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Trend of the Day: Desktop Fashion

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th January 2013


From an interview of Chris Anderson, conducted by Vikram Alexei Kansara:

“BoF: How might digital fabrication apply to the fashion industry? Are we going to be able to print out a sweater or a shirt?

Printing it out is probably not the right process, as the material is so important. But you will certainly be able to send designs to cloud [manufacturing] services that can create them with industrial scale computer-controlled machines. The technology is there now. And it might soon become a market worth exploring.

BoF: In your book, you describe the growth of ‘industrial artisans’ doing things like ‘desktop embroidery’ and ‘desktop weaving.’ Will we soon see a new ‘long tail’ of desktop fashion start-ups?

Yeah. I think you’ve already seen glimpses of it. At some level, it began with the first t-shirt services, like Threadless, that simplified the t-shirt production process, so that you didn’t have to worry about the atoms, you could just focus your creativity on the bits — the design that goes on the t-shirt. Then, it moved on to, for example, Etsy, which is full of fashion entrepreneurs with niche categories.

Of course, to some extent, fashion has always been a ‘long tail’ market. Once upon a time, we all had sewing machines. In fashion, desktop manufacturing tools are not new! Obviously, they are now better and the files are now digital. But remember the cottage industries that grew around weaving and spinning. To think that one of the strongest 21st century cottage industries is going to be fashion is completely in line with the arc of history.

BoF: With these desktop fashion start-ups ever rival established brands? Or will they sit alongside them?

More alongside. One of the classic misunderstandings of my first book, The Long Tail, was that it was the end of the blockbuster. When, in fact, it was the end of the monopoly of the blockbuster. YouTube didn’t kill Hollywood. Instead, YouTube enabled a different kind of video content and a different market. In some sense, it competes with Hollywood, but it also feeds Hollywood. It’s a very synergistic way to grow the overall pie by introducing a new kind of creator. I would expect the same to happen with mass production, which is to say, the 21st century cottage industries are the long tail [of manufacturing]. They’re very good at the niche; at the market for 10,000 of something, the custom and the unique. Some of them may go mass. Most will not.

BoF: How can established fashion brands harness the power of these technologies?

To the extent that fashion trends are increasingly coming from the grassroots, from the street, from the bottom up, you’ll have more of that — more interesting fashion being made at the grassroots level, which smart companies would be wise to pay attention to. YouTube now does feed Hollywood and television; big media companies increasingly get their talent from the blogosphere. In fashion, I suspect we’ll start to see the rise of new talents that didn’t necessarily go to design school, but who can now show their work much more effectively, because they have access to more powerful tools.

BoF: With the rise of digital fabrication, global supply chains will start to become ‘scale free,’ able to serve small companies just as well as large ones. What does this mean for the business models of large companies that are built on economies of scale?

Economies of scale still exist. Being able to be Zara, with high volume, just-in-time manufacturing that gets your product to the physical marketplace quickly is a huge advantage. And I don’t think this is going away anytime soon. Fashion is one of the industries that continues to have a strong case for the physical. Online commerce has been huge, but trying on clothes is a big deal and that’s something that the Internet is not going to solve anytime soon.

BoF: If you were to sit down with the CEO of one the world’s biggest fashion brands, what actions would you advise them to take?

Most people will give you the example of mass customisation — giving [consumers] the tools to customise your stuff — and that’s certainly a good answer; Nike and others have done that. But the answer I would give is this: take a little product and conduct an experiment. Put it out there in open form and allow people to modify it and remix it. For example, Shapeways took a CAD file of an iPhone case, with all the exact specifications, and put it out there for free and said, ‘You can now modify the design.’ And that simplified the process of product creation, by making it all about the cool, differentiating part rather than the hard work of getting the dimensions right.

It would be interesting to ask: what sort of fashion apparel or accessory could be open-sourced with the intention that people remix it, modify it and enhance it — and maybe come up with something worth putting into mass production?

Now, I don’t think that’s right for everybody. Exclusivity is a hallmark of fashion. That’s fine. But some brands may say it’s great engagement with the customer to let them play designer, or give them the ability to work with a top designer.”

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