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The Role of Modularity in Sustainable Fashion

What is Modular Clothing?

Modularity or modular clothing refers to garments that have detachable or adaptable elements that can be easily removed, swapped out, or remodelled to create different styles, lengths or overall look in response to changing fashions or need.

Although transformable clothing has been popular with outdoor brands for many years, such as trousers that can convert to shorts, these items are designed for a specific purpose, such as trekking. Modular fashion however, refers to clothing that is adapted or remodelled to change its look and style in line with changing fashions, seasons, or lifestyle.

Why is it Important?

Enabling a garment to remain in use for longer by extending its life through good modular design is good for the circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that a circular economy is ‘based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems’.

Following this principle of keeping products and materials in use modular design can enable garments to be repaired more easily to give longevity to the item, e.g., a ripped sleeve could be replaced instead of the garment being discarded. In terms of regenerating natural systems, laundry of the garment can be restricted to only the parts that are stained, reducing wear and saving water, and designing out waste and pollution means using less detergent and reducing the amount of waste with fewer garment lines. The Value Hill Model by Circle Economy shows how keeping garments in circulation longer retains their value.

Design Through The 12 Principles of Green Engineering

One way of reducing our impact upon the environment is to implement a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ design concept, as first introduced by McDonough and Braungart. The idea is to reduce the environmental impact of producing goods by removing harmful processes or products. For example, if all waste is composted instead of sending to landfill or incineration, then the supply chain loop is closed with no waste or harmful substances left behind. Similarly, if products can be disassembled and the components re-used indefinitely, then the supply chain loop remains closed.

Designing into a product how it will end its life is also explored in the 12 Principles of Green Engineering by Anastas and Zimmerman, where they state that in many instances, commercial end of life occurs as a result of technological or stylistic obsolescence, rather than a fundamental performance or failure of quality. Principles 3, 9 and 11 promote separation, disassembly and the reuse of components, i.e., modular design.

Designing to be Modular

So, to be truly modular, clothing must be able to change out each element of the garment; bodice, sleeve, collar, etc., through disassembly and then reassembly of the pieces. This means that the garment needs to be designed as modular from the outset. Good modular design means engaging with standardisation of the components - they have to be compatible and fit together exactly. They also require diversity in their function, to enable different styles of clothing to be achieved. This presents challenges for designers, with more insight required regarding pattern cutting and placement of seams. How will the attachment work? Will the pieces be sewn, zippered or tied together? To keep the circular loop as closed as possible - as well as keeping garments in circulation for longer - they should be designed to use less resources and be ‘upgradeable.’

Some fashion designers that have modular collections are allenomis, whose modular designs ‘…are intended to be used and cherished for a long time. As the designs are transformable and adaptable, just a few items are sufficient to create a variety of looks.’

The Code Prototype Modular Jacket by Fu Zhih-Chi is made up of three main parts: collar, sleeves, body. They say, ‘The users don't have to dump the whole jacket just because of small damage.’

Georgia Dant’s brand Marfa Stancecontains modular coats that you can build up from different elements, and Italy’s Flavia La Rocca has also experimented with a modular collection.

Modular design allows for repair and replacement of damaged components, an infinite variety of styles and combinations, and crucially, the ability for considered disassembly and re-use. Replacing continuous purchases of throw away fast fashion with high-quality, long-lived modular design is an achievable target that modular fashion can aim for.

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