Dezeen Magazine

Design Museum Alternative Systems

"Genuine inclusivity in design is not a fantasy and need not be tokenistic"

The work of fashion designer Bethany Williams, which is currently exhibited at the Design Museum, demonstrates that inclusivity is achievable, writes Priya Khanchandani.

Including a person of colour in a panel discussion or representing the work of a token designer from an unrepresented background isn't enough to diversify design. Inclusivity is about giving a voice to a broad range of people through infrastructures, ways of work, consumers and products that reflect the cultural composition of the society in which we exist.

The solutions need imagination. They need to be tailor-made and there isn't always a quick fix or little black book. They should not have to be created by the (free) labour of people from excluded groups, but rather generate opportunities for marginalised voices to feel valued.

Inclusivity needs to be at the heart of modes of creativity and systems of production that benefit marginalised communities

The trailblazing designer Bethany Williams, whose work I recently curated a display about at the Design Museum, uses systems of work that show how genuine inclusivity in design is not a fantasy and need not be tokenistic.

Her work is best known for addressing environmental concerns, through drawing on waste materials ranging from tent scraps to newspaper to create new garments, but her collaborations with communities are also incredibly impressive and demonstrate the myriad of ways in which design could be more inclusive.

Inclusivity needs to be at the heart of modes of creativity and systems of production that benefit to marginalised communities. Each of the Williams' collections are formed in collaboration with a community, and the collaboration is multi-layered – extending to the design process, production and involving a small percentage of the profits each season being donated to the cause at hand.

Although proven to be successful now, early in her career her ideas were perceived to be too radical. "You know, I remember saying at university that I wanted to create this system," she says, "and someone in my class actually laughed."

The San Patrignano drug and alcohol dependency rehabilitation programme in central Italy, with whom Williams chose to work on her S/S 2018 collection, includes an educational strand with an emphasis on craft.

The collaboration gave a voice to the members of the San Patrignano community in a tangible way

Participants in the weaving workshop at San Patrignano wove fabrics commissioned by Williams by interlacing industrial waste materials like paper, plastic wire and textile fibres and even leftover Attenzione tape used in the workshop itself. These were formed the basis for garments for the collection using Williams' own patterns.

The collaboration gave a voice to the members of the San Patrignano community in a tangible way, and this did not stop at the production stage. A sports jacket and trousers designed by Williams are screen printed with beautiful words from handwritten notes exchanged by the women at HMP Downview prison in London and the woman at San Patrignano.

One of the poignant lines reads: Change is learning how to free ourselves from the cages we create. The collaboration extends to the promotion of the collection, which is an important part of the identity of any brand in a social media age. Members of the weaving workshop appear in a series of compelling images by photographer Amber Grace Dixon within the setting of the rehabilitation centre, turning the community into the protagonist, and giving voice to rather than glossing over the machinations involved in the production of the collection. Such work diminishes the notion of a singular and omniscient "design brand" with contributors obscured under its umbrella.

Williams' autumn/winter 2019 collection "Adelaide House" is named after a women's shelter in Liverpool, which provides a safe place for women leaving prison who face challenges such as domestic abuse and homelessness. The collection draws inspiration from the city both through its graphics and materials, and involved a collaboration with illustrator Giorgia Chiarion, whose paintings of Liverpool's docks and skylines are the basis for screen-printed patterns.

The off-white denim jacket from the Adelaide House collection features the characters and words of the residents of the center, as drawn by Chiarion and based on stories told by them. Incorporating their stories onto the garments is an empowering (and visually poetic) way of giving a voice to communities who are otherwise often marginalised from the fashion industry or design processes.

Three of the studio's collections have been designed in collaboration with The Magpie Project, a centre based in Newham, east London, which does invaluable work to support and advise mothers and children living in insecure housing without recourse to welfare.

As part of their collaboration, Williams and her team volunteered at the charity, unafraid to get under the skin of its work, leading to a breadth of projects giving voice to diverse perspectives which bring the stories of the families to life. Once again, workshops played an important role in the design process with the Magpie community.

It's not surprising that inclusivity breeds creativity

The artwork that appears in three of Williams' collections are based on folklore stories shared by the mothers and children in creative sessions held with the illustrator Melissa Kity Jarram. The streetwear style of the cuts is fused with handmade modes of production and design rooted in human values, I see it as a joyous example of design that is socially produced as well as being kinder to the planet.

I titled the display of this work at the Design Museum Alternative Systems because it shows the immense potential for the design industry – fashion and beyond – to confront social as well as environmental concerns through more ethical and inclusive way of working. It also celebrates the innovative approaches that Williams' contemporaries were sceptical about. The display outlines her studio's approach, examines her creative process and celebrates the work of the communities that her work brings into the design process.

You will see that the amazing colours, forms and imagination can only be enhanced by the multiplicity of experience that they represent. The results are eye-opening. And it's not surprising that inclusivity breeds creativity. After all, it is what gives our society depth and meaning, and is what is real. And it is a blueprint for the future of design.

The main image is by Felix Speller of Design Museum Alternative Systems at the Design Museum.

Priya Khanchandani is the head of curatorial at the Design Museum in London and the former editor of Icon magazine. After degrees from Cambridge University and the Royal College of Art, she worked at London's Victoria and Albert Museum and at the British Council. She had an earlier career as a lawyer and is a trustee of the Hepworth Wakefield.