Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at)

Co-creation Futures

The do-it-yourself movement, reinvigorated by financial pressures and refound craft pleasures in the global economic squeeze of the last five years, has engendered a new generation of amateur makers, co-creators and prosumers. Thanks to the increasing accessibility of open-source software, digital design, rapid prototyping and other production tools, people are now able to design and produce almost anything themselves – from bikinis (Continuum Fashion’s N12) to hardware components (OpenStructures) to chairs and tables (Pål Rodenius’s 2440×1220 Saw, Assemble flatpack furniture).

Co-creation, or co-design, which sees regular consumers collaborating with brands and other producers to conceive new patterns, designs and products, is overturning the prescriptive, top-down nature of the fashion and textile sector as we know it. With interaction and collaboration at its heart, co-creation sees its many makers taking control.

“Co-design offers a new mode of interacting with people and materials,” says Textile Futures Research Centre (TFRC)-affiliated designer Jen Ballie, who is completing her Ph.D. at Chelsea College of Art and Design on what she calls the “co-everything” movement. “People have been passive consumers for so long. Co-creation is a means of regaining some form of order in a chaotic marketplace.”

The rise of the maker
We began to see shades of co-creation – hints, that is, of consumers demanding a say in the design process – in the recent trend for mass customisation. Brands including Rickshaw Bagworks, Republic Bikes and Shoes of Prey make to order, allowing their consumers to mix and match fabrics and colours to create personalised bags, bicycles and footwear.

But co-creation is about more than choosing the colour of the lining on an iPad sleeve. Co-creation is about the rise of the maker. Colette Patterns, DIY Couture and Oliver + S already cater to a new generation of trend-aware dressmakers looking to make their own lace leggings, halter-neck rompers and bubble dresses. Meanwhile, modern-day makers – tinkerers, arts and crafts enthusiasts, artists, even robotics amateurs – gather at spaces such as TechShop in the USA, which provide tools, space and expert support to people wanting to create.

Collaboration online
Co-creation is growing in popularity as the barriers to entry become ever more simple to overcome, Ballie notes. “The web and online platforms are influencing this shift alongside the democratisation of digital design tools,” she says. “Before, you needed a manufacturer to produce things. Now, with fab labs, MakerBots and new print bureaux, people are developing local models for design and production.”

Continuum Fashion’s D.dress is a customisable dressmaking pattern that blends rapid fabrication, interactive software and the accessibility of the web. Using the D.dress application online, users can draw a dress, turn it into a 3D model, then export the cutting pattern sized to their measurements. A laser cutter or plotter cuts the pattern out of fabric, which is then sewn into the dress. Continuum’s latest project is Constrvt, a made-to-order service producing custom clothing digitally printed with consumers’ own photographs.

Ballie’s own Dress Up/Download workshop at the V&A Museum in London last year enabled complete amateurs, aged 3 to 83, to design textiles based on paper collages they made themselves. Using an online gallery to build a crowdsourced collection, Ballie has facilitated the creation of 450 fabric concepts to date. A small selection of them will go into production, she says.

Co-creating, co-owning
Key to the maker revolution is people’s desire to feel ownership of their work, says 111 Melanie Bowles, a digital textile designer and co-founder of The People’s Print, a series of workshops and e-books that pair hands-on and practical techniques with future technologies to enable people to create bespoke textiles. Together with co-founder Dr Emma Neuberg, a design thinker who created the Slow Textiles Group, Bowles organised the Born to be Wild workshop at the V&A Museum, which saw a motley group of strangers, none of whom had a background in fashion or textiles, design and create a swatch book of original digital fabric designs for personal use. Besides producing this swatch book, the workshop also proved an ideal opportunity for community generation.

“When you work in a group to co-create, you develop mini-communities to share skills,” Bowles says. ‘[At the Born to be Wild workshop], I think everybody felt ownership of the work we co-created.’

