Open Source operating systems for a changing fashion culture

Written by Cecilia Palmér, and originally published in “Die Welt Reparieren” (Transcript Verlag).

Fashion thrills and promises, let’s us play and stay warm, reinvent ourselves, impress or disappear. Next to food and shelter, clothing is one of our most crucial consumer products, and as such, concerns us all. Whether as someone who ,loves shopping’, or ,doesn’t care’, is normcore, avantgarde or anti-style, we all engage in the practise of fashioning ourselves in one way or other, in the daily choices of what to wear, what to reveal or hide and identify.

How can open source tactics empower consumers to become proactive makers and act as a key to engaged, sustainable fashion design, production, consumption and wearing?

Fashion, this old dream factory. It thrills and promises, let’s us play and stay warm, reinvent ourselves, impress or disappear. Next to food and shelter, clothing is one of our most crucial consumer products, and as such, concerns us all. Whether as someone who ,loves shopping’, or ,doesn’t care’, is normcore, avantgarde or anti-style, we all engage in the practise of fashioning ourselves in one way or other, in the daily choices of what to wear, what to reveal or hide and identify.

Nevertheless, among those immaterial values and promises that dressing up makes, fashion and clothing is a very material product, and as such comes with an impact on a whole lifecycle of raw materials, production, labour, retail, use and landfill. Even with a general awareness among consumers about the misdoings of the fashion and textile industry, the question remains if information alone will change consumer behaviour. Fast-fashion stores continue to spread, producing ever-increasing number of collections at lower prices and clothing seems to have become a disposable item. Meanwhile, along the growth of the Do-It-Yourself movement and participatory design initiatives, the top-down fashion system has been turned inside-out and opens up at the seam to users as fashionistas to go from passive consumerism to a collaborative process. In our increasingly digitalized culture, phenomena such as hacking, open source and peer2peer production has streamed out of the internet into the realm of design where it builds further upon craft heritage and DIY movements, exploring practices of participation and consumer empowerment through sharing and sewing.
So how can open source tactics empower consumers to become proactive makers and act as a key to engaged, sustainable fashion design, production, consumption and wearing?

The term and philosophy of “open source” originates from the free software movement. Open source software allows users to use, modify and distribute its source code by making it freely available, leading to vast technological improvements and encouraging a dialogue between the participants. The philosophy of the open source movement with time has moved into also other realms, one can just take a look at the range of different types of work published under Creative Commons licenses. In a strict sense of the word, “open source” denotes openly available source code. This article discusses a wider spectrum of openness concerning the design, production and use of fashion and clothes. Not strictly limited to open source design in terms of licensing, but looking at a variety of alternative approaches within fashion opening the system in their own way, inventing new ways of designing, producing, consuming and using clothes and fashion; open source designs, fashion hacking, swapping and sharing clothes, upcycling, Do-It-Yourself and exchanging skills, innovative repair concepts, alternatives to selling finished products and involving consumers in the process of making.

If part of the reason why the clothing industry has become so unsustainable, is that the production is now so far away and what happens in Asian factories can continue to happen; open source tactics may help to bridge that long distance between us and what we wear – be it platforms enabling a global spread combined with local manufacture, or invitations to get a little closer to the manufacturing oneself, by laying hands on a broken garment or the making of a new one, and feeling just a bit warmer about our self-knitted wool sweater.

