A modular garment is one that can be disassembled into different parts, or modules, and reassembled at the wearer’s will. This is generally achieved through a variety of fastenings, from buttons and zips to press studs and Velcro.
These fasteners are used to attach or detach optional extras such as collars, hoods and pockets to transform one kind of a garment to another, such as a pair of trousers which can become shorts thanks to detachable leg bottoms.
Aligned with the ‘buy less, buy better, make it last’ proposition, modular fashion ticks the boxes of sustainable consumption, while a product serving multiple purposes should also appeal to the value-conscious customer.
However, whether modularity drives a shopper’s buying decision is broadly unknown and fashion-specific research isn’t yet available.
Karin Gustafsson, design director at COS shared feedback on their 2020 capsule: “We were pleased with the customers’ reaction to the collection and heard some great anecdotes about customers discovering these features in the fitting rooms,” she said.
In terms of consumption, modular fashion is similar to modular furniture. That’s because the user is given more agency to engage with the product in creative and exciting ways based on their mood, occasion, season or taste. On the flip side, the customer might resist the cognitive effort required if the fashion item is perceived as confusing and complex, requiring too much thought.
Hence, product marketing is key, whether on the shop floor or in the e-store, according to Liza Amlani, principal and founder of the Retail Strategy Group
Multiple design considerations
Even so, the customer will continue to place a premium on garment desirability. As Gustaffson says: “Functionality is an important part of our design DNA, but the overall aesthetic of each piece comes first.”
Modularity also lends itself to servicing the product. That’s because modular design closely relates to the principle of design for disassembly — an approach that enables products to be easily taken apart for recycling, remodelling or repair.
Fairphone put that principle into practice with its sustainable smartphones. The Dutch social enterprise launched a modular phone in 2013 that allows DIY repairs of not just the battery but also complex components like the camera, display screen and back cover.
Although tech experts say that, by prioritising modularity, Fairphone has managed to attract only a niche group of customers as the product isn’t as sleek as those from market leaders Apple and Samsung.
Switching back to fashion, if a brand cracks a design that looks beautiful, is multi-functional and repairable, the lack of product innovation will likely serve as the biggest roadblock.
Business model innovation
Modular products could also trigger business model innovation by extending the brand-customer relationship beyond the initial sale. When such garments, or shoes, need repairing or altering, the brand would be able to offer ‘spare parts’ instead of prompting the consumer to buy a new item.
Nike took this approach with the limited release of a trainer, called Zvezdochka, in 2004 and 2014. It was made of four interchangeable parts so that a worn part could be replaced rather than the whole shoe.
Amlani says: “There is a market for replacement parts such as handbag straps or chains and sleeves for a convertible jacket/vest combo but production should be limited to made to measure and not kept in stock.
“Think of the extra buttons in your blazers. About 90 per cent of them don’t get used and it’s a waste of time, money, and materials.”
However, she adds that, as the need increases, retailers could start to hold minimal inventory of such items.
Ryan Mario Yasin, founder and CEO of Petit Pli, wants to launch a leasing model for his line of children’s clothing which he feels could make it more appealing to consumers.
His expandable trousers will continue to fit a nine-month-old baby for the next four years, but he’s found that parents are reluctant to shell out £60 for them, accustomed as they are to paying less than £10 for high street brands.