More than a necessity, fashion is a form of sustenance for me. Imagine your wardrobe. Observe the volume of garments, the palette of colors, and the ratio of tops to bottoms. If you had to guess, how many articles of clothing would you say you currently own? How many do you regularly wear? If you are anything like me, you are struggling to pinpoint an exact number of garments and thinking of that one purchase you thought you would wear but never have. Fashion does more than clothe me; it feeds me, hugs me when I need comfort, and breathes life into me on even the worst days. Yet as good a friend as fashion can be, it can also be demanding. It steals my money and competes for space. Sometimes I just feel bored with what I have in my closet (cue “I have nothing to wear”), but I am faced with the risk of spending more just to add another item to the mix that I will maybe wear a few times and then toss on the pile to sit and collect dust. If this sounds at all familiar, you are not alone.
It is past time for a radical transformation of what fashion can look like for us as a society. Sadly, there is not a magic stitch to patch up this unraveling thread. In a short amount of time, the fashion industry has snowballed into a goliath. Along the way, its sparkly fabric has collected wear and tear, frayed edges, and holes, giving us a glimpse at the true cost of the clothes we wear. These flaws represent how, as it has gained rapid momentum, the fashion industry has also exhausted finite resources to the brink of destruction, from environment to labor. In an era where climate change and concerns about environmental degradation are at the forefront of social discourse, the fashion industry faces pressure to undergo a remarkable, seemingly impossible, metamorphosis. While there is no simple answer, one piece of the puzzle that remains largely untapped, especially in the mass market where fashion is most accessible to the widest range of consumers, is modular fashion.
Modular fashion is a technical approach to fashion design that allows garments to functionally transform once, twice, even ten times. This can involve attachable/detachable components, various closures, such as buttons, velcro, drawstrings, etc. that change the shape or function of a garment in some significant way, or cross-functional capabilities, like jackets that become backpacks via zippers. Versatility and accessibility are integral pieces of the modular future. However, it is important to distinguish this concept from a capsule wardrobe. A capsule is a small collection of garments that ideally create a complete wardrobe with the ability to mix and match items for utility maximization. Modular fashion can achieve the same outcome with just one.
In the 1980s, tech-driven fashion designer Issey Miyake designed a one-of-a-kind sweater. Like a cocoon, it morphs into more than five styles, starting with a take on a classic draped silhouette. A simple adjustment of a sleeve or collar reveals a hood and even an experimental dress. Miyake also created a tactical chest rig that, at its most compact, resembles a parachute pack fused with a travel neck pillow. With a snap here and a zip there, the neck component opens up to reveal a full cape and the chest piece adds a hood and sleeves.
Designs like these are often aesthetically experimental, which turns some away from the idea. But modular clothing is not synonymous with the avant-garde. Aakasha, a slow fashion brand, designs unique yet approachable modular collections. Numerous combination possibilities invite the customer to buy building blocks that increase the number of combinations rather than separates in their closet.
While the idea of modular fashion may seem like a new fad, this is far from reality. Aside from Issey Miyake, American fashion designer Sandra Garett was among few designers who brought modular design to the public in the 1980s with her successful Units and Multiples line, which featured multifunctional pieces unlike anything we had seen before. Her modular work is still available today under the title SGD-BOX, offering easily adjustable and transformational garments made with organic cotton fabrics. Her ideas are relevant now more than ever in a landscape of fleeting micro-trends.
To illustrate modular elements in practice, I spoke with Ella Nassauer, a Fashion Design student at VCU’s School of the Arts, who, for a sophomore-year design challenge, created a garment with drawstrings to fundamentally change the shape and length of its skirt.
“At the beginning of our very first semester, [there weren’t] a lot of super curvy, flowy, organic shapes. It was the basics and how to get [the garments] to fit,” said Ella.
“I wanted to explore that a little bit in my final design challenge, so I was thinking of ways to bring an element of organic shape.” Ella found herself particularly drawn to the fact that she had little control over the drape of the garment as she adjusted the drawstrings, converting it into something entirely new and refreshed. But this design choice was outside the box in her major, as a modular approach is not taught.
“I think it’s tricky to kind of shift people’s mindset on what a convertible garment [looks like]. The first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people might be ‘Oh, like a reversible skirt or a jacket that folds into a really awkward-looking purse that’s not cute.’” Ella says it will likely take time for people to fully embrace the idea of modular fashion beyond the purely experimental, and I agree. Not everyone is interested or able to wear the kinds of experimental designs that are typically on the modular market. Often, these designs come with hefty price tags or are just…too far out there in shape or concept for the average consumer.
Yet with apparel consumption steadily on the rise and the climate crisis worsening, adding functional, practical modular designs to our wardrobes could have unfathomable implications not only for the health of the planet but also for transient consumer tastes.
Research suggests that 37% of the general population and 68% of Gen Z follow fashion trends, with the traditional trend cycle accelerating from years to weeks due to social media and mass production. The proliferation of various “cores” or aesthetics, facilitated by platforms like TikTok and Instagram, has led to a rapid turnover in trends. This fast-paced fashion cycle contributes significantly to post-consumer waste, with consumers buying 60% more than 15 years ago, and the fashion industry alone generating 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While many of us enjoy thrifting and hold onto our pieces for a long time, fast fashion still makes up almost 20% of the global apparel market, with overall apparel consumption projected to increase to 102 million tons within the next decade. Despite the growth of recycling, only 15% of discarded textiles are truly recycled, emphasizing the need for more sustainable solutions in the face of increasing apparel consumption and environmental concerns.It can be easy to feel powerless against the climate crisis, especially when it is driven by a handful of corporate giants, making individual recycling efforts diminutive in combat. For those of us striving for a future in fashion, reckoning with our shopping habits, and feeling like no matter what we do it is never enough, hope is not lost. Modular design represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of sustainable fashion and consumer lifestyles. Much like modularity, we will need to disassemble, reassemble, shift, and transform how we think of our relationships with our wardrobes.
Graphics by Roman Diascro