Skip to main content

Your creative future starts here:


Decolonising fashion and textiles: new research into design for cultural sustainability with refugee communities

A colourful graphic with illustrations overlaid by a purpley-blue colour
  • Written byMegan St Clair Morgan
  • Published date 24 May 2022
A colourful graphic with illustrations overlaid by a purpley-blue colour
Traces: Stories of Migration, by Lucy Orta

Centre for Sustainable Fashion based at London College of Fashion, UAL has been awarded a £250,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to fund a new research project, Decolonising Fashion and Textiles - Design for Cultural Sustainability with Refugee Communities.

The research will be led by Dr. Francesco Mazzarella, Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Design for Social Change, as Principal Investigator (PI) and Professor Lucy Orta Professor and Chair of Art & the Environment, as Co-Investigator (Co-I). Work on this project will start in September 2022 and will run for two years working with eight project partners – V&A, UNHCR, Bow Arts, Arbeit Project Ltd, Poplar HARCA and the London Boroughs of Newham, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets.

This project aims to develop a framework for decolonised design practice by advancing a cultural sustainability agenda within a fashion and textile industry context. To achieve this aim, the research team will work together with refugee communities based in East London to scope the research in relation to their reality and lived experience of resilience and inform a process of reciprocal learning and making.

Oral histories will be collected in relation to the communities’ cultural heritage and used to collectively outline visions for a sustainable future. Fashion and textile artefacts grounded in the cultural heritage of the participating communities will be co-created, as well as social enterprise models intended to enhance the resilience of refugees. Recommendations for policy for sustainable regeneration will also be outlined, with a focus on refugee communities in the UK. Finally, dissemination activities will be conducted to amplify the impacts of the project.

The novel perspective this research advocates moves beyond the three commonly recognised pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic, and social – to also consider a cultural dimension, meaning cultural heritage, diverse cultural systems, values, behaviours, and norms. The project will adopt a holistic approach to design for sustainability, focusing on textile and fashion artisanal practices carried out by local refugee communities who, despite their transiency, retain their culture, customs, faiths, and invaluable craft heritage skills.

Until now, the textile heritage of minorities has often been the object of abusive cultural appropriation practices undertaken by fashion brands or has been systematically obscured or undervalued as ‘non-fashion’ produced by ‘the other’.

Within this context, the research intends to challenge dominant practices of designers being ‘parachuted’ into marginalised or disadvantaged communities with the assumption that they can bring their own knowledge and expertise to solve their problems. Hence, ‘Decolonised Fashion and Textiles’ will address the need to liberate design from its legacies of colonial thought, whilst leveraging and valuing refugee communities’ contribution to cultural sustainability, community resilience, and social entrepreneurship

With the mass displacement of people on the rise, it is clear that we need to rethink and address the needs and aspirations of refugee minority communities and find ways to honour their diverse cultures. I am infinitely grateful to the AHRC for valuing my research proposal and awarding such a prestigious grant to an Early Career Researcher like me. This will enable me to work collaboratively with refugee communities and a wide range of partner organisations in order to rebalance power dynamics in design research and practice, widen the fashion system, and foster cultural sustainability, community resilience and social entrepreneurship – all urgently needed in a time of climate emergency and in the fact of our collective uncertain future.

— Dr Francesco Mazzarella, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, UAL; Principal Investigator