Embracing Modification

Embracing Modification

Promoting customer-led fashion through customisation, innovation and sustainability, Unmade present a new, flexible model for contemporary retail.

Unmade, a fashion technology business, was launched in 2013 by Kirsty Emery (a Textiles and Knitwear graduate), Hal Watts and Ben Alun-Jones (both Innovation Design graduates), who all studied at the Royal College of Arts, London. Offering customisation through e-commerce interfaces, the trio’s organisation facilitates the development of a dialogue between designers and customers, bringing together all of their specialisms to synthesise craft and innovation. They are now able to work directly with production lines in factories, where an order can be made exactly to a buyer’s specification and sent directly to them. Alun-Jones describes this as “unlocking an amazing opportunity to create one-off pieces.”

Recent clients include Opening Ceremony (a global fashion community which is inspired by the Olympic Games) and FarFetch (an online retail platform), along with a collaboration with MoMA, New York. Now, through embracing new technologies, they are engaging with key issues in modern design – namely, sustainability, and the development of forward-thinking techniques for reducing mass production and its related waste.

A project with UK Sport for the British Olympic cycling team provided the initial impetus for exploring the possibilities of industrial knitting machines. “We realised,” Alun-Jones says, “that these machines were amazing, and that you could make a bespoke item using technology, but there was this big problem in terms of how to develop the software to unlock its potential.” After applying for grants, the team founded Knyttan, a prototype firm, which “essentially showed what you could do with the technology we were making” and enabled investment-raising. In October 2015, the first version of the Unmade platform launched, quickly garnering interest – and accolades. Beginning by collaborating with “several emerging designers,” within a few months they “started getting a lot of interest from much bigger businesses.” In 2017, they were invited to reinterpret the Breton shirt for MoMA, a huge achievement and opportunity, for which they were selected to demonstrate “what fashion can mean in the future, the vision of mechanised, one-off products.” The firm’s contribution turns an iconic piece of fashion into something very different: “all the stripes become fluid flows, and when you touch the sweater in the exhibition, all the lines will move around your fingers and become distorted and disrupted.”

In terms of the journey from design to production, customisation is a complex process, but Unmade make it look simple. Essentially, upon visiting the website of one of the firm’s clients, a shopper selects a product, opts to change it, and the Unmade system loads up. The platform is inherently flexible, but in terms of its general use, it is at this point “you can take one of the products and there are a number of options available on entering text, or a name, or a letter. You can take a graphic and move it around, in order to make a particular print. You can scale or rotate it. There are also more interesting things you can do, like take a grid and bend or warp it. The result is that buyers might choose something they know very well but create a new version based on their own individual input.” Once the item has been purchased, the order goes directly to a factory and is produced according to their specifications. In many ways this chimes with fashion’s increasing use of augmented reality and the capacity to visualise – and indeed, nearly, to experience – something personalised prior to its purchase.

One critical implication of this process relates to sustainability and thinking more widely about the environment. By producing garments on demand, Unmade offer one solution to a big issue in modern industrial production: waste. This is something the team see as comprising one of their main responsibilities: in their approach, no item is ever surplus to requirements. Much of the fashion industry, of course, has now moved away from the use of landfill, preferring to recycle, sell on, or donate, but overproduction does remain a problem – and, as Alun-Jones highlights, so does the continued prevalence of clothing that is, essentially, designed to be disposable by its very nature. Indeed, the ability to buy something with an element of self-design represents a long-term personal investment in financial and emotional terms that is in fact the antithesis of fast fashion. In rallying in this way, the young company has the potential to offer a strategy both for reducing waste and making production more efficient. “The system at the minute has a lot of opportunities to be more responsive and therefore sustainable. So that’s what we’re aiming towards. We believe that with digital technology you can treat people much more as exclusive customers – and with that you’re no longer guessing for an audience, you’re working for an individual.” This is a much more personal and direct method of communication than the use of trend-forecasting agencies – such as WGSN – (which fulfil a similar role on a much larger-scale, also contributing to increased efficiency in production). In Unmade’s approach, a conversation is facilitated between producer and consumer.

