In the warren of corridors beneath London’s Somerset House, two machines are reknitting the fashion industry. It seems appropriate that they’re 20m below where London Fashion Week’s models used to walk, since their aim is to puncture the bloated cycle of seasons that means 10 per cent of all new clothes end up in landfill. As they whir away, the question they ask is: why would you accept what you’re offered twice a year, when you could design your own wardrobe?
The brand behind these machines, Unmade, has lofty goals. “We’re trying to transform how fashion is made,” says Ben Alun-Jones. Bespectacled, bearded, he looks more like an engineer than a fashion designer.
Before founding Unmade with two friends and collaborators from the Royal College of Art, Kirsty Emery and Hal Watts, he worked in computer art and industrial design. It’s why he approaches clothes with a coder’s eye, why he looks for problems to solve. Rather than drape and movement, he talks about disruption. About making fashion “more responsive, more responsible and more sustainable.”
His knitting machines tick off all three. Behind us, red, white and blue wool pours through metal teeth, which knit it into a unique pattern that a customer just designed on Unmade’s website. This windowless room, yards from the Thames, is far in concept and distance from the Bangladeshi factories where designs are churned out identically, by the thousand, for fast fashion retailers. But the machines they use are exactly the same.
Unmade’s studio-factory at Somerset House, London
After graduating, Alun-Jones, Emery and Watts launched a design consultancy, which did work for UK Sport. “Our recommendation was to use industrial knitting machines to make one-off performance clothing,” says Alun-Jones. Bespoke pieces would be snugger, more aerodynamic than off-the-rack options. “They said, ‘That’s not possible, it will never work.’ And with their budget and time frame, it wasn’t.”
That’s because industrial knitting machines are dumb, with an interface from the 1980s that takes time – and money – to programme. To absorb that set-up cost, you need big runs. In that problem, they saw a solution; rewrite the code so it was easy to tweak what the machine produced. Those same industrial machines could be used to make one item at a time, more like a 3D printer than a factory. You could create something bespoke, without bespoke prices.
At first, brands weren’t interested. Or rather, they didn’t believe it would work. Until Unmade’s shop popped-up at Somerset House and customers could create a design on an iPad, then see it knitted on a machine in front of them. “The minute we actually did it, they all picked up the phone.”
Today the brand exists to test the programme’s possibilities. “Our own collection is a case study of how it works,” says Alun-Jones. “We can move faster than any brand because we understand the process, the tech, the design opportunities, much better than anyone who’d come in.”
As well as the knitting programme, they created a design model so customers can tweak the designs on the website, moving patterns around or turning stripes into drips of paint. “We offer hundreds of products with millions of variants on each one, most of which have never been made.” So rather than wear the same jumper as anyone else, every customer can produce something unique.
They’ve also invited like-minded designers to collaborate: to tie in with his SS16 collection, Christopher Raeburn created a map of Borneo that you can manipulate on Unmade’s website, then have knitted from merino wool.
Unmade teamed up with Christopher Raeburn for its SS16 edit, inspired by ancient maps of Borneo
“The designers we worked with were all doing something leading in their respective fields,” says Alun-Jones. “But also looking at doing things differently – how can you involve the audience? How can you think about your material choices? How can you repurpose traditional craft in a modern context? We have this now process. How can we work together to express its opportunities?”
The designers they work with, and the materials they use, are a deliberate attempt to avoid gimmick. “We could have gone down the my face on a jumper route. And we’d probably have got a lot more short term sales,” says Alun-Jones. “But we wanted it to appear as a genuine alternative to the way the industry runs currently. To be taken seriously. We’re designers and we’d rather make nice things, not landfill.”
Because everything is produced to order, Unmade carry no stock. Nothing ends up on sales racks, or thrown away because it wasn’t wanted. Its creative team can experiment and, if consumers aren’t interested, it’s a waste of nothing apart from pixels.
With everything made-to-order, there is no wastage
This is how Alun-Jones sees the industry heading; away from design as prescription, towards customer collaboration. “With our software, we can start to make manufacturing responsive and personal again,” he says. “The way things are made now, off a prediction six to 18 months in advance, is ridiculous in the current connected, superfast digital world.”
In Unmade’s eyes, where knitwear leads, the rest of the industry will follow. Alun-Jones predicts a world where creative directors don’t hand down design from on high, but rather create style guides that fit a house’s aesthetic and which its customers can then tweak. “Rather than finished, fixed products,” he says. “So that can be the colourways, but it can also be the selection of the stripes, the placement of different panels of colour blocks.
“There’ll still be a mood to Rick Owens, Karl Lagerfeld, Christopher Raeburn. It sits across a huge variety of garments that they’ve produced for every collection. But what if those motifs, those elements, those hallmarks were not restricted in the way that they’re set out? But were free for the customer to play with? So you still end up with Rick Owens, or Raeburn, or Lagerfeld – it’s clearly one of their designs – but it’s been made uniquely by hand for you.”
For now, the rest of the industry isn’t as advanced as knitwear. But as other production techniques catch up, perhaps we could see the creative director recede and customers take more control over the things they wear. It’s bespoke, for everyone, a full circle from the democracy of ready-to-wear, back to techno-couture. If it happens, they’ll have Unmade the fashion industry in their own image.