The open fashion paradox

Unlike many other consumer products or artistic creations, fashion does not underlie as strict Intellectual Property (IP) protection. The brands and logos themselves can be trademarked, which is a reason why logos are often placed clearly visible on garments, to serve differentiation and recognition. In the US, there is virtually no patent- and copyright protection for fashion. The EU, on the other hand, with a stronger heritage of couture houses, has broader protection for fashion design, and yet certain ingredients in the nature of the industry often make designs difficult to protect also here. Overall, the originality of a design decides it’s protectability. A design too commonplace cannot be protected, and since adhering to trends already leads to a design being commonplace, a too trendy fashion thus does not stand out enough to be protected.1 In terms of design rights, the novelty element counts, in copyright, the originality. Generic, functional garments such as the t-shirt or the jeans, are in the end just that – jeans and t-shirt, and neither novel nor original. Haute Couture creations on the other hand, will often display both, but are far from the ready-to-wear of everyday life. Johanna Blakley argues in her TED-talk on the fashions free culture, that seen the lack of IP-protection (in the US specifically), fashion can be regarded as a free industry, a creative field where copying is the common practise2. Copying, stealing, remixing, borrowing and citing, are factors that push constant innovation, and maybe most importantly: lead to the creation of trends, a core phenomenon to fashion as such. Meanwhile, in the collective consciousness of the fashion industry, the sentiments are closed. Ideas and ideals of the designer mastermind are deeply rooted, with a strong ethos of design ownership and brands fighting lawsuits with pirates and copycats. Zoe Romano, founder of Openwear and now Digital Strategy & Wearables at Arduino, states in an interview about the takeaways of the Openwear project: “The fashion sector, even if it works on low levels of intellectual property protection, is based on a culture of secrecy and hiding. This is the worst enemy of collaboration and openness.”3 So in this way fashion balances on a tightrope between free culture and copycats on the one side, and smoke, mirrors and protection on the other.

Since the fashion industry is in a constant flux of remixing and copying itself, open design is in one sense no novelty. Hence, the exciting part of what open design can mean for fashion may lie not mainly in how it can be implemented on a business-to-business level, but how it can allow the consumers entrance into this mythical realm. From the user perspective, it is relatively easy to intervene with clothes making, compared to in example hardware, computers, or tools, even starting with little experience and low material investment. Unlike the latest technology in communication gadgets that have less and less screws, clothing is, technically seen, very easy to open, starting with a tool prevalent in most household: the scissors. In my personal experience facilitating participatory workshops and upcycling events, where participants oftentimes come into contact with the destruction and reconstruction of clothes for the first time – it is not only a seam that opens when we cut open that shirt, but also something under our skin, even if just the vague notion that actually, this too, is something to interact with: It gives the consumer back the power to act, and spreads the word that actually, you don’t need to be merely a passive consumer but have the tools very closely at hand to become an active maker, once you discover the ease of interacting with your garments in an open source style.

Open source code

Strictly speaking, the source code of fashion is the patterns. Making the blueprints available enable designers and users to share and exchange, recreate and build further upon a design. Given the right frameworks, for example a digital format that can be adapted by the user to change fit or size, it opens up opportunities to customize a garment to the shape and need of each user. As a first experiment of bridging open source software with fashion design, in 2007 I started the open source fashion label Pamoyo, which, besides selling ready-to-wear collections, released the designs under a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons licenses offer a form of modified copyrights, to allow reuse in one or more ways. The patterns were released under a license allowing for all to use, reuse and share derivative designs under a similar open license, also for commercial purposes. To our surprise, there was something revolutionary about this simple deed; after all, copying was nothing new in the business. And yet, a frequent response to our work and choice to go open source, was a slight exasperation that we shared our “secrets” just like that, without financial compensation. In end effect, this open sharing was a fantastic opportunity to reach out and connect to people, users and potential customers. Patterns were downloaded by users worldwide, giving a spread of designs we certainly would not have had without the open source aspects. We also worked on the assumption that the user group that downloaded designs to make themselves wasn’t the same as the group who bought the ready-made garments and as such the open source aspect did not exclude the direct sales.

A frequent obstacle to open source fashion design in practise is that independent designers and smaller fashion houses tend to create their patterns manually on paper, where as if the process was digitalized the sharing of creations over the internet would be much easier and the threshold for participation lower. The more mature pattern making software available on the market is proprietary and licences costly. There has been a few examples over the past years of initiatives creating open source alternatives. Currently, the Valentina Project4, though still under development, is the closest to a functioning open source pattern software. This type of software would open the possibilities to share designs more freely, both inbetween collaborating designers, and between designer and user, allowing customizations, remixes and derivative designs to spring off.

