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Stratford: How London College Of Fashion is opening itself up to the community

UAL’s East Bank campus hosts Designed For Life exhibition showcasing fashion as a force for positive change

The Decolonising Fashion And Textiles Project, part of the Designed For Life exhibition at the London College Of Fashion

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Even partially open, the enormity of East Bank cannot be overstated.

Its buildings on the edge of the River Lea may appear compact when viewed crossing the water from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

But this is largely an optical illusion due to the sheer scale of Stratford – the towering structures of International Quarter London and similar behind. 

But, if the physical space afforded to the likes of the BBC Music Studios, V&A East and Sadler’s Wells East is considerable, then the cultural, economic and psychological impact on Newham and the surrounding area is greater still.

Tom Daley splashing into the pool at the London Aquatics Centre and West Ham kicking a small round inflatable about may be sporting legacies of the 2012 Olympic Games.

But their true legacy – more than a decade later – is in the regeneration of the area and the prosperity this will bring in the long term.

How many students will walk through the doors of UCL East (part of East Bank, albeit located on the other side of the river)?

How many dancers will tread the boards at Sadler’s Wells’ new venue?

What music will be played for the BBC?

What sights will be seen at the V&A?

How many lives will now be enriched and shaped by what goes on in these buildings in a part of London that 15 years ago looked very different? 

These are tantalising questions with thrilling answers that will undoubtedly shape Stratford in the years and decades to come. 

Heartening then, that the first of the gang to open at the main cluster is already making significant early efforts to use its space for good.

Designed For Life is displayed over five publicly accessible parts of LCF

University Of The Arts London has consolidated the London College Of Fashion (LCF) at East Bank in a purpose-built tower, which opened earlier this year.

One of its first acts has been to fill five of the publicly accessible areas of the building with Designed For Life, an exhibition featuring textiles, design, film, photography, artefacts, personal testimonies and community building intended to showcase “the transformative power of creative action in shaping our world”.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on.

There’s a dress made from a decommissioned refugee tent, an interactive living room reflecting the lives of people in east London, a cloth dragon in a trenchcoat, textile artworks created by migrants together with fabric portraits of them and much more. 

Far too much, in fact, for this article to do the whole thing justice. However, the feel of Designed For Life is very much of using LCF as a platform to tell stories from the area – bringing people who might not usually be represented in such a building inside and putting them centre stage. 

It makes sense, then, to focus on just one part of the exhibition and dig a little deeper into what visitors can expect to find among the swirling cast concrete staircases of the latest addition to Stratford’s educational scene.

Head down a level from the entrance and you’ll find items and a short film showcasing UAL’s Decolonising Fashion And Textiles Project.

Dr Francesco Mazzarella, senior lecturer at LCF’s Centre For Sustainable Fashion

Dr Francesco Mazzarella, senior lecturer at LCF’s Centre For Sustainable Fashion, who is leading the initiative said: “The project runs for two years and has received funding from the Arts And Humanities Research Council.

“First I did some ethnography to immerse myself in the context – the three boroughs we are concentrating on – which are Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

“I wanted to understand the needs and aspirations of the local communities there.

“Then we did storytelling sessions with participants who are refugees or asylum seekers based in London.

“The stories were of identity, cultural heritage and migration – but also the participants’ skills, needs and aspirations.

“In the sessions we were asking them to bring clothes, textiles and objects that meant something to them.

“We are very mindful that refugees are often interviewed, investigated or monitored, so we didn’t want to do a study of them.

“Instead, as a team we all took part by bringing our own objects as a way to share each other’s lives and also build empathy.

“People coming to view Designed For Life will see more than 40 artworks created by participants and ourselves with statements written to express our feelings.

A migrant himself, Francesco created his own artwork alongside workshop participants, including fabrics to remind him of Brazil, Holland, South Africa and Italy

“It’s really a celebration of the untold stories of refugees – which are often overlooked – with the exhibition aiming to shift negative or dominant narratives to show how people can bring their skills and talents to a local community and economy.”

Francesco worked with local photographer JC Candanedo – a Catalan-Panamanian migrant who has a studio in London – to capture images of people taking part in the sessions. 

The headshots were then transferred to fabric, with participants using multiple techniques to decorate, embroider and alter them.

Each work has its creator’s statement printed on the reverse so visitors can discover more about the people they are seeing.

“What’s beautiful is that every story is unique and challenges what it means to be a refugee or asylum seeker in London,” said Francesco.

