Blog posts will be falling into a theme for a while as I continue to be intrigued by alternative methodologies and more altruistic ways of looking at the fashion world, that is undergoing what I think is a bit of an existential bout of self-doubt.  These are the specific facets of fashion and creation, which I’ve always been concerned with, but as Style Bubble just hit the ten year mark – and no, I’m not making a big deal out of it – it’s made me want to go back to the things that got me mega excited about blogging in the first place.  

I’m not the only one, who has been piqued by the unique innovative start-up UNMADE, which has been dubbed as a “disruptor” of knitwear.  I first came across their work, when they were known as Knyttan and had worked with Christopher Raeburn a few seasons ago.  Renamed as Unmade, they were then part of Selfridgess’ sustainable line-up of Bright New Things earlier this year, and I have been meaning to go visit their set-up in Somerset House ever since.  

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A few weeks ago, I ventured down into the hidden rabbit warren of studios and offices that lie beneath this historical palace to see Unmade at work.  The first question I had for Ben Alun-Jones, one of the founders of Unmade, was how to define this business.  Is it a brand?  Is it a technology?  Is it a manufacturer?  “A platform or a catalyst is a better way of explaining it.  When you go on the site, we’re not the designers so we invite external designers to come and enable them with a technology that we have developed.  And then we give the customer way more power in the creation of their clothes.  We don’t make anything until you’re happy with it.”

A visit to Unmade’s beautifully designed website (best viewed and used on an iPad), and you’re presented with a collection of knitwear designs featuring motifs and patterns by a curated array of designers (spanning fields of interactive design and graphics as well as fashion).  You can customise the placement of the pattern and print as demonstrated in the GIFs at the bottom of this post in addition to picking out a colour combination.  Once you click ‘Buy’, Unmade generates a file from their specially designed software that is then sent directly to their industrial knitting machines.  Every piece of knitwear is made-to-order, with a five to ten day window between the customer ordering it and receiving it.  All pieces are hand finished and packaged at Somerset House and then sent out to the end customer.  Unmade hold zero stock.  In effect, Unmade has hacked into a methodology of mass manufacture and changed the production process so that it can involve the customer as well as solve the problem of overproduction and waste.  Unmade doesn’t fit into any pre-existing fashion mounds because it’s creating its own box.

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Unmade began its journey in 2013 when Alun-Jones, along with Kirsty Emery and Hal Watts, who had met at London’s Royal College of Art, collectively happed upon an industrial knitting machine and spotted an opportunity for innovation.  “When we saw these industrial knitting machines, we were really inspired by the fact that they could make a different thing every time,” said Alun-Jones.  “The way that people were approaching these machines was super old-fashioned.  Once the capability of these machines was established, the next step was to think, what do you do with a machine that can do anything?  The customer shouldn’t take on the responsibility of having to design an entire garment.  Designers are super relevant but how can we update the design process and involve the customer.”

With a grant from UK Innovate, Alun-Jones, Emery and Watts were able to quit their day jobs and put their experience of design, engineering and fashion together to create what was called Knyttan, that has now evolved into Unmade.  In their Somerset House plant-filled basement HQ, with its huddles of developers, designers and engineers, you don’t feel like you’re in a fashion environment.  Unmade staff are probing, investigating and solving rather than toile-ing, sewing and sketching.  Alun-Jones draws a comparison between the lack of innovation within the fashion industry with the dramatic changes of the music business. “Beatles were the sole creators of their music and people would go out and buy their vinyls and that would be the best thing you could get.  Now in the digital age, you can distribute music for free and there are so many more artists available out there.  In fashion, you still have a model where the big brands dominate and you go to the shops and it’s the same sort of product hanging there, and so the way we make clothes haven’t caught up with this world that wants something unique and different.  Why can’t we use these machines that already mass produce things but use them in a different way?”

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It’s important to emphasise that whilst Unmade are enabling customers to customise certain elements of the design, the main thrust of every piece of knitwear still belongs to the designers, who have collaborated with Unmade, be it Studio Moross with their Memphis-esque squiggles, Paris Essex’s splat pattern or Kitty Joseph‘s pixelated gradients.  “It’s like in computer games where you have a lot of different scenarios and parameters that you can choose from, but it’s still controlled,” said Alun-Jones.  “When you land on the site, you know it has an Unmade quality, and you don’t have to spend lots of time picking out the tiny details and for the vast majority of people, they want a simpler customisation process.”  They also delineate quite clearly, the boundaries between Unmade as a platform, the designer and the customer, when it comes to ownership of design.  “The designer that we’ve partnered with gives us the license to use the design.  You’re creating within parameters of the original design so the customer doesn’t own that design.”