Open design approaches can allow customers to produce items locally, on their own or using a local service and local resources – just what they need, when they need it, where they are. The project Openwear founded in 2010 sought to further develop this possibility, by creating a community-driven meta brand and online network of designers, producers, creators and consumers. Designs can easily find a global spread through the network, while being locally interpreted. A first collaborative collection was created in 2010 involving an international group of designers. Those designs were not intended to be produced by Openwear itself, but made available to the community to use, adapt, and even produce and sell independently. The resources developed during the initial project are still available online. An important aspect to Openwear was as well to gather independent producers and designers to gather under this community based “meta brand”, working as a loose-knit cooperative, and as such become more resilient together, in the face of the market economy and fast fashion corporations pushing speed of production and minimum prices.

The spread of fablabs and makerspaces and thereby easy access to 3D-printers and lasercutters for common use has opened new possibilities to sell purely digital products, in example downloadable accessoires or garments. In this way no stock has to be kept and with that no over-production or far-away transport, since the product can materialise on demand and as close to the end consumer as possible. This possibility has been picked up by the recently launched Post Couture Collective5. It offers entirely lasercut garments; either as digital design files to print and lasercut in a local fablab, or pre-cut DIY-kits for self-assembly. The designs are constructed in a way as to be assembled without any sewing involved, and thus come without any thresholds for the users since no particular craft skills nor tools are needed.

The handmade cool and its protagonists

The globalised, overseas production and agile competitors has led to not only more pirated design copies, but also better copies. Not always is it anymore evident to the eye that what someone is wearing is a fake and not the original, even considering luxury design goods. This, combined with the speed at which chain stores copy the latest runway designs and get them out into the stores through lean, highly pressured production chains is so quick that the high end fashion houses have to be inventive to remain exclusive. Methods that are harder to copy, are nevertheless the time-consuming traditional handicrafts that can hardly be reproduced in a way that makes sense in an industrial setting. The exclusive have moved further from the mass-produced and closer to the handmade, to unimitable skill. Also the handmade, DIY-aesthetic suddenly has a new standing in the design world. It’s a beautiful paradox that a subversive and industry-critical movement like the DIY-revolution are now making frequent appearances at the frontlines of contemporary design. The home-sewing magazine Burda has existed nearly half a century, it has spread its clothing patterns across the world month after month, but it was never fashion. Not until 2010, at the latest, when Karl Lagerfeld himself, high priest of fashion design, featured a design in the magazine6. It’s not uncommon that designers now publish patterns in popular women’s magazine, in example the fashion-forward lifestyle mag Fräulein regularly features designs-to-make by state-of-the-art designers. London-based knitwear brand Unmade combines the craft with technology, and offer customized one-of-a-kind sweaters on an industrial scale, using industrial, computer-programmable knitting machines with advanced software7.

Cultivating craft skills is key to enable consumers to become makers. Many initiatives are setting on consumer education and maker attitudes. Alabama Chanin is an Alabama-based fashion company headed by designer Natalie Chanin, that combines ready-to-wear, produced locally by artisans using traditional craft techniques, with the same designs offered as DIY-kits to sew yourself, and the “School of Making” offering workshops where participants can gain the skills first hand8. Alabama Chanin also publishes pattern books with instructions on the stitching techniques and other know-how required to create ones own garments in the Alabama style. The recipe of teaching the skills, preserving the craft techniques local to the region and engaging local producers.