By offering industrially produced yet still custom-made fashion, the company toes an interesting line between the past and future of design: “Clearly much of what we do exists because of the logistical tools that we use, and the web is a platform you can use to connect all of these different factories and all of these diverse machines together,” Alun-Jones explains. He also praises e-commerce, which means the firm can “launch something very cheaply and quickly, so we can try ideas out in different locations without committing to overproducing.” They can, in fact, offer a product for sale before it has ever been made: “It’s only when the customer places an order that we actually manufacture it. The fact they can do that from mobile phones, tablets, the sofa at home or their desk demonstrates exactly how things have changed.” This means, crucially, that no item produced goes unsold.

Responsive practices of this kind may seem somewhat futuristic, but in many ways Unmade’s work harks back to the process of garment production which prevailed prior to the rise of industrialisation and mass production. “The fundamental part of what we’ve done is to use technology to go back to a very old-fashioned idea,” Alun-Jones says. “Before the Industrial Revolution, people would just go and buy a product from the shop and it would be made to order. And that whole process was lost with the rise of machines and mass creation. We’re trying to use the new digital tools to be able to bring this option back for everyone. What if you can use technology to offer bespoke items to the wider public?”

This opportunity taps into a growing need in the fashion industry to communicate directly with customers – as seen in the increasing use of social media in recent years – allowing consumers to feel engaged not only with the items they buy, but also with the producers. Design is increasingly personal.

None of this should, however, be seen to signify a diminishing role for the imaginations behind the clothes. In an age when a sweater can be customised at the touch of a button – or a few finger swipes on a touchscreen – it might seem that the customer’s creative agency, rather than the designer’s, is everything. Whilst acknowledging that this idea, if extended, could be seen as a threat to those who work behind the scenes to create garments, Unmade is adamant that expertise is still critical in the industry. “It’s actually amazing to be engaged in a significant and new conversation. It means that you’re not offering static pieces anymore, but the opportunity to be part of a story that ends in a product.

“Basically, companies now have the capacity to make a unique product with ease. One example is a hound’s-tooth scarf where you can break apart all the individual teeth. So, a level of disruption is chosen – but clearly every single item is part of the same collection. If the pieces were placed next to each other you’d know that even though each specific garment is different, they all mirror each other through a consistent theme.” Evidently, the role of the designer is still key: “We’re providing the interactivity, but we’re not replacing the humans behind it – all the expertise is still held by the people – dictating the material, shape, and all those integral aspects. The idea is to enable more efficient methodology, and in doing so we allow the buyer to be involved.” This outcome links back to sustainability: production is possible at the same speed and cost, but with a vital layer of interactivity.

Clearly, Unmade is at the forefront of a number of exciting new areas of development. Their practice forms an intersection between fashion, online identities and modern businesses. This is reflected in the variety of awards which they have won in the past four years. Alun-Jones sees this as an endorsement of their team, which, numbering 24, has grown significantly since the firm’s early days, but still remains close-knit. “It’s a validation of everyone,” he says of their success with the British Fashion Council, D&AD, and Drapers Digital Award, to name just a few. “It shows that we’re going in the right direction, and that this isn’t just something that we think is a good idea! It’s good to know. But other than that, it’s a massive honour, particularly to be recognised by the British Council, or the Yellow Pencil (D&AD), which is one of the best awards that anyone can win for digital design.”

In 2018, Unmade will continue to expand: they recently agreed to work with the luxury British cycling label Rapha on a long-term basis, along with a number of other prestigious and thought-provoking collaborations, which, Alun-Jones states, cannot be revealed to the public at this stage. “We have just launched a major partnership with a well-known global brand – a customisation programme in knitwear.”

They’ll be bringing the company’s individual touch to these high-profile new partners. Alun-Jones says: “The opportunities that we’re creating for these other labels is to enable a platform that offers unprecedented interfaces between customers and manufacturing, connecting all the dots, so that factories can directly ship products to the end consumer and therefore all the steps and complexities between a unique order and industrial production are removed. That’s the idea.” In other words, they will use their technological platforms to streamline purchasing processes, whilst adding a layer of individuality even to mass-produced garments. If this is the future of fashion, it’s certainly an appealing prospect: sustainable, responsive and inclusive.

Anna Feintuck