Remaking the design process with Unmade


18 November 2015

As I enter the Unmade pop-up space in Covent Garden, Kirsty Emery, one of the start-up’s three founders, is up to her elbows in a blue and silver computerised STOLL knitting machine.

It’s one week before Unmade opens its pop-up shop, and the rails are filled with scarves and jumpers that have been produced by a trio of these STOLL machines. which are installed at Unmade’s Somerset House headquarters. Here, Unmade are challenging a number of conventions of industrial manufacture. Can a genuinely industrial product nevertheless involve the consumer in the design process of each and every piece produced?

Unmade is a collaboration between Royal College of Art graduates Emery, Hall Wats and Ben Alun-Jones. Alun-Jones originally studied engineering and then design, as did Hall, but it was the knitwear course at the RCA, where they met Emery, that brought Unmade together.

“The three of us have a breath of skills that we applied to unpick a very difficult problem,” explains Alun-Jones. “For a long time we were thinking about the automation of manufacturing. Everyone sees it as just much faster and cheaper products coming out. But we thought, hang on, if everything is digital you can change the file every single time. What if the customer could change that themselves?”

On the Unmade website (and via iPads at the pop-up) customers are able to create their own garment, choosing from a curated template of style parameters. It’s an easy process that allows the customer to experiment with colours, patterns, placement and shapes with a simple click, fluidly positioning patterns on a model’s body by dragging the mouse over them. This creates a file that is then produced by the STOLL machines. Depending on demand, a unique piece of knitwear can be produced, hand-finished, and delivered in three to five days.

“It was only by working together and inputting lots of different perspectives from different industries that we could come up with a simple approach”, says Alun-Jones. “Why can’t you go into a shop and say: ‘I want this in a slightly different colourway or could I just move this element of the graphic, or change this.’ If everything is made six months in advance, how can you do that?”

Unmade manipulates that conventional retail paradigm. It is the customer who initiates the manufacturing process by making changes at the design stage. What’s compelling about this method is that, unlike the artisanal movement, it doesn’t try to do away with industrialisation altogether. The making process is largely automatic, not hand-made, although the linked finishing and hand-sewing of the label does take a huge amount of skill. At large scale, machine production can be finer and qualitatively superior to handcraft, and it is this aspect of industry that Unmade wants to preserve, albeit without the excesses associated with mass production.

“Around 10 per cent of clothes that are made in the world go straight to landfill,” says Alun-Jones. "They go through stores and discount outlets but still nobody wants them. Or there’s generally overproduction and brands just trash them. Because we’re making everything to order and involving the customer in the process we’re not only making things for a buyer, but making things people really want, feel more ownership over and hopefully keep for longer.”

There are logistical advantages to go with this. Because of the customer’s close involvement in the design process, there is no need to store whatever remains unbought. “We have a zero stock approach to e-commerce,” says Alun-Jones. "Rather than having to predict what people want to buy, filling a warehouse and trying to get the physical product to the right places, we can make things much more on demand and reflective of the customer. Our ability to respond to the changes customers may want is unparalleled.”

At the moment, however, Unmade limits itself to scarves and jumpers, so as not to overwhelm consumers with a plethora of possible garment shapes and graphic print combinations. “If you walked in here and had lots of different shapes and 100 different patterns it would feel like a normal shop,” adds Alun-Jones. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is about simplifying the choice we offer, really curating, so that it’s really intuitive to the customer.”

It’s true that the garments hanging at Unmade are quite unlike the knitwear currently on the market – even if there are also collaborations with fashion designer Christopher Raeburn and graphic artists Kate Moross to be found. The key is that these items are developed by the customer in collaboration with a selection of talented creatives. It’s not customization; it’s a partnership of design that’s reflective of an individual’s tastes. “You use fashion and the clothes you wear to express your personality,” stresses Alun-Jones. “So being able to control the items that you wear makes sense.”