Still, the possibilities of design outcomes are endless.  Unmade has never produced a jumper to the exact specification twice.  With just the drag of a mouse, a click of a colour combination, a unique interpretation of a designer’s pattern is created.  One of the most satisfying consequences of this process though is the reduction of waste that Unmade achieves, after an initial period of trouble shooting their software.   “When we first started, we were having a lot of problems with sizes of things coming out.  We had to come up some advanced algorithms to solve them to make sure what you see on screen is what comes out of the machine.  Now, we have a very low wastage of what we manufacture.  We use very high quality Italian merino and cashmere and everything is fully fashioned.”

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Their on-site production facility is indeed very neat and compact, Behind glass doors scribbled with order status charts and instructions are three Stoll machines humming along, fulfilling anything up to thirty pieces a day.  Then there are hand finishers using the linking machines to finish off a piece of knitwear.  There aren’t any trolleys with an excess of product piled up.  There’s a modest amount of yarn.  And the leftover scraps from the machine are contained within a single plastic bag.

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When they popped up at Selfridges, I did wonder how the average shopper would react to the idea of not getting that immediate shopping gratification.  How do you shift the customer perception from getting something to take home straight away, to having to wait for a jumper to emerge from a machine.  Could seeing the process on the spot entice the customer?  I asked whether in the future, Unmade could produce knits within a shorter period of time than the one week time lag.  “At our Floral Street pop-up, if you came in the morning and started the process, by the end of the day you could come and pick it up.  We’re still a very young business so we’re still solving those problems but that’s definitely the dream.”

The really exciting thing about Unmade, hence why they’ve had several rounds of investment with the likes of José Neves of FarFetch backing them, is the overall potential on the horizon.  The ultimate end goal for Unmade isn’t necessarily to build up a massive customer base for their own e-commerce site.  They repeatedly assert that they aren’t a brand.  “We want to be like an Intel,” said Alun-Jones. “Unmade becomes this technology layer that enables small designers or big brands to produce knitwear in this way.”  They’re currently talking to established historic brands to see how they can collaborate together, whereby Unmade becomes this trustworthy enabler of on-demand and customisable knits.  Imagine for instance a Gucci piece of knitwear made using Unmade’s platform, where you can specify colourways or where exactly a pretty bird or flower motif sits.  Or looking at the bigger picture, could Unmade change the way we buy our clothes, where we’re not buying off the rack but co-creating with brands to create clothes that are made there and then, and thus feel more special.  Alun-Jones says they’re concentrating on knitwear for now but unravelling the yarns of Unmade makes you think about the future of an industry, that soon may not be predicated on seasons, production in quantity and the full autonomy of the designer.  And it may not be the traditional fashion power players that drags this industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 

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Whilst everyone was poring over whose dress lit up (literally) the red carpet or who out sci-fied each other with their latex limbs, cut-away hemlines and metallic arm guards at the Met Gala on Monday, I was eager to see what the consensus was of the Manus x Machina exhibition, the latest headline exhibition at the Costume Institute – you know the thing that supposedly is the primary reason why everyone devotes a good three months on nailing that dress code.

I had to chortle a little at the clever titling manouvre Andrew Bolton and his curating team made with Manus x Machina, leading everyone down a merry garden path of “Oooh, let’s see what funky hyped-up wearable tech I can get on my body!”, when in actual fact, the exhibition is really about the intimate and subtle ways that fashion has been co-opting technology for well over a century, integratingboth the hand and machine. It’s the sort of technology that is hidden in seams, apprenticed in quiet ateliers and ingrained with subtle know-how, as opposed to circuit boards, LED lights. I look forward to seeing the exhibition in person to delve deeper, when I’m in New York next week. From afar, it looks to be a triumphant and pertinent feat of fashion curation.

This week, I’m trying to see as much of London Craft Week, now in its second year of running. In fact in the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to get my content mojo back, by working on blog stories that are centred around the maker and their hands. If I’m accused of the act of fetishisation of craft, then so be it. This is what I’m interested in and amidst ongoing discussions of a shifting fashion industry, a season less calendar, and a businesses based on product-product-product, I’m retreating into worlds that you wouldn’t technically call ‘fashion’ but offer insight into how fashion as we know it could change for the better.

