Reflections on a year of Making for Change: Waltham Forest

The inside of the Making for Change: Waltham Forest exhibition
Image: Adam Razvi

As we look back on 2019, a year which saw Waltham Forest being the first London Borough of Culture, it seems a timely opportunity for me to reflect on what we have achieved throughout the year-long Making for Change: Waltham Forest project.

As a research fellow at Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), I’ve been exploring ways in which design activism can create counter-narratives towards sustainability in fashion. As part of my role, I also represent CSF within the Change Network, a committee established at London College of Fashion (LCF) as we plan the College’s move to Stratford in 2022.

I have always adopted a participatory design approach to all my projects, working across multiple stakeholders to activate social innovations; hence, when Laura Gander-Howe (Director of Public Engagement & Culture at LCF) offered for me to take on this project, I felt this was a great opportunity to make connections with organisations across East London. I thought this would have given us a chance to build relationships – instead of ‘parachuting’ into Stratford (where the new LCF Campus will be) in three years’ time without any relevance for, or engagement with, the local community. This project provided an interesting challenge to undertake fashion activism within local government, an opportunity to activate change from within the system. I then decided to adopt a ‘quiet’ form of activism, an embedded and situated approach to co-designing meaningful social innovations within the local community.

Furthermore, the themes in which Waltham Forest’s bid for the London Borough of Culture was grounded – makers, fellows and radicals – were in line with my own experiences and research interests. Straight away I felt this project was close to my heart, as I previously lived in Walthamstow; I was somehow immersed in the context and I could relate to its cultural heritage, whilst also being somehow an insider/outsider of the local community – a position which can be beneficiary when you want to activate change. Located in the heart of Walthamstow, the William Morris Gallery has long been a source of inspiration for me since I started studying design, and the issues of cultural sustainability have since then driven my work.

From proposal to live project

After an initial approval of my project proposal, I was awarded a small grant from the London Borough of Culture team to undertake a two-month residency from Waltham Forest Town Hall. This way, I could scope the project in consultation with many different departments – Culture, Education, Business Growth and Regeneration. After presenting my proposal at the Town Hall in January 2019 I was given the go ahead, alongside substantial funding, to undertake this project from March 2019 to January 2020.

I cannot quite believe how fast time has passed and that we have now reached the end of this project, including the ‘Making for Change: Waltham Forest’ showcase, a three-week-long exhibition of the projects’ outcomes. The showcase, supported by the Sheepdrove Trust, took place in a newly developed fashion hub, Arbeit Studios Leyton Green. Until recently, this was a derelict supermarket and now provides affordable workspace and support for local businesses, flexible gallery space and delivers shared services for the borough.

Comprising of three main areas – Education, Manufacturing and Community Engagement

Making for Change: Waltham Forest explored how fashion and making can lead to positive change and activate legacies within the local community. The project comprised of a range of activities, in relation to three main areas – education, manufacturing, and community engagement.

With the aim of ensuring a pipeline of skills training and acquisition, we have collaborated with three schools and further education institutions (Waltham Forest College, Belmont Park School and Buxton School) through five programmes: a Collaborative Unit on “Activating Change”, Fashion District’s Innovation Challenge themed around “A Store of the Future”, Fashion Futures 2030, Fashion Club and Fashion Unit. Through teaching in local schools (using resources developed by LCF staff members), we have contributed to embedding sustainability and future thinking into educating the youth.

Three LCF researchers have undertaken residencies in – micro, medium and large – fashion design and manufacturing businesses based in Waltham Forest (Cactus Leather, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, and Wagland Textiles) addressing issues of economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability. Through collaboration with such businesses, we have contributed to communicating their unique stories of craftsmanship and heritage, but also fostering sustainability and innovation. One residency aimed at raising awareness of heritage craft skills and preserving them by training other people, whilst also contributing further income to the business. Another researcher experimented with innovative laundry practices and laser-based finishing on jeans to reduce consumption of water and chemical emissions and developed four possible scenarios for a Smart Wash Lab in East London. The third researcher in residence developed different policy recommendations for sustainable manufacturing of fabrics, specifically recycled polyester.

We have also worked and engaged with the local community – especially young people and hard to reach groups – in a range of participatory making activities, using fashion as catalyst for social change. We have organised I WANNA BE ME, I WANNA BE (E)U, a series of six co-making workshops, Fashion Now/Fashion Futures 2030 exhibition, Forest Fashion Stories, Art for the Environment residency, Forest Coats, two Better Lives symposiums and we brought all the work together for our Making for Change: Waltham Forest showcase. Through participation in these activities, the local community has gained creative skills and enhanced their social agency.

Overall, the project has contributed to develop makers’ skills and career pathways, nurturing a culture of fellowship, and activating radical change locally.

Watch the ‘Making for Change: Waltham Forest’ films

Given the complexity of this project, we worked with Short Form to design and produce a film of the project to evidence what we have done and its impact. We have also produced a series of films, focused on the research residencies undertaken in different fashion manufacturing businesses.

The films give an overview of the contributions made by those involved in the project (over 1500 people), allowing you to make sense of the complexity of this project being undertaken across different departments at LCF and at the Council. The project activities were held across the borough throughout the year – in local schools, businesses, community centres and in a range of public spaces.

Cactus Leather

Blackhorse Lane Ateliers

Wagland Textiles

With thanks to…

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Sheepdrove Trust who have kindly sponsored my research post at CSF and the Making for Change: Waltham Forest showcase. My special thanks go to Waltham Forest Council, London Borough of Culture and Great Place: Creative Connections, a programme supported by Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. I hope there will be on-going support in the years to come, even beyond the timeframe of London Borough of Culture in order to sustain the legacies activated through this project. The aim of the Great Place scheme is to put arts, culture and heritage at the heart of the local community, and I hope that together we have achieved all of this. Beyond the funding, I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to work with a great number of people (especially Laura Gander-Howe and Mina Jugovic at LCF, as well as Pam Rene, Carolyn Roche, Sandra Sabunaite, Abigail Viner, Annette Russell, and Pawel Pietraszek at Waltham Forest Council) and activate partnerships and networks. They are grounded on shared values, strategic visions, supported by creative skills, and powered by continued engagement. It is thanks to these ingredients that we have been able to activate positive change.