Co-designing and collaborating with young people for Africa Fashion

June 23, 2022

This post was written with Lenny Cherry

Co-design is a participatory approach to developing projects, where a target audience recognised for having a significant stake in the content is invited to collaborate in the development process. Although research questions are used as a starting point, co-design differs to the traditional focus group approach of testing ideas. It is an iterative and responsive process, a conversation where knowledge flows both ways. 

Co-design Group members in the Textiles Conservation Studio, talking to a Conservator. There is a mannequin in front of them
Co-design Group members in the Textiles Conservation Studio. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This blog post provides a snapshot of how different groups have been involved in developing the Africa Fashion exhibition and looks at a framework used by the Young People’s team, aiming to raise the youth voice within the museum’s programme. As an iterative process, we have continued to learn alongside the young people involved in the project. Once the formal involvement of the group is completed and the exhibition has ended, we will begin a process of evaluation and research to ensure that the learnings are brought forward into future projects. When inviting young people to join the Africa Fashion Co-design Group, we were clear that there was no expectation that participants would answer all our questions, draw concrete conclusions or produce a tangible output. Rather, co-design places value on all conversations, no matter where they take us. Success in co-design is measured by all members of the group finding meaning and purpose through discussion, reflection and exploration. We use the process to make space for young people to contribute to the development of museum experiences and in doing so, hope to demystify the museum sector and provide skills and development opportunities. Throughout the process, the group gained insight into museum careers through a range of speakers from across the V&A and beyond, meeting with members of the Interpretation, Learning, Contemporary Programmes, Festivals, V&A Academy and Curatorial teams. 

A co-design group member holds an Africa Fashion exhibition mannequin head. She is smiling
Co-design Group members. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I feel everyone’s opinions in the group were acknowledged and appreciated and there was never a point where I thought I couldn’t say something.

Africa Fashion Co-design Group member

Representing the V&A’s first youth-focused co-design project for an exhibition, our group was made up of fourteen 16 to 24-year-olds with varying connections to Africa and fashion, who all identified as African or of the African diaspora. The group included young people working, studying, and running businesses within fashion, law, tailoring and graphic design, interior design, and TV. Recognising the co-design project as a partnership, we acknowledged the participants as our professional collaborators and paid them for their time. Through this project and the creation of opportunities for experiential learning and mentoring, we have worked towards our aim for the exhibition to provide an entryway into the museum world for young diasporic creatives. 

This co-design group project was realised by colleagues in the V&A Learning department in collaboration with Interpretation and Curatorial teams. The Young People’s team within Learning brought to the project their expertise of running programmes that aim to open up the museum, our collections and the creative industries to young audiences, whilst embedding skills development opportunities. In conversation with the group, the Young People’s team identified four key skills to develop through the process: teamwork, project management, presentation skills and ideas generation. Meanwhile, Interpretation and Curatorial defined key research areas to explore throughout the sessions, while being mindful not to set too many restrictive parameters on the open-ended and organic co-design process. 

Co-design members looking up, inside a large wooden dome
Co-design Group members exploring the museum. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The project was divided into two phases – the first focusing on the exhibition content, and the second on the events programme. As a starting point, we hoped the Co-design Group would allow us to check ourselves for any gaps in our knowledge of contemporary trends and popular youth culture by inviting them to share what they found interesting and allowing them to guide conversations. Through these conversations we hoped to garner young African and diasporic perspectives on African fashions – both as they already understood and knew them, and as they learned more about them. This led us to develop three core research questions which would help frame the sessions: 

  • What role does fashion play in the group’s own self-expression and identity? 
  • How do African fashions on the continent specifically speak to the group? 
  • How do the group engage with fashion digitally and online – both in general and more specifically in relation to the African fashion scene? 
Group of young people sitting around a table, speaking to members of V&A staff involved in the co-design group
Co-design Group members. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Part one of the project took place from April 2021, at a time when the Africa Fashion interpretation strategy was still being shaped. The group joined us for fortnightly online sessions where we tested content ideas with them, enriched our research, and invited participants to discuss their own perspectives on different aspects of African fashions. These discussions gave us invaluable insight on what they felt was relevant and pertinent to the exhibition narrative, helping to inform interpretive and curatorial priorities. In particular, hair was identified as a key theme and interest needing more prominence within the exhibition and its programme.

The Africa Fashion Co-design Group sessions were a chance to escape from the worries of the lockdown and the pandemic and get my creative juices flowing. Being able to meet new people and bond in a unique way through Zoom, I am excited to maintain the relationships I have gained throughout this experience.

Africa Fashion Co-design Group member

During part one, group members were shown a range of research methods and were paid to complete a research task reflecting after each session. These personal findings and thoughts were then used as a starting point for future discussions. As a stimulus for their research, they were joined by Nairobi-based Africa Fashion exhibition consultant and collaborator, Sunny Dolat, who they quizzed on his perspective as a creative working in Africa.

One of the most fundamental lessons was on different ways to research and present your work as well. This was from listening to the V&A staff and the ways they research into a topic with different tools to present research efficiently. It was also interesting to see how other people in the group approached the same tasks and I got different ideas on how to take my research forward because of this too.

Africa Fashion Co-design Group member

In the second phase of the co-design project, which kicked off in February 2022, the groups interest in hair was taken forward. As the group geared up for staging their own events in response to the exhibition, they heard from Korantema Anyimadu, who gave a talk about her experience creating an installation for the Horniman Museum’s Hair: Untold Stories exhibition. Following these sessions, the Young People’s team are now working with the group to produce a series of events that explore this topic, to run alongside the exhibition. 

Meeting industry professionals through the meetings was great, it gave me the opportunity to expand on my creative skills and see whether they could be taken professionally. We were allowed to ask as many questions as we wanted and were given so much support in terms of skills we would like to strengthen. 

Africa Fashion Co-design Group member

Join us later this year for activities co-produced by the group, presented as part of the following events at the V&A: 

Africa Fashion Friday Late – Celebrate artists, musicians, and creatives from the African diaspora through performances, workshops, installations, music and more.
Friday 26 August 2022, 18.30 – 22.00. Museum-wide.

WASH DAY – A celebration of Afro hair with events for all ages, including advice from leading experts on hair care, styling methods and design.
Saturday 8 October 2022, 12.00 – 17.30. Sackler Centre for Arts Education.

Keep an eye on our What’s On page for more events.

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