I will be rounding up LCW in a broader overview but I had to focus in on one designer, whose work pretty much sums up the dichotomies between machine and hand made, exposed at the Manus x Machina exhibition.  On Tuesday evening, Alice Archer, who is a new wave embroidery specialist hailing from the Royal College of Art, opened up her studio and presented her work at The Place on Connaught Street, a showcase retail space operated and backed by Simon Burstein, the former CEO of Browns and son of the legendary Joan Burstein.  In fact, it was Archer’s work which galvanised Burstein into finding a work and retail space to help start her business.

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0E5A7779Samples from Archer’s graduate collection 

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After seeing Archer’s work up-close, it’s easy to see why Burstein has so wholeheartedly invested in her talent. In her own words through her op-ed piece for Business of Fashion, “It is my ambition to push the potential of traditional embroidery techniques and make embroidery relevant and desirable today by combining new technologies with that spirit of traditional handcraft.”

And so every single stitch that you see on her pieces are the result of a computer programme file that she creates through synthesising a JPG file, which is then sent to a digital embroidery machine. It’s why she can reel off the exact number of stitches and length of thread that has gone into individual pieces. The versatile nature of the machine is such that depth of shading and tension of stitches can be varied up. When you look at the range of techniques that Archer has created, from her graduate work and capsule pieces for Browns, through to her current standalone collections, there’s no way you could accuse the embroidery of being uniform-like.

Archer makes a great case for coming up with the right combination of a manual process and a machine-operated one. The designs and programming still need to be done by hand, often taking up to two days to get the file right. And then completing the piece on the machine can also take a couple of days too and has to be overseen in person. What’s significant though is that the embroidery can be replicated in quantity, it doesn’t have to be heavy and ultimately reduces the cost of what is considered to be an expensive craft – without sacrificing the quality.

The precise nature of Archer’s work is especially apparent when she combines a base of white porcelain-polyester thread embroidery with digital printing. Her graduate collection and work for Browns featured classical master paintings of rosy cheeks – specifically from Claude Marie-Dubufe’s painting The Surprise – positioned and played around with in Photoshop and printed digitally over the embroidery. The resulting effect is like a distressed canvas of painterly strokes that is wearable. The often glossy or flat appearance of digital printing is given added depth and texture.

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In her latest A/W 16 collection presented during London Fashion Week, Archer exploits this technique to great effect with the manipulation and abstraction of Degas’ ballet dancer paintings, printed over embroidery of birds of paradise on a kimono. On top of that are the finishing touches of hand-embroidered scalloped of tools. This is Manus x Machina at its best. Photoshop also informs designs where black and white and coloured roses contrast against each other. Or when the digital pattern of floral embroidery is rendered as a woven jacquard, made in a historic English mill. Her references of botanical drawings of Kew Garden flowers are tried and tested, but the final interpretations of those drawings are innovative in process and in appearance.

0E5A7715Digitally printed embroidery samples featuring artists like Monet and Gauguin

aarcher1Alice Archer A/W 16 collection

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0E5A7753Archer does all the sampling in the basement of The Place before initiating production in Italy

0E5A7757Tradition lingers through hand embroidered embellishment worked on top of the digital embroidery

Downstairs, Archer laid out a number of samples and tests for us to see, which are almost as fascinating as the final garments. They get the mind thinking about the possibilities that Archer can achieve with different printed imagery, different base materials (so far she has used anything from evening-derived chiffon and silk satin to more casual denim and gingham cotton), different stitch settings and thread thickness. Archer is fixated on florals at the moment, trying to introduce rare species in her embroidery, but she might well move on to more unconventional subject matter. After all she has seven years of experience of doing embroidery work for the artist Tracy Emin to draw upon. Archer is equally effusive though of devotees to hand crafted embroidery such as Dries van Noten, where she worked for a short period of time.

For Archer, it’s a harmony between the machine and the hand, rather than a dichotomy. It’s how craft can move progress and evolve – something that is something of an emerging theme at London Craft Week. One thing Archer could do with delving into digitally though, is a fully functioning website. With embroidered shirts starting at £270, this is the sort of intricate craftwork that – with the right images and information – can sell itself online. For now, you can see and buy Archer’s body of work at The Place on 27 Connaught Sreet or on Browns.

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