Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 82, October 2009

Where are the Fashion Service Systems?

Within many design disciplines there has over the last decades been a lot of discussion about dematerialised consumption patterns; about shifting the focus in design from material possessions to accessibility and services. As part of industrialism we saw services become material products: live music performances became records, hand washing of clothes became the washing machine, etc. This materialization served industrialism well and we came to see a “democratization” of products as more people could afford machines and products to relieve them from hard physical work as well as entertain during the free time of the days. As we see the environmental impacts of this industrial paradigm there is an urgency to start thinking differently and dematerialize design, to rethink our relation to design, from design education to the industrial production of objects. A series of design buzzwords touch upon this field of ideas, such as “product service systems”, “service design” and “experience design”.

The idea of designing dematerialized services is nothing new and we are so used to house rentals, hotels, taxis and restaurants that we hardly think of them as designed systems. They are clever systems totally integrated in our everyday and their implications differ between countries and regions. In Scandinavia for example most apartment blocks share common washing machines and driers and most think this is very normal, while in other countries most people who can afford have a washing machine in their apartment.

Within the automotive industries there has over the last decade been a lot of talk about going from the production of cars to the design of transportation, thus taking a step back and re-evaluate the core values of the manufacturing industry itself. Yet they are not totally unprepared. The car industry has for a long time put a careful attention to its customers, with carefully designed warranties, insurances and leasing schemes to offer the owner more than the car itself. The “after-market”, where end-users are offered support from the manufacturer is a big part of the automobile industry, for good and bad, as we can experience in everything from the advantage of authorized repair centres to extremely expensive spare parts.

Today car pools are widely discussed among transportation designers, with successful projects like Zipcar in the US or Greenwheels in the Netherlands, and also the organized systems for hitching and ride-sharing systems that have been common in many countries in Europe, such as the “Mitfahr” (hitcher) services in Germany. Lately new mobile services of ride-sharing, like, have been developed to make ride-sharing more convenient and hitching safer. Both governments and industries take dematerialization seriously when it comes to cars.

Why have we seen so little of this thinking from the fashion industries? Indeed, some would argue that fashion is the dematerialized aspect of clothes and fashion as a phenomenon has perhaps more to do with lifestyle today than with clothes. But why are there so few examples of organized fashion service systems? Why are there no authorized Zara repair centres in town? Where should I get the right spare parts when the zipper breaks? There are many independent shops in which to rent clothes for special occasions, such as masquerades, or shirt-washing services and local tailors to make customized suits and repair clothes, but in general the industry itself has been slow at binding customers closer to their brands with various forms of services.
Over the last years there has been some experiments though. It has become possible to rent exclusive handbags over the internet or subscribe to design t-shirts, such as But especially underwear subscriptions have taken off, such as the Swiss firm with their “sockscriptions”.

black socks and filippa k second hand

If we look at the “after-market” of clothing there has always been rag trade and second-hand stores, but we can also see the emergence of more organized systems. The British designer Amy Twigger-Holroyd has started a brand, “Riot and Return”, from which parents can lease children’s clothes which are returned mended centrally. Every garment also gets the child’s initials embroidered on the label to visualize the different “generations” of wearers. The Swedish brand “Filippa K” has opened a second hand store in Stockholm especially for their customers’ used clothes and the child wear company “Polarn o Pyret” has an on-line bazaar where parents can buy and sell used garments from the brand. The Dutch jeans brand “Denham the Jeanmaker” has videos on YouTube about how you can mend and service your jeans.

Many of these initiatives derive from today’s environmental agenda with an emphasis on sustainable transitions in consumer culture and this perspective have been taken seriously by many fashion companies. But so far it seems almost everything happens at the producer-side of the equation, and we only have a few examples of post-purchase services. In production we see many certification processes and quality controls become common regarding everything from ecological cotton cultivation and non-toxic dyeing processes to labour conditions and shipping. But so far little focus is put on how garments live their lives with the consumers – yet it is here about 80% of a garment’s energy consumption happens in washing, drying and ironing. Not to mention the thousands of tons of clothing which becomes landfill every year.

If we want to see changes in the consumption patterns of fashion or the attitudes among consumers we will have to design systems which includes them and takes their role in the lifecycle of clothing seriously. We will have to create a “declaration of dependence” between producers and consumers as the production phase is a very small part of the garments life and environmental affect. Yet we can design and engineer these behaviours, just like the sharing in car-pools or the Turkish dolmus-minibus systems. If we include the actions of consumers and usage-patterns also in fashion design we might create new forms of “fashion stewardship”, where we influence and tune behavioural, cultural and industrial systems relating to fashion into a more desirable direction. The Swedish fashion firm "Dem-collective" is working on a wider certification process which includes the full life-cycle of the garments where the firm offer support to the consumer to make sure the sustainable aspects are considered all through the garments life.

fashion service system

Researchers like Kate Fletcher at London College of Fashion and Rebecca Earley at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London have worked many years on similar questions. A project like explores different scenarios for garments that require less washing, updatable clothes, super satisfying dresses, local production and resurrection rituals. Once again – we need to experiment with a lot of modes of design and engagement and spread these practices to the consumers as well as design studios, management offices and boardrooms.

What new fashion design systems can we put into practice? How can we create certifications for fashion stewardship? Public libraries for clothes? Drop-in styling salons? Open designer supervised workshops? Glossy fashion re-make events? Washing and updating services? We need more examples of sustainable services in all scales, from the local and unique to the global and mass-produced. Fashion design will need to take a look sideways to the other design disciplines to re-invent itself with new forms of fashion service designs – and make these services really fashionable.

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