Traditional Fashion Crafts in Today’s UK Fashion Industry – A Research Proposal

Traditional Fashion Crafts in Today’s UK Fashion Industry: A Research Proposal

  • INTRODUCTION

Today, craftsmanship is more likely to evoke images of physical labor in pre-industrial eras. Or to bring up images of artisans who started to lose appeal, influence and business as mechanization of labor replaced humans in early industrialization periods in Europe and elsewhere. The case for craftsmanship cuts across different industries and is, for one, an area of broad academic and practical implications. The loss of human craftsmanship, at least in more conventional forms, spans diverse industries from manufacturing to gardening. Traditional fashion crafts remain, for current purposes, of central interest.

Traditional fashion crafts offer a unique bridge between the current proposed research and business research. Specifically, fashion as a craft is a creative endeavor which has been researched for decades. The rapid evolution of clothing making, particularly after more aggressive mechanization of weaving and spinning processes, has, however, introduced major shifts not only in how fashion products are produced but, more importantly, how fashion has come to be understood. For example, in late 1990s and early 2000s, fast fashion has emerged as an increasingly significant mode of fashion production by which established fashion brands cater to different needs and purchase habits of younger consumers (Mak, 2016). This is, of course, only one example of how fashion industry has changed radically in response to different technological, economic and cultural developments. The evolution episodes, so speak, of fashion over decades raises one legitimate question largely unaddressed in current academic literature but is of broad implications for business practice and research:

Where does conventional fashion crafts stand in relation to evolution of “fashion craft” in recent years?

This is narrowed down (stated in next section “Research Question & Objectives”) and is best answered by placing conventional fashion crafts in context. For current purposes, UK-based conventional fashion crafts are discussed within the current fashion industry context.

Traditional fashion crafts, much like several conventional material-based crafts, have received considerable attention in recent years. In 2016, in what appears to be a retro discussion of innovation, a group of makers and innovators convened in Manchester, the world’s first industrial city, in Europe’s first craft and innovation conference (Greenlees, 2016). The conference highlighted an issue which has gained more momentum in recent years: how conventional making and crafts could be reinvented in 21st century not by reproducing worn-out making and craftsmanship methods but by tapping into innovation and technological advances such as to fuse together different skills and resources from different industries. (The concept of “fusion” is central to current research project and is mentioned and explicated repeatedly later.)

The choice of UK-based conventional fashion crafts as a research interest is justified by several reasons. First, fashion is a highly charged industry culturally. That is, fashion has always – and will continue to be – of paramount significance in the UK’s cultural history. Second, conventional fashion crafts are integral to the UK fashion business history. Therefore, studying the conventional fashion crafts helps shed more light on which “grounds” conventional fashion crafts now stand. Third, recent developments in the UK fashion industry, combined by a growing interest in craftsmanship and artisanship as opposed to mass-manufactured fashion products, lends the study of conventional fashion crats even more significance, if only for possible broad business implications. This research proposal aims, hence, to examine whether the conventional fashion crafts in the UK would survive under current fashion business practices.

This research project offers, or hopes to offer, both conceptual and practical values. Conceptually, current research project helps bridge a literature gap between developments in current UK fashion industry practices and conventional fashion crafts and how such developments are likely to impact, positively or negatively, on conventional fashion crafts. Practically, recent interest in crafts in general and fashion crafts in particular is apt to have broad implications for fashion business practice, particularly when more fusions between modern and conventional practices lead to unprecedented collaborations and innovations.

  • RESEARCH QUESTION & OBJECTIVES

The initial survey of the academic and business literature on the conventional fashion crafts in the UK converges on one central research question:

RQ: Would the conventional fashion crafts in the UK survive under the current fashion business conditions? If so, how?

Three objectives, when met, are apt to answer the RQ:

Objective One

To identify the role of innovation in the survival of the conventional fashion crafts.

Objective Two

To identify the challenges which might prevent the conventional fashion crafts from survival, if not growth.

