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  • Megan St Clair Morgan

Community Couture – clothes made to carry stories, between us, through places and time

Awarded a Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Student Design Award in the ‘For the long time’ category earlier this year, Community Couture is a project that combines bespoke slow fashion principles with traditions of storytelling through textiles. The brainchild of Centre for Sustainable Fashion’s Knowledge Exchange Administrator and MA Fashion Futures Alumna, Aniela Fidler-Wieruszewska – Community Couture is an attempt to bring multiple perspectives together, with garments serving as a source of individual stories, collective experiences, shared goals, history and hopes for the future. Clothes made to carry stories, between us, through places and time.

The project was launched by Aniela during the Coronavirus pandemic, with a question to her community of “How does the world look or feel to you right now?” – which led to the production of the first outcome, a bold, colour-filled jacket which took over 600 hours to create. The visual design for the jacket is a unique tapestry, representing the 37 community responses. The handcrafted jacket is made of discarded fabric sourced from a t-shirt factory, that has been painstakingly applied to a pattern to avoid fabric waste. The garment, now available to rent, serves as a visual, collaborative legacy of those who contributed and the stories they wanted to preserve for future generations.

As Aniela prepares for the second installment of the project as part of Dutch Design Week, collecting responses for the next garment – we caught up on her recent win, the approach of Community Couture and what’s to come.

Community Couture’s approach to fashion centers on the concept of slowness, both in the making and the experiential aspects of loaning the piece – how did this come about and what does it represent for you?

For me, every piece of clothing provides a unique opportunity to engage with the world and form relationships. And this applies to both fast and slow fashion as all clothes can be used to communicate and connect. Still, there are different levels of intimacy that we can achieve through and with what we wear. Fast fashion clothes are famously oriented towards obsolescence. Even if they can help us create relationships in the moment (looking attractive at a party, feeling representative at work, etc.), they can only do as much before falling apart or becoming un-trendy. Fast fashion also rarely affirms relationships existing in the production processes and resources required to make clothing. It is a very dissociative system relying on continuous disconnection with objects, how they come into existence and their consequences. In contrast, I'm interested in how clothes can be designed to improve and represent connection over a long period. Hence, my response to the RSA 'For the long time' brief.

Given the timing, the weaving together of community stories with a focus on ‘how the world look/feels now’ feels poignant – how did you decide upon this question?

The question came about naturally from my need to be close with others and learn about different experiences during the pandemic. I never intended this project to be about happiness. I use bold colours to bring attention to the stories and emphasize their importance, without expecting them to be only be about joy, especially in a climate emergency. The vivid character of the garment reads positively because I see a lot of positive value in people coming together. Still, it's not a utopian perspective, and I don't want to run away from the complex reality. I want to use clothes as a platform for conversation. I imagine that a garment can highlight a wider community experience or debate rather than a single slogan or one narrative.

What was the response of those whose stories feature on the jacket?

Responses have been both curious and supportive! I think Community Couture gives people an occasion to reflect upon their stories and see themselves as a part of something larger, with the jacket becoming a representation of community and belonging. They enjoy being part of it, learning about others and having their story included. I received many messages asking to add someone's story to the next piece and enquiring about loaning the jacket.

Community Couture is built on a rental model, so every rental sustains the idea, carries the message and is an ultimate win. The jacket is booked out till the end of November, but you can still add yourself to the wait-list by messaging @Loanhood or @Community_Couture or on Instagram! The rental is great because it amplifies the sharing message, which is essential to this project and me personally.

Metaphorically, it enables you to wear someone else's stories without owning them. Hopefully, it supports the culture of empathy and learning. And simply, people get to chat with each other during the exchange! I think Community Couture does something important and I'm powered by all the kind words it received.

How does it feel to be recognised by the Royal Society of Arts?

It definitely feels good, receiving the award is super validating – as it is tangible proof that Community Couture resonates with others and can have a more significant impact. Being recognised by the RSA gives me a massive confidence boost and increases the chances of finding other support needed to develop the idea further. I'm very excited about possibilities coming from the RSA Fellowship and I'm honored to be a part of this community. But ultimately, many aspects of this project hold equal importance. It's a massive compliment to have the trust to catalyse the stories of others.

So, what’s next?

The jacket is up for temporary rental via Loanhood. As part of Dutch Design Week, this October I will be collecting stories for a new garment – this time the question will be aligned with the sub-theme of the festival 'What matters?'. The production and design process will be more hands-on for contributors. Festival visitors will be asked to respond to this question and cut out fabric shapes that symbolise their answer. Then we will make a garment from their submissions. It will be a completely new workshop format, and I'm looking forward to discussing and improving the project with others. If this is successful, it will open a whole new range of promising possibilities!


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