The trend of retail spaces, particularly in East London, having a contrived worn and old-fashioned look is a curious one. Rough wooden surfaces, condensed typography, steel girders, exposed brickwork… As we started to research clothing stores this week, it seemed to be everywhere. It’s an aesthetic that is certainly very attractive - it suggests an older, more wholesome age from the past (though one that possibly never existed).
This aesthetic was also evident in the coffee shops we were looking at last week. We noticed an interesting difference between the clothes stores and the coffee sellers though, and this was the role of the staff in shaping your experience. If you approached someone working at Prufrock or Caravan and asked them about their coffee, they would have a lot to say about where its sourced, how its made, what it tastes like - and would be more than happy to tell you about it.
With clothing, there is just as much (if not more) to discuss about the process of making. Materials, sizing, stitching, cut and fit - every stage of making a quality garment is a careful, deliberate and engrossing process. But I found that if you asked staff about their products in a clothing store, their knowledge of these things tended to be far more limited.
The reason for this, I think, is because there is too much of a divide between how & where clothes are made, and the places they are sold. It allows some manufacturers to get away with making really cheap clothes in exploitative conditions, and it allows others to put extortionate price tags on clothes that are actually of poor quality. If more could be done to bridge this gap, I think it might help people to value clothes in a different way - based on how well-made and long-lasting they are, rather than price or image.
Retail experiences where customers are physically involved in the making of what they buy do exist, but in other spheres. Build-a-Bear is a chain store of teddy making factories, jazzed-up as retail outlets, rather than hidden tools of production. Customers choose the ‘skin’ of the bear, how much stuffing goes into it, what clothes it wears, and can even record their own sound for the speaker that goes inside of it. However, I would say the most intriguing part of this process is the electronic beating heart that the user is asked to place inside the teddy whilst screaming “I LOVE MY BEAR” at the top of their voice. Its interesting because when the customer has a part in the process of making a product, they have a much stronger emotional investment in it.
The last couple of days, we’ve been thinking about you might try to do that with clothing. There must be ways that technology and good design can help make this process of customisation accessible to more than just those who can afford a high-end tailor. Blank Label is a great little website where people can order custom shirts that they have designed themselves online - choosing the material, fit, buttons, pockets, to name just a few of the choices. It could be really interesting to take that sort of “make-your-own” interaction and start to put it into physical stores, involving and educating people in the way their clothes are put together as they shop.
- Chris (with a little help from Ben)