Offering DIY-kits as an alternative to finished garments is becoming increasingly popular. Especially with a common craft such as knitting, where DIY-kits including yarn and knitting patterns are nothing new, the skill is easily learnt and loved by many, new labels have popped up combining the Do-It-Yourself-Kit with fashionable designs and convincing branding. London-based Wool & The Gang is an example of a company that has been successful building its brand with a DIY ethos. Their designs can be bought as “knit your own” DIY-kit or as ready-made garment, and feature a growing range of clothing and accessories made with knitting and crochet techniques. An ever growing collection of designs, designer collaborations with i.e. sustainable design pioneer Christopher Raeburn, and grand dame Vivienne Westwood and her Climate Revolution campaign9.

Researcher and founder of DIY fashion event make{able}, Anja-Lisa Hirscher, seeks to use joyful participation in new ways of designing and making clothes to enabling person-product attachment to potentially reduce unnecessary consumption. Hirscher sought a way to offer this experience of making something yourself, without compromising the quality, after noticing that in a limited time frame of for example a workshop, it would still be difficult for an unexperienced user to create garments that not only gave them the joy of making, but also could compete in quality and actually last through wear and tear. To come around this issue, she started creating half-way products; unfinished designs where some crucial part had already been done, but where the user assembles the parts and thus still can identify as co-creator of the finished garment10.

“Haute Couture Heretic” and DIY-demagogue Otto von Busch is a researcher and designer whose hands-on research explores the use of hacking as a tool of stylish subversion within the fashion system, and participatory practices to empower consumers. His website forms a vast inspirational resource of fashion experiments and research, essays, action, recycling manuals, bridging the academic with fanzine culture. In his research he also explores the emergence of a new “hacktivist” designer role in fashion, where the designer engages participants to reform fashion from a phenomenon of dictations and anxiety to a collective experience of empowerment, making participants become “fashion-able”. Von Busch proposes ready-to-make garments as a contrast to the common ready-to-wear, letting the consumer become an active participant in the design process.11 Von Busch sees hacking as a practice which can be applied to fashion design processes, featuring characteristics that could be of essential value for participatory, engaged or sustainable fashion endeavours beyond the common industrial production, he writes “Being networked and collaborative, hacking is a constructive practice rather than subversive and can be a comple- mentary modus operandi to the workings of the traditionally hierarchical fashion system.12

An open design approach seeks to create an interaction between designer, user and object. As Karl Marx suggested in his theory of alienation, within the capitalist mode of production, the worker (inevitably also a consumer) becomes estranged from the self and looses the ability to determine life and destiny when being deprived of the right to think of themselves as the director of their own actions.
Anja-Lisa Hirscher states in her research that in order to encourage a broader audience, designers need to find key starters to activate the individual consumer. “A combination of ‘ready-to-make’ and more sustainable ‘ready-to-wear’ approaches allow small steps of interaction and can offer the consumers interesting new ways to enjoy their garments. Time, skills, creativity and effort have to be invested to acquire those new – but unique ways of wearing, using, making and enjoying clothes.13” As such, sustainable consumption is not only about identifying the wrong, but finding and focusing on new pleasures that might outplay plain shopping.

Material clothing, immaterial fashion

In the word fashion lies so much more than the mere items of clothing. It is in the middle of material and immaterial production, or, to take from Shakespeare; the stuff that dreams are made of On the immaterial side of fashion it can be seen as parts illusion, image and myth. It wants to seduce, create desires and dreams. Often the weight lies more on presentation and representation than on the actual product and if we are to define a source code of fashion, it goes beyond mere patterns. The mythology and branding are central parts of the dress code. With an aim of “demystifying the creative process”, the website SHOWstudio, launched in 2000 and by that a pioneer in fashion film and an early online medium for fashion. It has been defining to the online presentation of fashion.’s project “design_download” invited 7 top fashion designers, including the likes of Yohji Yamamoto and the late Alexander McQueen, to contribute with garment patterns. The website audience was invited to download the patterns, and create and submit their own interpretations. The winning entries were displayed in the 2009 exhibition “SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution”. This way of opening the process of image creation and showing the act of making and creating, supports an inclusive, collaborative atmosphere as opposed to a static, hidden, top-down fashion regime. Another approach to crack open the immaterial side of fashion is Giana Gonzalez’ Hacking Couture project. By decoding the fashion brands DNA, Gonzalez lays bare the codes woven into specific brands and their key designs. The code, determined by the study of the designer’s most repetitive design elements that appear in designs and diverse media, is documented in an “open source library” and shared for everyone to use, to work with and make new designs citing the DNA. Hacking Couture emphasizes community and empowerment through making, and promotes the use of recycled and upcycled materials. With those methods, Hacking Couture seeks a “Peer to Peer” versus “Peer to Brand” exchange of ideas and aims to document the design code of established identities in order to derive new and evolving fashion aesthetics, serving also as a democratic platform for self-expression and a nest for new ideas.14

