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KE Voices: Francesco Mazzarella on how fashion activism can spark positive social change
Dr Francesco Mazzarella is Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Design for Social Change at London College of Fashion. Blending his expertise in practice research and his passion for collaborative projects, Francesco has led on numerous knowledge exchange initiatives working alongside communities, charities, local councils and fashion SMEs.
In this interview, Francesco shares an insight into his academic and professional journey – spanning the fields of fashion and textile artisanship, sustainability, social innovation and service design – and tells us about how he uses fashion activism to bring positive change into local communities.
Hi Francesco! Can you tell us a bit about your academic and professional journey so far?
Even though my work is very much related to fashion, I must admit that I didn’t study fashion! I did a BSc in Industrial Design and an MSc in Ecodesign, both at Politecnico di Torino in Italy. I also attended University of Twente in The Netherlands and Minas Gerais State University in Brazil as an exchange student.
After working for a bit in product and graphic design, I realised I missed the long-term thinking of academia, so I successfully applied for a PhD at Loughborough University, funded by the AHRC Design Star Centre for Doctoral Training, and moved to the UK in 2014. For my doctoral project, I explored how service design can be used to activate textile artisan communities to transition towards a sustainable future. The PhD provided me with invaluable research experience, and just before I submitted my thesis, I started a position as AHRC Design Leadership Fellow Research Associate at ImaginationLancaster, working to support ‘design research for change’.
I joined London College of Fashion in 2018 as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at UAL’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, initially working on the Making for Change: Waltham Forest project. Last year, I started my current position as Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Design for Social Change, teaching in a number of courses across LCF, especially the MA Fashion Futures.
As you know, Knowledge Exchange is the term we use in Higher Education to describe how universities collaborate with external partners. But what does KE mean to you?
For me, it’s a reciprocal process of making and learning. Working with partners, KE allows us to generate and apply original knowledge, making a direct impact on the communities with whom we collaborate.
In my work, I use fashion activism and making to co-create responses to issues experienced by local communities, such as youth violence, the refugee crisis, skills shortage and unemployment. To tackle these issues, I work within multidisciplinary teams and collaborate with a wide range of partners, mostly local community members, charities and social enterprises, local government and fashion SMEs.
In these projects, I adopt what I call a ‘middle-up-down’ approach — bridging bottom-up initiatives activated by communities with top-down services and strategies delivered by supporting organisations. My role often entails creating the conditions for co-creation processes to happen, in ways that all those involved benefit; as a result, we all undertake a process of change, in ourselves and in the communities we work with.
You mentioned you’ve worked and studied in many different countries. Do you think being exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking have shaped the way you approach your work with communities?
Absolutely! I'm originally from Sicily and my Italian roots are very much alive in my professional and academic life. For instance, most of my work is about making, cultural heritage and crafts, which I think is part of my Italian DNA.
Studying in the Netherlands taught me a more holistic approach to design, and in Brazil I learned a lot about material culture, design for social innovation and working with disadvantaged communities. During my PhD, I did part of my field work in Cape Town, where I embraced the concept of Ubuntu – the philosophy of oneness and the interconnectedness of all living creatures – which has shaped my community-centred approach to design.
I believe all these experiences, being immersed in many different cultures, have really shaped me and are key to how I approach my work with people and communities.
As a researcher, what motivated you be involved in collaborative initiatives at UAL?
In my work, the lines between research and knowledge exchange are often blurred, and I also use my projects to inform my teaching practice. In fact, I believe that in the synergy of knowledge exchange, research and teaching lie the best opportunities for meaningful and relevant work.
I think that what attracts me to be involved in KE initiatives is my willingness to produce knowledge that is directly applied and beneficial to the communities I work with. Some people may think that researchers work in ivory towers, detached from the real world, but in my projects I undertake participatory action research, being directly immersed in communities.
I do believe that knowledge exchange and research need to go hand in hand in order to produce both short-term actions and long-term strategies to catalyse the systems change that we need, especially in relation to the environmental and social crises that we are facing.
In your experience, in which ways are KE projects beneficial for those involved?
I believe that KE projects are successful when they create benefits for all the parties involved, and this is possible when there is an alignment of values and a shared vision.
KE projects allow academics to put their research into practice, widen their networks, advance their teaching, research, or practice, develop new outputs and further the discipline in which they work.
Industry partners can get access to cutting-edge research, and the next generation of design professionals, in order to develop holistic responses to some of the most complex challenges that we currently face.
Participating in such projects, students can develop new skills, gain real-world experience, build collaborations with a range of organisations, and produce concreate outputs that will turn invaluable for their CVs, portfolios and future careers.
Can you tell us about one KE project you feel particularly proud about?
Amongst the many projects I have been working on, one that is particularly meaningful to me is ReGo, a knowledge exchange project I have been delivering in partnership with Catalyst in Communities and funded by Foundation for Future London.
Through project ReGo, we leverage the power of fashion activism to shift the prevailing narrative around young violence. We deliver group coaching and fashion training sessions, coordinate industry collaborations and so much more.
By learning new skills in fashion design, media and entrepreneurship, 30 young participants in the project have strengthened their voice and gained agency – and hopefully being part of this initiative will have a long-lasting impact on their lives.
Some of them have collaborated with local fashion brands to co-create a bespoke fashion collection using metal items waterjet cut from knife blades. These products are now available for rent via the LOANHOOD platform, which will contribute to supporting on-going educational and employment opportunities for young people in fashion.
Now that we’ve celebrated the first phase of the project, I will continue to collaborate with Catalyst in Communities for ReGo 2.0, which will run from September 2022 to August 2023. In this iteration of the project, we want to register ReGo as a social enterprise, employing young people from Newham, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets as the core team. They will also receive training to deliver workshops in local schools and community centres, which will help us raise awareness of the project and amplify its impact.
Apart from ReGo 2.0, do you have any other exciting projects in the horizon?
For the next 2 years, through the Decolonising Fashion and Textiles project, I will engage refugees based in East London to understand what their heritage and experiences can tell us in terms of cultural sustainability, community resilience and social entrepreneurship. With the mass displacement of people on the rise, we need to rethink and address the needs and aspirations of refugee minority communities and find ways to honour their diverse cultures.
Within this context, my research and KE initiatives intend 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. My ambition is to develop a framework for decolonised design practice by advancing a cultural sustainability agenda within a fashion and textile industry context.