“People come here to escape from war, violence due to religion, gender discrimination or politics.

“What I like is the collective sense of all these stories – it’s bigger than the individual parts.

“The coming together of all of this gives a sense of community and the mutual support which builds for refugees.

“People participated for different reasons.

“Some were interested in fashion and textiles, wanted to learn some skills, or perhaps worked in the industry and are aiming to rebuild their careers here.

“Others just wanted to meet new people and use crafts to enhance their wellbeing – especially those living isolated in hotels in very poor conditions.

“Meeting other people has helped them to rebuild their confidence, and making new connections has helped them to rebuild their lives.

One participant created two artworks during the project, this one during a pilot session

“One participant has two artworks in the exhibition.

“The first was created for a pilot we did last summer. 

“It is very dark, with blood coming from the eyes.

“As a researcher I have tools to help people unpack their stories.

“At first she had an identity crisis about her heritage.

“She’s from Singapore and, as a trans woman, she was the victim of rape, and when she reported this to the police, she was blamed for being trans.

“She came here and joined our project.

“At first she didn’t care about fashion or want to pursue a career in fashion.

“She thought it was unreachable and not very inclusive.

“She wanted to wear more western clothes to feel more integrated into society here.

“She has very traumatic memories of her own country and wants deliberately to erase her own past. 

“All through this project we tried to highlight something small that she had which could keep her grounded, and she realised that she always wore a necklace given to her by her mum before she left.

“You can see that in her second work.

“She wanted to add some glitter to this artwork as a sense of hope for a brighter future.

The second piece she created

“Through this process she met many other people, and now she’s volunteering for several charities and is feeling much more confident.

“You can see here that she has really embraced her gender and identity and is also tapping into different aspects of her culture and heritage by including batik from Indonesia, where her auntie is from, for example. 

“In the second piece – called Smiles And Pain – she wants to unpack what it means to be an asylum seeker, where she says that, even if we wear a smile and are resilient, behind that there is a mountain of trauma and pain.

“She also wants to say that everybody wants to be treated with tenderness and deserves love and safety.

“Refugees may not have many material possessions, but they really hold onto their material culture and their heritage. 

“Working with vulnerable people, we can’t ask them to tackle the climate emergency from a sustainability point of view– they have more pressing issues socially.

“By plugging into their heritage, however, they can start gaining agency – a voice – and make connections locally that may point to education, employment and entrepreneurship.

“That’s using fashion to drive positive change.”

Remember, this is just one of five displays covering multiple projects at Designed For Life. Set aside an afternoon to explore the exhibition fully.

  • Designed For Life is free to visit with no booking required.
  • The exhibits are available to view at LCF at Stratford’s East Bank, 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday and will be in place until January 19, 2024.

Find out more about the exhibition here

Designed For Life features a series of installations including a recreation of a textile worker’s front room

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via
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Stratford: How Alexa Ryan-Mills’s garden is set to celebrate Sadler’s Wells East

East London-based designer is preparing for her first RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May

Garden designer Alexa Ryan-Mills

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I‘m just looking out at the rain and wondering when it’s going to start warming up,” said Alexa Ryan-Mills.

While idle talk of the weather is ubiquitous in the UK, for the Walthamstow-based garden designer – and all those in her profession – precipitation and temperature are a constant preoccupation. 

That’s especially true when there’s a deadline looming and, for Alexa, the 10 days leading up to May 23-27 are fast approaching.

That’s when she and her team will create her first garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show – arguably the biggest stage in British horticulture.

What exactly appears in that garden will, to some extent, be dependent on the weather – although Alexa said she was confident the nurseries she’s working with would have sufficient stock to provide backup options, should the mercury fail to rise to the desired level.

While Wharf Life covers neither Chelsea nor Walthamstow, the reason we are interested in this garden is twofold.

Firstly, Alexa’s design is inspired by the forthcoming opening of Sadler’s Wells East – the fourth venue in the Sadler’s Wells family, which is set to open overlooking Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2024.

But that is still a building site at present, so secondly, there’s a more immediate link – all the plants and materials used in the creation of the garden will be donated to Sadler’s Wells associate institution School 21 in Stratford, where they will be used to improve its outdoor spaces.

“School 21 has been planning and fundraising to do this for a while,” said Alexa.

“I found out about that and we’ve now spent some time going round and identifying areas where we can put the plants after the show. 

“There are lots of different play spaces, which at the moment are quite bare, and we can get the kids involved in planting those up.