The People’s Print takes on a special role in providing toolboxes for consumers to design their own fabrics, and draws on Bowles’s previous projects, which explored new concepts, as she says, “for emotional, durable and sustainable design through bespoke digital print”. In her Slow Grow project, Bowles translated a woman’s hobby – growing flowers – into a bespoke shirt tailored from a specially designed, digitally printed fabric showing off the sweet peas she grew.

“It’s not a fast fashion thing,” Bowles says, underscoring the yearlong process of creating the shirt. “But it’s got an ownership for life. Mary [the woman who grew the sweet peas] could give the print to her family to use for anything – it’s their print. It’s an investment that will last for years.”

Story and sustainability
Bowles’s Slow Grow project and her more recent People’s Print workshops also weave in an important driver of co-creation: the need for narrative.

“Co-creation is about stories – about a product’s history,” Bowles says. “There’s a lot of interest in narrative.”

Further, narrative is a key element of co-creation that ties in with consumer concerns about sustainability and waste reduction. By infusing a garment with a consumer’s personal effort, emotion and investment – that is, a story – co-creation takes a stand against the buy-it-now-then-toss-it-out call of anonymous fast fashion.

Italian designer Eugenia Morpurgo’s Repair It Yourself project consists of a pair of shoes designed to be repaired, rather than thrown away, when worn out. Mechanical fastenings on the bottoms mean the soles can be easily replaced; an accompanying repair kit includes needles, thread and fabric. The project, Morpurgo has said, puts into consumers’ hands the otherwise-fast-disappearing tools and knowledge for repairing. It also enables wearers of the shoes to sew in the unique story of their use.

Upcycling, too – transforming old clothes into new items – adds a new layer of story to a pre-loved item. In collaboration with retailer M&S and the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Ballie hosted Unpick and Remix, a workshop to which members of the public brought in unwanted items of clothing to be taken apart and reconstructed into new garments. Social websites Pinterest and Storify were used to organise mood boards, tweets and ideas, while fashion students helped participants with techniques such as draping and smocking. While the fashion laboratory was well planned in advance to provide all the necessary tools and support, the session, Ballie says, was ultimately “a serendipitous process informed and inspired by the participants”.

Co-creation challenges
“The nascent Maker movement offers a path to reboot manufacturing,” writes Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, “by creating a new kind of manufacturing economy, one shaped more like the web itself: bottom-up, broadly distributed and highly entrepreneurial.”

Indeed, proponents of co-creation are creating a new kind of economy by demanding more of a say in how their goods look, and how and where they are made. As more brands build in toolboxes for user-generated custom design, consumers keen on taking part in the design and production process may come to see retailers as enablers rather than pure producers, and will require more openness than fashion brands, especially, have traditionally offered.

Brands, meanwhile, will have a new challenge at hand: ensuring that they are able to retain their key brand values while sharing the drawing board with their consumers.

“The role of the designer will be crucial,” Ballie says. “Designers might facilitate [others’ designs], but they are also key to ensuring that quality and craft don’t become lost in translation.”

One solution will be for brands to ensure a handheld approach to co-creation. In her work for a major US retailer of streetwear, which she declines to name, Bowles consciously “engineered” a co-creation platform defined by certain criteria, such as the look and feel of the brand. “I knew what the brand wanted, and what the consumer expects from the brand,” she says. “I was in tune with both.”

Elsewhere, brands and other textile and fashion industry members may find that they may play a role in providing expert support or local workshop space to consumers eager to co-create. “There are very few options or services for repairing, maintaining, adapting or creating clothing or textiles,” Ballie says. “We need service design to develop new experiences. Maybe more fashion labs, hubs and bureaux might emerge.”

Ultimately, the wealth of ideas and energy from an engaged consumer base has given the co-creation movement its momentum. Active participation from industry will help form a community richer in interest, skills and involvement – and will help weave the new fabric of our shared lives.

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29 November 2012