Objective Three

To identify any emerging incubators or enabler organizations or networks which might help make survival for the conventional fashion crafts sustainable

III. LITERATURE REVIEW

The debate over the conventional fashion crafts in the UK has received increasing attention in recent years. As noted above by Greenlees (2016), a question of whether the conventional fashion crafts could not only survive under the current fashion business conditions and practices but also to grow is discussed by leading makers and innovators from multiple industries. The evidence in current literature appears to support an argument for innovation as a critical survival factor for the conventional fashion crafts in the UK. More specifically, while the conventional fashion crafts are least likely to survive in a conventional form, i.e. by older means of design and/or production but are more likely to do so by innovative fusions. The “innovative fusions” concept refers to synthetic processes undergoing between one or more conventional fashion craft and one or more different industries so as to bring about synergic values in the products or services provided by such means. The metaphor of “spillover” helps make innovative fusions a more accessible concept.

According to a recent, in-depth report on the impact of innovation on the conventional creative crafts in the UK,

Innovation in craft refers to evolution of technique, discovery of new materials and application of new tools. Innovation through craft refers to makers facilitating or catalysing innovation elsewhere. It concerns the spillover effects of craft into other industries...Recent years have witnessed acceleration in collaborative open innovation, and a transformation in making, whose scale of impact is conveyed by the label ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. Alongside this, UK governments have given increasing attention to the creative industries’ considerable economic contribution, as reflected in the UK Creative Industries Council’s new strategy…In addition, ‘fusion’ – the combination of creative, technological and enterprise mindsets – has been identified as a key driver for successful businesses. Fusion is enabled by collaboration across sectors…[emphasis added]. (KPMG, 2016)

The report highlights, moreover, several interesting examples of innovation in conventional fashion crafts sector. The collaboration between Ptolemy Mann, a textile artist and designer, and Johnson Tiles, an established UK tile company. By expanding her conceptualization of colors, patterns and designs not in textiles but in ceramics, Mann has been able not only to diversify her conventional, hand-based weaving skills but also to reinvent her practice by integrating new craft skills which are shown to generate innovation in new areas by developing or enhancing new ways of thinking and problem solving. The report emphasizes skills and recognition as critical enablers for innovation in the conventional fashion crafts (KPMG).

The 3D Weaver is a second case in point. Oluwaseyi Sosanya has developed a 3D Weaver generating structures which cannot be produced by conventional looms. The potential applications of Sosanya’s 3D Weaver has only made his product of business and economic value for a broad range firms in different industries including health, architecture, aerospace and clothing. Based on Sosanya’s experience, awareness and communication, funding and business skills are shown to be critical enablers for 3D Weaver success (KPMG).

The innovation examples of Mann and Sosanya highlight interesting commonalities as well as differences. The most notable commonality in both cases is how a spillover from one industry to another leads to a synergized outcome. The main difference in each case is the direction of innovation. More specifically, while Mann has diversified her craft horizontally into another to generate value, Sosanya has diversified his craft vertically by developing an innovation in within his own craft. This difference only emphasizes the numerous ways innovation occurs within the conventional fashion craft sector.

The conventional fashion crafts face, moreover, several challenges. The lack of communication channels, specific craft or business skills and, not least, public awareness are cited most by conventional, fashion craft practitioners (KPMG). At a deeper level, challenges can be structural. More specifically, while skills or funding, for example, are challenges which can be addressed at a micro or meso level, structural challenges are ones which can only addressed at a macro level. By structural challenges is meant barriers to innovations in the conventional fashion crafts sector due to, say, major shifts in modes of production, distribution and/or consumption. In Taiwan, while liberating markets in China has led to more business opportunities for local, conventional fashion producers, a notable lack of effective distribution channels at a global scale makes local Taiwanese brands not only unreachable by end consumers abroad but also, more importantly, lack a critical feedback loop by which local, conventional fashion brands are constantly informed by different developments in global fashion industry as well as different industries (Huang et al., 2015). The UK-based conventional fashion crafts sector appears to have developed, in contrast, what amounts to innovation hubs, or clusters, in and around which the conventional fashion crafts cannot only survive but grow. The East London Fashion Cluster is a case in point.

