An ingenious fashion label is giving power to punters with pencils, by letting anyone design the clothes they want to wear – and get paid for it
The fashion industry as we know it is built on a myth: that creative directors have the monopoly on great ideas. They create collections from on high. Their sales reps tout these at trade fairs. Retail buyers order a whole season’s-worth based on guesswork. Customers buy the clothes – or perhaps they don’t buy them, and stock piles up.
What would happen to this model if the creative energy flowed in another direction? What if – and prepare to have your silvery grey matter blown, here, Mr Armani – the ideas came from the customers?
As the world’s first 100 per cent user-created fashion brand, Awaytomars is currently testing this proposition. Based in Lisbon and London, it designs, manufactures and markets new fashion pieces with the help of a global community. Its first collection debuted at Lisbon Fashion Week in March, featuring clothing designed by over 400 ordinary people from 67 different countries. And no, the dominant theme wasn’t ‘dog’s dinner’.
“The biggest challenge has been persuading people this isn’t too good to be true,” says Alfredo Orobio, the company’s 28-year-old Brazilian founder. “Potential contributors say to me: ‘What do you mean I don’t pay you anything? You help me get my design to market and I get cash at the end? Where’s the catch?’ So we carefully explain the business model. Then they say, ‘Oh! Cool!’ and join.”
The business model, then. Fuelled by the power of the collective and the egalitarianism of great ideas, it uses principles from crowdfunding and the sharing economy. Anyone can submit a concept sketch – design experience and drawing skills aren’t important. These raw ideas are posted on the ‘co-creation board’, where others can make suggestions to progress and hone the design. There’s no creative director, just a worldwide team of designers that recharges every six months when they reopen for submissions.
Each design is individually crowdfunded, allowing Awaytomars to gauge popularity in advance of production. The finished items are then sold to the public via the website. Instead of having seasonal ranges and throwing things away, Awaytomars simply adds to a permanent collection.
“People say to me: ‘This is a very cool idea, you should patent it’. But I want people to copy it. That will be so much more interesting for the future of design”
The sale price is shared fairly: 20 per cent to the designer, 20 per cent to Awaytomars for its services, 50 per cent on the manufacture, at fully vetted European factories. The remaining 10 per cent is divvied up between members of the online community who’ve made a creative contribution. “People share time and experience as well as ideas,” explains Orobio. “A fabric technician might see a drawing for a skirt made with silk, and suggest using jersey cotton instead. We can map all this and, if your contribution was useful, you get paid as well.”
Orobio has worked in the fashion industry for a decade. He reckons it’s in desperate need of innovation, having become such a closed circle: “You see Karl Lagerfeld doing Chanel, Fendi, and all these collaborations. How can one person have all the fresh ideas?” In 2014, he began doing Masters research into how people share ideas and innovate in fashion. He discovered that Facebook and Instagram are teeming with design ideas by ordinary people. “But because they don’t have the money or training or know John Galliano, all these very cool ideas are getting lost.”
Can someone without any knowledge of fabric or pattern cutting really originate a successful design? “Yes. Definitely,” says Orobio. “I went to fashion school for two years, and it’s impossible to learn art there – you just learn techniques. Creativity is something you’re born with, and you pick up aesthetics through life experience. Our designers range from 14-36, and some have no experience at all.”
Awaytomars could have been a marketplace, producing people’s ideas as proposed. But Orobio’s vision was bigger and bolder. He wanted to create a brand, to prove that collaboration could replace egocentric creative directorship. More than that, he wanted the process to be educational. Amateur designers are exposed to the whole process, from concept to manufacture.
“We could map that people were responding to purples, pinks and blues. Two weeks later, Pantone announced that the colours of 2016 would be purples, pinks and blues”
Awaytomars incorporates a team of professional designers, who oversee the process and share their expertise. They also developed the ‘house pattern’: a forward slash, symbolising forward movement, which is subtley worked into every design. It’s a simple way of bringing cohesion to the collections, and unifying the brand. Another method is the collective moodboard, on which 25 images are currently being inputted daily, from Argentina to Kazakhstan. Orobio aims to get this to two million.
“Working with the first 2,000 images, we could map that people were responding to purples, pinks and blues,” he says. “Two weeks later, Pantone announced that the colours of 2016 would be purples, pinks and blues. It was very cool to find this out before them. There is a lot of power in this moodboard information.” Awaytomars is currently developing an algorithm that can organise the moodboard posts into shapes and patterns, too.
The next round of design submissions will open in August, when Orobio doesn’t anticipate getting much sleep. “Every time I check my email, 20 more ideas have come in,” he says. “It’s exciting, beautiful… I don’t know quite how to explain my feelings.” In the future he hopes Awaytomars, or a parallel label, will extend the collaborative concept to furniture and homeware.
“I want to open up the entire creative industries,” he says. “People say to me: ‘This is a very cool idea, you should patent it’. But it’s the opposite. I want people to copy it. That will be so much more interesting for the future of design.”
Speaking of the future, there is, typically, some coherent thinking behind that outlandish name. As a business idea, a user-generated fashion brand is pretty off this planet, he says. But Mars is also a vision everyone can share. “We’re saying let’s go, altogether – to a better future.”