13 Sep 2017

PhD update

PhD Title: User involvement in design: implications for the sustainability of clothing
Prof. Hein Daanen | VU | Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences
Prof. Javier Gimeno Martínez | VU | Faculty of Arts, Design Cultures
Prof. Pieter Jan Stappers | TU Delft | Industrial Design
Period: 2015-2019

This multidisciplinary PhD project explores the possibility of diminishing the volumes of clothing produced and consumed through personalization and production on demand. This possibility is examined critically through three different perspectives: a fashion history and theory approach, an empirical (quantitative and qualitative) approach and a research-through-design approach.

During the fashion history and theory phase of this research, user involvement in design and production of personalized clothing on-demand are put in historical and theoretical context. The article “On paradigm shifts and industrial revolutions: tracing prevalent dressmaking practices and apparel production systems in the Netherlands and northwest Europe (1850-2016)” (Maldini, 2017) traces the rise of ready-made garments in the Netherlands and northwest Europe, and the associated decline in custom- and home-made garments in the region. Although available statistical data is insufficient to accurately map these phenomena, secondary sources suggest that both processes were not simultaneous and therefore there was not a straightforward substitution of custom- and home-made clothing by ready-mades. While availability and trade of mass-produced ready-mades was escalating since the early 19th C, it was not until mid 20th C that custom- and home-made clothing declined among the middle class. In this study, such a gap is explained by a steady increase in the amount of clothes acquired per person: an expanding culture of consumption during the period under consideration may have enabled these different systems to flourish all together.

A parallelism of the findings above with current developments in mass customization and the discourse of the fourth industrial revolution suggests that we should not regard emergent industrial formats as substitutionary of established ones, but as complementary. We may then reevaluate to what extent does the rise of the flexible factory enable a “revolution”, a shift from a problematic present to a contrasting and desirable future. This historical overview indicates that, on the contrary, emerging product-service-systems manufacturing personalized garments on-demand must be considered in relation to – and in coexistence with- traditional industrial models.

Another article titled “The perfect dress and its making: a comparative study of the sartorial habits of Amsterdam women (1950s-2010s)” (Maldini & Manz, 2016) examines how the role of clothing has changed during the last 60 years. The ethnographic study indicates that during the 1950s a main concern of young Amsterdam women was that of conforming to explicit fashion trends. However, while the values and ideas behind their sartorial practices were generic, the material resources to realize them (the garments themselves) were unique. Self-made and personally-made clothes were widespread and each garment was distinctive in material terms. During the last 60 years, we argue, developments have been somewhat paradoxical. While individuality and originality are major concerns for today’s women, most of the clothing industry works on the basis of repetition.

In the article From Things of Imitation to Devices of Differentiation: Uncovering a Paradoxical History of Clothing (1950–2015)” (Maldini & Manz, 2017) the ethnographic research above is used as a case study to argue for a renovated theoretical framework in fashion studies. The article proposes that perspectives emphasizing the social role and the technological nature of dress should be considered complementary, and that their joint application can contribute to new understandings of fashion history. A theoretical framework integrating theories of identity (mainly based on the writings of Georg Simmel and Gabriel Tarde) and philosophy of technology (in this case the device paradigm of Albert Borgmann) allows us to uncover a paradoxical history of fashion in which clothing shifts roles, transforming from “things of imitation” into “devices of differentiation”.

In the second phase of this project the relationship between clothing personalization and clothing volumes is studied using an empirical approach. This phase starts with a systematic literature review of sustainable fashion strategies aimed at reducing clothing volumes. The article “Reducing clothing production volumes by design: a critical review of sustainable fashion strategies” (Maldini & Balkenende, 2017) discusses how the challenge of diminishing clothing production volumes has been approached within the field of sustainable fashion. We identify six common strategies in literature and discuss the approach of user involvement in the process of design and/or manufacture of garments in detail. A critical analysis of the state of the art in the field points out that these strategies have been constructed, studied and promoted without empirical validation. The article concludes with a recommendation to move forward from conceptual to empirical studies. Analyses of existing initiatives and their results in terms of consumer buying behavior and obsolete inventory are recommended as first steps towards validation.

A forthcoming article continues this line of enquiry by empirically testing four hypotheses linking personalization and reduced clothing volumes. In the literature, these are usually presented as comparative advantages of personalization in relation to mass production, namely: a) higher use frequency of products, b) longer life-span of products, c) reduction in clothing demand based on higher product satisfaction (smaller number of garments with higher use value), and d) reduction in the number of unsold products (pre-consumer waste). These are tested on the basis of wardrobe studies (covering points a to c above) and company interviews (point d above).

For the third phase of this PhD research, the study continues based on a research-through-design approach.

The findings of the first and second phase of the research indicate that the relationship between personalization and reduced clothing demand is not straight forward when we consider it historically and empirically. Analyses of the implications of personalization tend to focus on “the garment” as an isolated unit of research/design/use, leading to hypotheses of decreasing demand through user involvement in design. However, garments in use are items of a broader system: the wardrobe. Personal wardrobes are usually complex systems, flexible in size and structure. The metabolism of wardrobes is diverse, garments get in and out for different reasons and their origin and destination is varied. On the other hand, analyses of the potential of personalization to reduce clothing demand tend to assume that a personal wardrobe is a static ensemble, which includes a fixed number of items in each garment type and where every item discarded is substituted by a new purchase.

Although clothing consumption and use are issues attracting a lot of attention from users, companies, and researchers alike, wardrobes receive only marginal attention. Therefore, the research question of this third phase is: How a systemic perception of the wardrobe may affect everyday sartorial practices? This question is explored using the creative process and resulting research artifacts (prototypes) to generate knowledge. The study involves two activities: a) a creative session with experts in order to co-design the research artifact, and b) a discussion of the research artifact with participants of the former wardrobe studies. Given that Internet of things, product-service systems, ubiquitous computing and data-driven life are particularly relevant today; a connected wardrobe system seems a relevant research artifact to explore the research question above. This phase is currently in development.


Maldini, I. (2017). On paradigm shifts and industrial revolutions: tracing prevalent dressmaking practices and apparel production systems in the Netherlands and northwest Europe (1850-2016). In Breaking the fashion rules. Annual conference of the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institutes (IFFTI). Amsterdam.
Maldini, I., & Balkenende, R. (2017). Reducing clothing production volumes by design: a critical review of sustainable fashion strategies. In PLATE. Product Lifetimes and the Environment. Delft.
Maldini, I., & Manz, R. (2016). The Perfect Dress and its Making: a Comparative Study of the Sartorial Habits of Amsterdam Women (1950s-2010s). In W. Wong, Y. Kikuchi, & S. T. Lin (Eds.), Making Trans/National Contemporary Design History. 10th Conference of the ICDHS. (pp. 157–161). Taipei. https://doi.org/10.5151/despro-icdhs2016-029

Maldini, I., & Manz, R. L. (2017). From “Things of Imitation” to “Devices of Differentiation”: Uncovering a Paradoxical History of Clothing (1950–2015). Fashion Theory, 7419(April), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/1362704X.2017.1316577