Safe spaces for making communities

Safe spaces for making communities

Safe spaces for making communities
‘Decolonising Fashion and Textiles’ project participants wearing their creations. Photo by JC Candanedo.

Over the course of the Decolonising Fashion and Textiles project (DFT), we became acutely aware of the shortage of not only safe spaces for refugees and asylum seekers but also of spaces of belonging and interaction with others whom they might never come into direct contact with. We reflected on the parallel lives that diverse communities in the UK live alongside one another, where some interactions that could shift perspectives and create changes in perception never happen. Through our intensive workshop programme and a student project brief we facilitated at LCF, we learnt that participants as well as members of the public have few opportunities to interact with one another. 

“Interaction and experience with ‘others’ are the foremost precursors of change, creating shifts in perception.”

Back in the Summer of 2023, we facilitated external activities for project participants with refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds – to broaden networks and capacities and build further connections. This started with a public action we delivered in Parliament Square in London in partnership with Citizens UK and Together with Refugees, advocating for the protection of children’s ‘Freedom to Play’. At this event, our project participants showed and held up the banners they had created in the workshops collectively. Three participants spoke publicly – sharing their collective manifestos for a compassionate future, while demonstrating their self-confidence, sense of agency and hope.

group of school children and refugee parfticipants holding signs outside parliment
Public action ‘Freedom to Play’ in Parliament Square. Photo by Michela Ajani.

Next was a private guided tour of the Fashion Collection at the V&A with curator Jessica Harpley, who inspired the project participants with the vast collection of historical garments, jewellery, and accessories from all over the world. The tour also provoked interesting debates around decolonising fashion and cultural sustainability. Some participants shared with us that they were not aware that the V&A or other London museums and large galleries were open to the public and had free entry. They have now discovered new cultural organisations they can start to connect with as they rebuild their lives in London.  

A day-long workshop of design and making was organised with the Art Workers Guild (AWG) through the guild’s outreach committee. The AWG is a charitable organisation that comprises of over 400 designers, makers, artists, and architects who excel in their fields. This workshop provided an opportunity to have diverse conversations and mutual learning in spaces which would not normally be accessible to participants. It included craft demonstrations by guild members and a chance to try a craft for the rest of the day. The success of this can be underlined by how engaged the participants became, asking for more similar interactions. It also changed perspectives of the demonstrators who might have had preconceived ideas of participants who are labelled ‘refugees’, instead finding them so ‘engaged, enthusiastic and eager to learn’.  

people working with jewellery design at a crafts table
Participants working on wax modelling for jewellery design with an AWG member. Photo by Dr Francesco Mazzarella.

In Autumn 2023 we started to deliver a series of seven weekly workshops, where 22 participants were encouraged to draw from their cultural heritage, personal identity, and future vision to design and make a bespoke fashion item. The products created by the project participants (e.g. dresses, t-shirts, trousers, skirts, vests, coats, bags, shoes, jewellery) manifest life journeys flowing in threads exchanged, calling for social justice. They evoke feelings of loneliness, uncertainty, and hope, and express the shifting identities of refugees while rebuilding their lives in a new place. 

“Fashion in this project is about finding yourself, learning new skills, bringing together people from different cultures”.

– Dr Francesco Mazzarella

close up of a person working with fabric
Project participant at a making workshop at the FELDY Centre. Photo by JC Candanedo.

To culminate the workshop series, we hosted a celebratory event at the new LCF campus in East Bank as part of the cultural programme of the Designed for Life exhibition. The event was an opportunity to celebrate the sense of community, creativity and pride of the amazing people collaborating in the project. We also delivered a fashion show with the project participants wearing their creations and walking down the stunning staircase at LCF. What we can loosely define as a ‘fashion collection’ created through our workshop series is a statement of resilience and empowerment, a quest for democracy, a manifestation of a vision for a freer and fairer society – where people can express themselves without fear or judgment, and reclaim their agency and identity through fashion.

person standing on a staircase, showcasing an embroidered jacket
Project participant wearing his jacket ‘Emerging Identities’ at LCF. Photo by Mehrdad Pakniyat.

“In this project, I customised my own jacket, which I have been holding for a long time. When I arrived in the UK, it was Autumn, the trees started to take off their leaves. I used the sycamore leaf as a symbolic start of my asylum claim journey. I represented two faces evoking feelings of uncertainty and loneliness. I drew the prophet Mohamed’s Mosque which represents my identity as a Muslim. Besides this, I drew European houses. The green plants are rooted in both buildings; they show that a new chapter has been opened in my life”. 

 Project Participant 

Such activism interventions, dialogues around cultural sustainability, cross-cultural exchange and craft skills building, as well as access to safe spaces where participants might find a sense of belonging and develop creative ideas, are exactly the kind of things that the Decolonising Fashion and Textiles project hopes to accomplish.

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