“The school also has a great design and technology department that will be able to re-use the materials too.

“For the garden we also recently decided to work with Brixton-based artist Benjamin Wachenje, who will be creating a hip hop-themed mural as a backdrop and School 21 will be able to use this as well.”

An artist’s impression of Alexa’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden

Before that happens, though, the garden itself must be created and shown – a project that has its genesis in Alexa’s change of direction from a career in PR and communications.

“I felt like I’d had enough of that industry and I was thinking about what to do next,” she said.

“Around the same time I met a garden designer, having just bought a house in Walthamstow.

“She designed my garden and I really enjoyed the process and thought I’d like to know a bit more about it. Before I did anything crazy and quit my job, I did some initial training. 

“That went really well and so I decided to invest more in training and that’s how I wound up starting to build a business in east London.”

Having worked mostly designing private residential gardens in the likes of Waltham Forest, Hackney and Newham, Alexa specialised increasingly in planting design, studying for a diploma in the field and collaborating with landscape architects and other designers on a freelance basis.

“While I was studying at the London College Of Garden Design, I knew I wanted to create a garden for a cultural hub and I used Sadler’s Wells as my imaginary client,” she said.

“I found out Sadler’s Wells East was set to open in Stratford, so I created a design that was related to dance – choosing plants that might have an interesting shape or ones that would self seed and move around the garden like that.

“Then I saw a call out from an organisation called Project Giving Back – a grant making charity that provides funding for gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

“I realised I had an idea and all I had to do was persuade Sadler’s Wells. They said: ‘Go for it’, so I applied and after various rounds, got the funding.

“Then I had to apply to the RHS because you get the funding, but still have to be chosen for a place at the show itself.”

Alexa says she was inspired by the planting at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford

She was successful and is now set to lay out a six-by-eight metre space under cover in the All About Plants category of the show’s main pavilion.

Featured plants will include the nodding blooms of salvia nutans and three trees, namely hionanthus retusus, styrax obassia and acer monspessulanum.

“I really wanted to make the plants the performers – the dancers – and put them centre stage,” said Alexa.

“It’s all about visitors being able to see the planting and the shapes and enjoy them from different places to sit and walk through.

“There’s a pipe-like sculpture inspired by the saw-toothed roof of Sadler’s Wells East – itself a reference to the manufacturing and industrial heritage of Stratford – that frames different views.

“I’ve chosen plants that have interesting shapes with lots of purples and limes as well as oranges. I want it to feel energetic. It’s about dance. 

“There has been a fashion at Chelsea for lots of calm, muted planting, but this design is not like that at all.”

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Stratford: Why Sadler’s Wells East is looking to young dancers for its first production

Summer workshops set to help find participants for first show Our Mighty Groove by Uchenna Dance

Vicki Igbokwe is reviving and refreshing Our Mighty Groove at Sadler's Wells East
Vicki Igbokwe is reviving and refreshing Our Mighty Groove at Sadler’s Wells East – image Matt Grayson

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Baptism” is the word Vicki Igbokwe uses to describe the inspiration for her show Our Mighty Groove.

Apt then that a refreshed and revived version of the work has been chosen to anoint Sadler’s Wells East as the first production to hit the stage at the new dance theatre when it opens next year in Stratford.

This summer Uchenna Dance – the company Vicki runs as creative director – is looking to young east Londoners to get involved with a series of workshops, leading to some participants taking to the new stage with the professional cast in 2023. 

Our Mighty Groove is inspired by the night I was baptised at an underground house club in the USA,” said Vicki.

“I’d been travelling to New York every summer from 2008 for a few weeks, because I’d discovered house dance and I wanted to learn.

“On this particular night I had just finished a house class and the teacher said that to really understand and get into the spirit of these styles, you had to experience them in their natural habitat by going to a club.

“When I got to this club, I got stage fright – everyone was amazing.

“They weren’t all professional dancers, just people who could boogie. Some were trained but others were just people who had maybe grown up with the dance as part of their culture.

“All my self-esteem evaporated. I had my back up against the wall of this club for what felt like six hours.

“Any time anyone came up to me I’d wave them away, saying: ‘Oh, no, no, I’m from London’.

“I can laugh about it now, but on the night I felt that I couldn’t do what they were all doing.

“So I watched this cipher in front of me – a dancers’ circle – with one person in the middle, giving it large, and other people cheering them on.

