Shifting Charges – provoking mindset change through jewellery
The fashion industry causes negative impacts on society in many ways. For example, the abuse of labour rights, compromising of the health of workers in a fast production system, non-inclusive fashion media, anxiety related to over-consumption, and a sort of ‘waste colonialism’. To counter these negative impacts, activist movements and designers are playing a role in challenging the modus operandi of the industry. An industry that depends on the constant creation of new products. Designers are instead creating clothing and accessories, that function as a vehicle for addressing social justice and activating positive change.
With this in mind, Dr Francesco Mazzarella, Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Design for Social Change at London College of Fashion (LCF), challenged LCF BA (Hons) Fashion Jewellery students to re-evaluate the relationship between fashion design and social change. The students were encouraged to engage with charged materials and found objects. As part of their ‘Identity, Innovation and Impact’ unit, Year 2 students were given the opportunity to challenge their perspectives and practice within one of three pathways. By responding to a provocation, each set by an active practitioner or researcher. Francesco’s provocation as part of the ‘Sustainable Practice’ pathway was set up alongside the ‘Performance’ brief by award-winning sportswear designer Saul Nash and the ‘Craft and Technology’ pathway by cutting-edge jewellery designer and academic Silvia Weidenbach.
The provocation set by Francesco was aligned with his current research and knowledge exchange project ReGo, meaning “rethink your ego, go again and again, on a continuous process of change, in society and in oneself”. As a starting point, the students were introduced to a set of systemic social, cultural, and economic conditions that have produced a contemporary form of youth violence. In project ReGo, metal from knives is transformed, through water jet and laser engraving, into a bespoke fashion collection co-created by young East Londoners and local brands. This way, knives – the very weapons that can take a life – are transformed into something that can support a life. The funds raised provide educational and employment opportunities for young people in fashion. ReGo nurtures technical skills related to fashion alongside more personal qualities, such as critical thinking and emotional wellbeing. Within this context, the students were asked to respond to the following key question:
“How can we use fashion activism to shift the meaning of charged materials and objects and catalyse positive social change?”
Using fashion activism and design as a catalyst for social change – the students were encouraged to reflect on the purpose of fashion in broader terms. Drawing on personal values and meanings, the students were asked to identify charged objects or materials to re-imagine, and research ways to create meaningful and powerful jewellery out of these objects.
The students’ responses
Sister Emerson developed ‘Rethinking Cotton’, a project aimed at “changing the perception of cotton production in America, which is tied to a history of slavery”. Sister created a jewellery collection that explores African-American identities by incorporating cotton into jewellery pieces that celebrate the aesthetic of black hair instead of “controlling” it. Sister involved an African-American friend from the Southern USA state she comes from, to understand the nuances and complexities of the history of cotton and black hair. Building on research of cotton-picking tools, made of wood and metal, Sister used cotton scraps from the LCF Mare Street campus.
Maria Nour Abi Saab created ‘Rising Above’, a project dedicated to the resilience of the Lebanese people. She focussed on the widely covered explosion which happened in August 2020 at the Beirut Harbour. In the accident, that resulted in the deaths of 218 people, 7,000 tons of glass were shattered throughout the city. Taking inspiration from elements of local architecture, the jewellery was made of “recycled glass held together with brass wire to symbolise the broken homes of the Lebanese people trying to hold their lives together after the explosion”. Maria used gold leaf, reflecting on local crafts techniques and to further elevate the material.
Sydney Kendall developed ‘Gangsta Granny’, a project aimed at “giving a new life to old pieces (including a large costume jewellery collection) received from her grandmother and forming a new attitude for older women”. Sydney used old jewellery and scrap fabrics to reduce material waste and promote sustainable practice. In the end, Sydney designed a brooch on which the word ‘futuere’ (from Latin, “fuck off”) was embroidered and a glove made of lace, on which repurposed acrylic gemstones were set.
Qianfeng Ji’s ‘No More Use of Natural Diamonds’ was a project sparked by her experience in primary school, when she saw an image of diamond mining pits in a geography book. According to Qianfeng, “the mining pits seemed like huge scars on the ground.” She examined perceptions around diamonds and marketing techniques used in the industry. The pieces function as statements to challenge the consumption of natural diamonds and ask whether it is worth mining at the expense of the environment.
In responding to this provocation, the students showed a sense of excitement in interacting with industry professionals. By taking on a positive challenge, they were curious and broadened their mindset – questioning the status quo and rethinking material choices. The students engaged in research to inform their creative response to the provocation.
A recurring theme across the students’ projects was a dynamic engagement and dialogue with materials and objects, in order to shift their meaning. The first workshop on ‘Art of Perception’ led by Robin Lockhart, Director of Development at Catalyst in Communities, inspired the students to shift their perceptions and re-value materials.
“The innovation in the ‘Sustainable Practice’ pathway was set to allow the students to explore the potential of sustainability in the context of fashion jewellery, considering materials and manufacturing processes. As a course, we encourage students to being resourceful in utilising the potential of materials and objects” – Mala Siamptani, Lecturer BA (Hons) Fashion Jewellery at LCF
Sydney’s project was a great example of the mindset of resourcefulness developed through the course. The student used heirloom costume jewellery gifted by her grandmother and developed a process where she repurposed and reused the gemstones of these objects in an unconventional stone setting manner. This project contributed to the student’s shift in her approach to sustainability.
“My original narrow-minded view of sustainability was that you must create something new and eco-friendly, rather than embracing a different idea of what we can observe as sustainable” – Sydney Kendall, student of BA (Hons) Fashion Jewellery
Longevity and the provenance of materials were investigated by Qianfeng, who examined the diamond mining industry and the damage this is causing to the environment as well as the workers.
“Ultimately, shifting an existing charge means innovating through re-evaluating what is already there, rather than trying to innovate by creating more. Reusing material and creating preciousness through how something is treated is a tradition in jewellery. We have been reworking precious metals for centuries” – Husam El Odeh, Co-course Leader and Lecturer in BA (Hons) Fashion Jewellery at LCF
All the students’ projects demonstrate the role design can play as a catalyst for positive social change. They evidence the power of making to heal trauma, and how craft can be used to mend, not only things, but also social issues. Such a new role for the designer highlights the need to develop new skillsets and mindsets, including empathy and resourcefulness, resilience, activism, and social responsibility. Finally, working with the students contributed to expanding Francesco’s own practice research:
“The responses to my provocation illustrate a range of formats in which fashion activism can manifest itself. The students have developed new mindsets, skillsets, and experimented with original making processes, that amplify the impact and reach of my practice research. Overall, these designs act as prototypes of positive social change, which are scalable and offer further opportunities for knowledge exchange” – Dr Francesco Mazzarella, Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Design for Social Change at LCF
As the provocation was set just before the students start their final year, there are opportunities to build on their understanding and insights for use in their Major Project collections. Perhaps they could also engage in co-creation processes to turn them into meaningful social innovations.
As project ReGo continues, there is potential to showcase the student projects and outcomes in future exhibitions. The aim would be to raise awareness of how jewellery can provoke a mindset shift, and amplify the impacts of such micro-sites of activism.
We look forward to building on this successful collaboration between the BA (Hons) Fashion Jewellery course at LCF with researchers from Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Following Professor Helen Storey’s ‘Design with Humanity’ living curriculum and Dr Francesco Mazzarella’s provocation, collectively we are already exploring new student project briefs. A new brief will encourage future students to engage in a process of co-designing for cultural sustainability, working with refugee communities as a way to decolonise fashion.