How To Wear It and Tear It

A crucial part of the message of open design is to regard also finished objects as in a beta state; as somehow unfinished, still open and to be continued. Our clothes shape us but we, too, shape our clothes. When we buy a new piece of clothing, never worn, that is only the beginning of the life of that garment. Outdoor brand Patagonia states in their Wornwear blog “repair is a radical act”, and celebrates the well-used objects over the new ones by sharing the users stories about their used Patagonia-items. Recently, Patagonia partnered with the website iFixit to provide a series of repair manuals for their products.15

“The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone – in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives” Emily Spivack, Worn Stories16

The London-based project Local Wisdom, initiated by author Kate Fletcher and the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, explores resourceful practices associated with using clothes, stating “after all, owning a garment, does not mean we know how to use it”. In the Local Wisdom project, Kate Fletcher has collected stories from the participating public of how they use their garments in resourceful and satisfying ways. Local wisdom wants us to question and change our habits of the use of clothing, aiming to challenge the dependency of the fashion industry on increasing material throughput and to propose alternatives based on sustained attention to tending and using garments, as opposed to just creating or buying them.17

In 2009 myself in collaboration with graphic designer Sophie Bayerlein started the Berlin clothes swapping event Fashion Reloaded. It quickly turned into a laboratory for bringing designers, makers, consumers and fashionistas together in swap and remake events to find new, alternative ways to reuse, dress and consume fashion. Clothing swaps combined with sewing workshops, skill sharing, tools and support at hand, created an inclusive environment to take part and create for both lesser and more experienced participants. According to a recent poll by Greenpeace, the average German has 18 pieces of clothes at the back their wardrobes that they don’t use or have worn a maximum of 2 times, and another 19 garments that are worn only a couple of times per year, together adding up to more than 2 billion forgotten items filling the German wardrobes18. With the Fashion Reloaded swap and remake events we wanted to find ways of bringing this abundant material resource of clothes that we don’t wear anymore back into the loop. Worn clothing is difficult to efficiently repurpose in an industrial setting or serial production, and yet there is a massive amount of material possibilities and potentials waiting to be reused. With his recyclopedia, Otto von Busch created a series of downloadable manuals for the altering and repurposing of those unused pieces left in wardrobes into new forms, in the form of a fashion-able cookbook or reuse.19

“A beautiful patching is a manifestation of careful love, a caress of time, a gentle kiss of compassion – these are things that fashion has, so far, never been able to commit to.” Otto von Busch20