East London has an established rich fashion and craft heritage. This heritage is evidenced by East London’s original and vibrant contributions to the UK’s overall design culture. In recent years, however, a combination of macroeconomic shifts – including, most notably, a rapid shift to a knowledge- and service-oriented economy – and an increasing displacement of local, skilled conventional fashion craft practitioners to afford housing and to safeguard business for a more knowledge-oriented economy has only put East London, as a historical home of conventional fashion crafts, at risk. In a multiple stakeholder initiative, recent displacements of conventional fashion crafts in East London could be reversed by bringing a global skill base to help stimulate existing and emerging production corridors across East London and the Upper Lea Valley, both witnessing signs of survival for the conventional fashion crafts. This is not to mention several other initiatives meant to enable the conventional fashion crafts in East London including, most notably, the Fashion Technology Alliance, the Stitch Academy at Hackney Walk and Fashioning Poplar (BOP Consulting, 2017).

The UK-based conventional fashion crafts sector is, in balance, at a crossroads. Having centuries-long history of artisanship and craftsmanship, major shifts in economy, made even of more negative influence by economies of scale in modern fashion business, put the conventional fashion crafts at existential risks. Meanwhile, emerging cross-industry collaborations, combined by more positive influence of technological innovations, are apt to reverse decades-long of decline of the conventional fashion crafts, if not growth. The balance between challenges and enablers is apt, one strongly believes, to decide which side of the survival game the conventional fashion crafts are more likely to fall into.

  • METHOD

This research proposal is a precursor to a broader exploratory research project. As such, no final conclusions are expected to be drawn. Instead, a broad overview of the current literature on the proposed RQ is planned. This broad approach to the current RQ is justified by several considerations. First, although the interest in conventional (or “old”) crafts – or, for that matter, the means by which products are provided by more conventional methods – is not unique to the conventional fashion crafts (consider, for example, the revived interest in natural or organic foods), the debates, academic and practical, about the possible future of the conventional fashion crafts remains largely sparse and needs more rigorous research attention. Second, the fusion potentials between the conventional fashion crafts and several different industries offer a new research perspective on how cross-industry collaboration could result in value-added synergies by reinventing conventional crafts, instead of more common cross-industry collaborations between contemporaneous industries. Third, the survival of the conventional fashion crafts in the UK offers new potentials and has broad business implications for the UK economy. If anything, the UK is a leader in innovation and creative industries. The deep shifts in the UK economy from a manufacturing to a knowledge- / service-based economy, combined by possible revivals of conventional crafts including the fashion crafts, offer new opportunities not only to boost economic growth in innovative ways but also to make growth more sustainable and to be a genuine bridge between a proud heritage and contemporary innovations.

The planned literature review includes primary and secondary sources. The primary sources include custom surveys, structured interviews and, if possible, ethnographic notations of specific processes and/or practices performed and/or adopted by one or more fashion crafts practitioners. The secondary sources include peer-reviewed articles, industry periodicals and government publications.

  • RESEARCH ETHICS

This research proposal involves, so far, one possible main ethical consideration. Notably, since data gathering methods involve ethnographic notations, privacy and confidentiality of observed subjects should be maintained. Unless approved by subjects, no data collected via ethnographic observation should be included without proper anonymization.

  • TIMESCALE

This research project involves four main steps: (1) Data Collection, (2) Data Analysis, (3) Write-Up and (4) Reporting and Presentation. The “Data Collection” step involves data gathering using primary and secondary sources. The “Data Analysis” step involves merging primary and secondary data, filtering out inconsistencies and organizing content into categorizable sections. The “Write-Up” step involves the writing process. The “Reporting and Presentation” step involves final submission and delivery as well as an oral presentation.

These steps can be summed up as follows:

Data Collection                                                                                Two-Three Months

Data Analysis                                                                                   Three-Four Weeks

Write-Up                                                                                            One-Two Weeks

Reporting & Presentation                                                               One Day

VII. RESOURCES

This research project involves several costs. These costs fall into: (1) financial and (2) non-financial costs. The financial costs include, primarily, expenses for travel to and accommodation in specific fashion crafts hubs including, possibly, East London; monetary incentives for interviewees; and set-asides to purchase handmade fashion products for later assessment of quality by a fashion expert. The non-financial costs include, primarily, time spent to perform interviews, ethnographic observations, secondary / library research and travel.

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