“Then I saw a person in a  pink balloon hat and somehow I could tell they weren’t going to take no for an answer. They got closer and closer, and I was thinking: ‘Gosh, gosh, gosh’.

“They didn’t say anything, just extended their hand. There was just something about that person which made me peel my back off the wall and they led me into the cipher.

“I got into the middle with all these amazing people looking at me, and I thought: ‘Sugar. I’ve got to do something’.

“So I tried to remember some of the steps that I’d learnt in the dance class. I had four moves, so I just repeated them. I thought I probably looked like a robot.

“But the amazing thing was that everyone around me made me feel like Janet Jackson, shouting and cheering me on.

“Something just clicked in me and I went from feeling I couldn’t dance to total freedom in my body – I just had the best night ever. I was one of the last people to leave the club, still in my moment. 

An artist's impression of Sadler's Wells East in Stratford
An artist’s impression of Sadler’s Wells East in Stratford

“It felt absolutely liberating, I felt good within myself, and it was a life-changing moment, not just for me as an artist, but as a person – a human being and a woman.

“I realised that when we feel good, we do good. That when you empower someone, even if they’re going to struggle with what they’re trying to achieve, they’re going to have so much more energy if they have that support.

“So that’s why I call it a baptism – I felt like I’d been reborn.

“I came to New York that year one way and I left a completely different person – not in culture – but in confidence, not just for myself but also thinking how I could enable other people to experience their own versions of that.”

Dance was not the most obvious path for Vicki.

“I was supposed to be a barrister,” she said.

“My dad was a barrister and my mum was a councillor in the Labour Party. They were Nigerian, so the choice was lawyer, doctor, engineer or failure and the fourth was not an option.”

Vicki, whose father had died when she was a child, became a carer aged 14, looking after her mother, who had become seriously ill, plus her three younger sisters. 

She battled through GCSEs and began studying A-Levels with the aim of becoming a barrister, but realised she was following her parents’ dream rather than hers.

Instead she enrolled on a BTEC in performing arts at a college where she discovered it was possible to study dance at university.

“To this day I believe my mum – may her soul rest in peace – paid my teachers to only talk to me about law or possibly becoming a teacher,” said Vicki. 

“So I went on to study dance at Middlesex University and then did some performing with Impact Dance and producing with East London Dance.”

Not satisfied with popping and locking, exposure to house styles in London in 2006 set her on her current path – something more “feminine, graceful and elegant” – with elements of waacking and vogue.

Following her stateside pilgrimages, she set up Uchenna Dance – derived from her Nigerian name that means God’s will – left a full-time job in the 2009 recession and started making work.

Vicki set up Uchenna Dance in 2009
Vicki set up Uchenna Dance in 2009 – image Matt Grayson

“We worked very much as a community group for the first year and a half, not really doing shows,” said Vicki.

“We did lots of rehearsals – I was exploring my movement vocabulary – looking at how I could fuse West African influences and contemporary dance.

“Our first professional show was Our Mighty Groove in 2013, which was at Sadler’s Wells so it’s such a big deal to be the opening show of the new venue at East Bank.

“I’m really excited, first because it’s such an honour but also to be working with young performers.

“For me that makes it extra special – to work in dance, to be giving these young people the opportunity to get to know themselves better whether they want a career as a performer or not.

“Some of those taking part in the workshops will be among the first people to be in the new building, to touch it, to be on the stage and in the dressing rooms. That’s something which is really exciting.”

Uchenna Dance will be running four workshops for young people interested in taking part in Our Mighty Groove in November next year.

Youngsters wishing to take part must either be living or studying in east London and be aged 16-21 on August 31, 2023.

“Those taking part can expect an introduction to dance, to who we are and to the styles that we work with,” said Vicki.

“This includes club styles such as house, vogue and waacking, along with West African influences.

“But most importantly the workshops will be a space where people can come as they are to learn to be inspired, because we, as artists and teachers, will also be learning from them.

“There will be connection, meeting, making friends and also a bit of a journey.

“Sometimes we work with people who just say that they can’t do what we do – that they’re not good enough. 

“We say that they should start where they feel comfortable.

“What we’re really good at is pushing people past their comfort zones.

“They’re often surprised and ask how they did it, but it’s all in them.

“In terms of the final show, this won’t just be a five-minute slot for the young performers, they will be part of it from the beginning right through until the end.”

Uchenna Dance’s Our Mighty Groove workshops are free and take place on August 8, 14, 18 and 27 at various times.

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