Just as in many other consumer goods sectors, clothes are ultimately not made – let alone expected– to be repaired. When the cost of having a garment repaired by a tailor exceeds the cost of buying a new item from the high street, there is not much hope to broken garments being repaired, and thus, the value of repair needs to be reestablished and the motivational drivers found beyond pure economic win. According to Greenpeace, only every second German has ever once brought clothing or shoes to repair21. Seeing the value in the repair itself, as something to wear on your sleeve, is key to reestablish a sense in the action of bringing broken garments to a tailor. The japanese Wabi Sabi philosophy says the beauty lies in the imperfections and the nuances – things generally avoided and unappreciated in an industrial production setting but won with use and sometimes gilded accidents. Berlin-based “repair and revamp studio” Bis Es Mir Von Leibe Fällt, by designer Elisabeth Prantner, is a reinvention of the classic repair service. The repair is extended with a personalized design service, which sometimes means a beautiful way of repairing a hole in the fabric, other times completely repurposing the original garments into a new upcycled piece with an individual story. It is thus not intended to merely recreate the original garment with the patch or mending stitch as unnoticeable as possible, but to use the repair as an opportunity to recreate a garment or conserve a memory – seeing wear and tear as an incentive for making a difference.22

Another alternative way to bring a creative challenge of repair to the consumers hands are DIY repair kits. An example is the dutch design company Humade that creates repair kits that are low-threshold to use for anyone while enhancing the once broken object or garment in entirely new ways23. Humade also creates kits for kintsugi – an ancient japanese art of repairing porcelain with gold. An ironic beauty of well-designed DIY-kits is that they bridge the desire to consume or buy into a brand, with giving the experience of creating and promoting repair instead of discarding and buying new.


Own your style! Just as home-cooking hasn’t killed the restaurants, DIY and making experiences won’t lead to a redundance of designers. On the contrary, it has the potential to lead to more engaged and informed consumers with an eye and appreciation for quality, giving our clothes the value that we deserve. A key for sustainability in fashion is to reestablish a connection between owner and object. By ways of wear, repair and consumtion, a new narrative of fashion can be created, to oppose the prefabricated storytelling of brands.

We can also connect with our garments by engaging in the making process, opening and altering them again and again during their lifecycle or by exchanging them and their stories with friends and families. We can be can even be more conscious of how we wear and use them and e.g. by asking how and by whom they were made, we can bring more love into the game and the global industry.
Designers can design for subsequent lives of the things they create, for longevity, repair and repurpose. They could even actively invite the wearer into the production process and enable transformations from passive consumers to active participants or proactive makers.

By swapping once-treasured garments with friends or strangers, by producing new items with pre-loved textiles and second hand materials, create a new fashion narrative by wear, tear and style. And that might be where we begin to build affectionate relations to our objects again. To love our stuff, because what we love we value, repair if it breaks. By being inventive, we can enjoy style, reinvent ourselves when we need to, dress up, swap our identities, dress to persuade or to disappear, without a bad aftertaste of the hidden costs of our consumption.

1 Raustiala & Sprigman (2012): The Knockoff Economy, Oxford University Press
2 Blakley, Johanna (2010): Lessons from fashion’s free culture, video retrieved at
3 Fuad-Luke, Hirscher, Moebus (2015): Agents of Alternatives, p.227
10 Anja-Lisa Hirscher in interview, 2015
11 Von Busch, Otto (2008): Fashion-able. Hacktivism and engaged fashion design. Doctoral thesis, University of Gothenburg
12 von Busch, Otto (2009): Engaged Design and the Practice of Fashion Hacking: The Examples of Giana Gonzalez and Dale Sko“, retrieved at
13 Hirscher, Anja-Lisa (2013): Joyful participation in new ways of designing and making clothes. Master thesis, Aalto University
16 Spivack, Emily (2014): Worn Stories, Princeton Architectural Press
17 Fletcher, Kate (2012): Fashion & Sustainability – Design for change, Laurence King Publishing Ltd
18 Greenpeace e.V. (2015): Wegwerfware Kleidung Repräsentative Greenpeace – Umfrage zu Kaufverhalten, Tragedauer und der Entsorgung von Mode. Retrieved at
20 von Busch, Otto (2010): Some magazine #0
21 Greenpeace e.V. (2015): Wegwerfware Kleidung Repräsentative Greenpeace – Umfrage zu Kaufverhalten, Tragedauer und der Entsorgung von Mode. Retrieved at