How are fashion retailers reinventing repair?

Image: The Seam

Fashion has gotten faster over the years. The ‘True Cost’ documentary released in 2015 claimed that, globally, four times as many garments, accessories and shoes are sold each year than in the mid-1980s. The figure is likely greater now due to the boom in e-commerce.

Some e-commerce giants, like Shein, continue to expand rapidly. But when it comes to in-store fashion retail, could a long-overdue slowdown finally be on the horizon? A perfect storm of incoming extended producer responsibility legislation, increasing public awareness on environmental sustainability and the uptick of resale in the cost-of-living crisis are spurring many retailers to rethink their range of offerings.

“If we offered all of our retailers this service, 99% of them would be on-board,” says Alyson Hodkinson, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s head of sustainability for the UK. She’s referring to the service offered by The Seam, a scaleup business which is looking to revitalise the business model for fashion alteration and repairs.

Founded in 2020 by Layla Sargent, who drew inspiration from her grandmother’s lifelong career as a dressmaker, The Seam connects those with garments and accessories in need of care with local service providers. Services offered range from wedding dress alterations and designer handbag repairs, to basic tailoring and deep cleaning for trainers.

The Seam usually provides services by post or enables service providers to meet with customers directly, but it was recently featured at The Westfield Good Festival in London, which is described as a sustainability ‘showcase’.

The Festival is an international event across Europe and the US, now in its second year. For a set time, each participating shopping centre plays host to events such as swap shops, upcycling workshops and talks from experts and influencers.

Sargent says the level of interest in her business at the Festival was “just so much more than I imagined”. People queued to book in repairs and customisation for everything from hats to shoes, high street and designer alike.

Sargent speaks of a desire to “reimagine a very heritage industry” – a process which will be far easier with large retailers and landlords like Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) on board.

“In order to know how to approach things moving forward, we had to look back a little bit… There was a different mindset around tailoring in the 1960s and 1970s. Shopping was completely different.”

At the Westfield Good Festival, shoppers got a taste of what high streets were like in this period, when a day’s clothes shopping usually ended with new goods being taken straight to the tailor, which was often located within the same department store.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Seam (

An update for the 2020s

Of course, customers expect different things from their high streets in 2024 than they did 50 or 60 years ago – or even than they did before Covid-19.

URW’s Hodkinson says the provision of events and experiences is “certainly” a key part of the future of retail. While shoppers can order fashion online, they’re keen to get back to the high street “because they want to be with people, and they want to touch and feel products before they buy”.

While busy times of week look a little different due to the rise of hybrid and flexible working, visitor numbers at many of URW’s locations, including Westfield Stratford, are now either back to pre-lockdown levels or even higher.

The provision of services, experiences and events has been a key factor, Hodkinson says. But she believes the success has been enhanced by “elements of localism” – the showcasing of small local businesses, the platforming of local experts and the support of community-led charitable initiatives.

The Seam’s business model means it has a wealth of local stories to tell, from all parts of the UK. It has a decentralised base of repairspeople who often work part-time and from their own homes. Customers make a booking by telling The Seam about their item and their required services, which enables them to be digitally matched with an appropriate service provider based on their equipment and locality.

Repairing on a local basis reduces logistics costs, making services more sustainable. It also contributes to the local economy and adds a personal touch.

Another key storytelling consideration is language. The Seam’s website describes its network of workers as ‘Makers’ and refers to bookings made by customers as ‘Projects’. There’s a clear respect conveyed here for skill.

Videos on the site and the business’s social media channels shows the Makers at work, embroidering, stitching and polishing. This is clearly effective. One commentor wrote on Instagram on 19 May: “This is what modern-day magicians look like”. Another called the Makers at Westfield “talented ladies”.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Seam (


Meaningful partnerships

There have been countless sustainability-focused pop-ups and events hosted by retailers over the years. In some cases, they fizzle out. Trials are left as trials and business models remain mainly unchanged. This is a missed opportunity for innovation that is so desperately needed to align the fashion sector with planetary boundaries.

Asked for her opinion on how bigger businesses can most meaningfully support startups and scaleups, Sargeant says she would encourage them to embrace a spirit of “true partnership” that is less transactional and goes beyond one-off, short-term thinking.

Her business now has ongoing partnerships with the likes of Net-A-Porter, COS and L K Bennett. It has more than doubled the number of items worked on over the past six months, mainly due to the visibility enhancements of working with large brands.

Hodkinson agrees with Sargeant’s sentiment, adding: “The more we can do to give businesses this mindset that it’s a supportive and collaborative approach, not everything being profit-focussed from day one, then we’re on a winning streak.”

In her opinion, retail landlords can play their part by giving small businesses a platform at low-cost or no-cost. They can also help by ensuring that they get the right amount of exposure, positioning them so they do get noticed, but are not overwhelmed by requests from thousands of shoppers and dozens of big retailers a once.

They can also facilitate tenant learning. Not every larger business will know about potential partners for resale, repair, customisation, recycling or the redistribution of surplus stock.

URW is working with Good on You to help retailer tenants assess how well they are perfoming using 1,000 datapoints relating to environment and ethics. This is broken down from a company level, to individual stores and products. Stores could boost their scores by adding a resale or repair fixture.

“Many shoppers would be more likely to buy a pre-loved item of clothing if it could be purchased directly from a high-street retailer,” Hodkinson says, encouraging brands to take note of this “missed opportunity”.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie