The word "hacking" still makes me think of computer geeks sitting in windowless rooms with junk food and soda all over the tables, moms calling down to see if they want any milk and cookies, and periodic breaks to play in virtual realities with strangers who go by names like DarkDante or ninja69.

Or some more famous gents who started out as computer hackers and then became legit life hackers

Or some more famous gents who started out as computer hackers and then became legit life hackers

But if I put away the image that Hollywood put in my mind, I think about is as the business of getting into places you're not supposed to be or access to information you're not supposed to have. There is a sense of martyrdom in the term, a crusade for the greater good and the belief in open data and idealism. A damn the man kind of attitude that means disruption and chaos in a way that things could never go back to the way they were once that system had been hacked. 

So when hacking started to be applied to life in general, it had a double effect of a) making it feel less criminal but also less noble, and b) becoming a meme that devalues real innovation and disruption.

Case and point: When hiking in Crête last summer, I was inappropriately wearing really cheap flip flops (never intended to go further than the shower at the gym) which, of course, broke. Ingeniously I found some bobby pins in my bag, and created a lock to keep the toe hold from popping back through the sole making the things totally useless and leaving the soles of my feet naked against the sharp salt-bitten rock surface. I made it all the way back to the boat. Later I saw the flip-flop fix (different to mine but similar) on a list of 'the 50 (or so) best life-hacks'. Really? 

In the fashion sphere, and more recently in the fashion/tech sphere, this word has been coming up all over the place meaning many different things. They're called Fashion hacks. But so far it seems they fall closer to the bobby-pin-flip-flop-save than the change-the-way-we-do-things-forever kind of visionary hack.

Let's take a look at what we have so far:

You have the mini-fashion-emergency hacks, such as these on WhoWhatWear. And the since 2010 defunct (but still in the top ten of my google results for 'fashion hack') Guardian DIY fashion hacks, all of which are, factually, terribly unfashionable. There is literally a suggestion to bedazzle your perfectly good black sweater. 

How to update your trench every spring instead of buying a new one. Not fashion.

How to update your trench every spring instead of buying a new one. Not fashion.

You have fashion hackathons, like this Hearst Fashion Hack, which is a platform for pitching an app that has something to do with clothing or accessories. 

This runway show organized by the Paris branch of Freespace that was meant to hack fashion week. But what does that really mean? (After waiting for almost an hour for the show to start, this attendee left for another engagement- waiting an hour for a show to begin feels very much like fashion week un-hacked). We need to depart entirely from the existing model to call it a hack, and to make positive change.

And you have Fashion/Tech conferences embedded with hackathons, such as Decoded Fashion, which so far has been the most successful at bringing together some leaders in the disruption of the fashion industry as we know it. 

This site, Hacking Couture, puts it well, although their high volume content waned off after 2006. Still, I like their definition of what they do:

If Fashion Codes are the DNA of a brand, then Hacking Couture is the process that allows people to deconstruct something that is mass-produced into something hand-made and self-expressed. The idea is not new – its’ what open source code revolution is all about.
Starting in the 1990s, open source code software allowed users to exchange ideas and dialogs through free documentation and distribution. Not only did this create an open dialog between programmers, but it helped decode the nature of software as people shared how they hacked.  This opened a new world of communications and inspired the core of Hacking Couture.
This is how they mathematically break down the code of a designer. Love this.

This is how they mathematically break down the code of a designer. Love this.

So if we're talking about reconfiguring, reprograming, breaking down, breaking in and redesigning fashion, then what are we really doing? In all of the reading and the conversations and my own efforts to approach things in some way other than what I knew, looking for the back door, there is still so much troubleshooting and so much unknown. We're computers running an algorithm without knowing what we're looking for.

There are some real disruptors out there. It's just that, unlike in the tech world, they don't identify themselves as such. So maybe we should just be wary of the self-ascribed hacker in fashion. That's not the only dissimilarity between computer hackers and fashion hackers. Prison time, for example. And we don't need to lean too heavily on the integration of technology to make change. Computers aren't the only tool for revolution although they do help us achieve it at a great scale.

It is always tempting to wonder about what the future is going to look like and wish your way towards it without going through the experimentation that will get us there. But some group has to do the work, make the mistakes, and make the breakthroughs. It's more than changing the belt on your trench to feel like you have something new, it's getting away from the constant need for something new. 

Hacking is about turning industry upside down, and bringing transparency and empowering the people. Maybe no one needs to end up in prison to achieve true fashion hacker status, but let's not throw the term around nonetheless. Let's de-meme-ify it and give it back to those fashion hackers who really live up to the words origins and originators.


On the blog here I'll be sharing short lists of those who make the ranks for real in fashion today. Make sure you check back for that. Or better yet, sign up for the Fashion Hacker Shortlist alerts below.