter, Alton Lane’s CEO, said.
Alton Lane is just one of the upstarts that have flooded the menswear industry in recent years. Indochino, The Black Tux, Combatant Gentlemen, Suitsupply, Bonobos — each of them peddles its own version of masculinity with a suit on the side.4 For some of the companies, the branding extends to their showrooms, where buying a suit is about the experience as much as it is the suit. The traditional Men’s Wearhouse grip-n-grin is out; free scotch is in. Alton Lane’s Manhattan flagship offers you a drink at the “bar” the moment you arrive, plays ESPN on a TV in the middle of the showroom,5 and has various taxidermied animal heads hanging on the wall.6 That there’s a high-tech body scanner in the corner is part of what Alton Lane hopes will set the brand apart — here’s a place where you can sip a cocktail, admire the swirled pattern on an elk antler and feel like Philip K. Dick is your tailor.
Data has a way of casting a spell (at least on editors at FiveThirtyEight), especially while shopping. Some of it personalizes: Amazon uses our search and purchase history to promise it’ll find us the best related items. Some of it optimizes: The Sweethome, a Consumer Reports for the modern age, promises that its extensive data collection during testing will lead you to the best toaster oven on the market.7 And some of it localizes: Facebook ads tell us how many of our friends like a product to convince us that it must be worth buying (otherwise our friends wouldn’t have bought it in the first place). If you’re spending money, the data industrial complex tells its customers, then you may as well do it right. You may as well put it toward what’s best.
Even if the best requires vulnerability. The only experience I’d had with body scanners was at the airport, where TSA scanners use millimeter-wave technology to scan through clothing until they find something with water in it (flesh included). Alton Lane’s scanner was different. It was only interested in what was on the surface, flashing light at me as a kind of visual sonar.
“That’s a very old technology. It uses visible light,” said David Bruner, the CTO at Size Stream, a company that provides Alton Lane with new body scanners. (Size Stream was not the manufacturer of the older scanner I was in.) “I need to have a talk with them and do some sort of special deal to get that out of there,” Bruner said. Those flashes of light made the machine susceptible to being blinded by contrasting colors, which is why I was asked to get naked.8 Newer machines don’t require anyone to disrobe because they aren’t color-sensitive; they use infrared light to gather data, similar to the Microsoft Kinect.
No matter the technology inside, stepping in that booth meant revealing my true physical nature to a machine. Yet, compared with what I do every day, I’m not sure my time at Alton Lane was all that intimate. Its knowledge of me was superficial relative to the cookies, bots and trackers that compile my every Google search and abandoned shopping cart. Those are the data collectors that know more about me than any body scanner. One’s body is not the frontier of privacy in our age of surveillance.
Not too long after my first visit, I went back into the Alton Lane showroom to get my suit. The scanner was still there. It stood sentry, not acknowledging what we’d shared just a few weeks prior. But what we made together was waiting for me. I disrobed (keeping the underwear on this time), stepped into the pants, put on the jacket, and …
The thing fit like a dream; no alterations needed. It was perfect around my neck, resting nicely around what the scanner said was my 15.07-inch collar. The sleeves accommodated the different lengths of my arms (28.33 inches vs. 30.77). The pants fit nice and snug around my 39.37-inch butt — ahem, excuse me, “seat” is the preferred euphemism. It was the suit I was promised. It was the suit the data had promised.
Indeed, it looked so good I’m going to wear it to my own wedding this weekend. It should be an intimate affair.