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Edwin Phiri on the role of fashion in disability innovation

A photograph of Edwin Phiri a black man with short dark hair, wearing a grey sweater who is looking towards the camera smiling

“I have always had this belief that human beings can make an impact on building a community that’s inclusive and a much friendlier place – it’s what inspired me to centre my PhD research around disability.”

Edwin Phiri is a senior lecturer and special subject leader for BA Fashion Marketing at London College of Fashion (LCF).

A few years ago, when UAL was looking at different ways to build strategic partnerships with other institutions in the leadup to LCF’s move to Stratford, he took the opportunity build on his passion to use fashion as a vehicle for positive change in the realm of disability innovation: Co-delivered by University College London (UCL), London College of Fashion and University of Loughborough, Edwin built the MSc Disability, Design and Innovation course in collaboration with partners at LCF’s Global Disability Innovation Hub.

On International Day of Disabled Persons, Edwin and Annika Loebig from the communications team at UAL spoke about the development of the course and what role the fashion industry can play in disability innovation to build a more inclusive world for all.

Hi Edwin! Could you start off by telling us a little bit more about your interest in disability research?

Quite often, people ask me if I’m disabled, or whether there was somebody in my family with a disability who inspired me to do this kind of work. But it's nothing of the sort - I do not have relatives who are disabled, I do not have a family member who is disabled, I am not disabled. I don't claim to be an expert on disability. But what I have is this passion to make the world a fairer and much more inclusive place, which are some of the personal values that I've had since I was a little boy being raised in my family.

That strong sense of social purpose has been something that informed how I've always wanted to make meaningful contributions through my professional practice, work and research. It’s what motivated my PhD study of consumer inclusivity in retail.

Developments around social purpose and fairness have driven me to my recently found interest in inclusive marketing, which is what I now try to construct my research around. It’s still within the broader subject of marketing, but more niched towards inclusive marketing as the specialism.

Could you tell us more about the collaboration to build the Disability, Design and Innovation Master's degree?

The uniqueness of the course is that it approaches disability innovation in interdisciplinary ways.

When students go to UCL, they’re usually interested in computer science, and again, if they go to Loughborough, they’ve got different units they can study.

Their degrees have always been in prosthetics, making artificial arms and limbs for example. Any kind of program that you want to study that centre around disabilities will usually be about the making of these assistive technologies. So, we wanted to have a degree that still addresses disability and these sorts of solutions, but rather than sticking with the solely clinical approach, we wanted to move it into design and business development.

I think this is a first degree of its kind that is predicated on inclusive design, which falls within the bigger remit of making the environment and creating inclusivity, and overall creative innovation. The three key pillars of this course are inclusive design, assistive technologies and creativity of social purpose of businesses. So, it's a very triangulated approach. We’re looking at a degree that offers an opportunity for people to learn about inclusive design to make a better world and a fairer world, learn about assistive technologies, and finally, to learn about how these can then provide business solutions to identify target markets.

Could you elaborate on how LCF fits into education about disability innovation and how it came to be a good fit for the course?

When I attended the initial meetings with UCL, the room was usually full of engineers and computer scientists. Funnily enough, the course actually sits in the School of Computer Sciences at UCL. So, when students enroll, they actually enroll in computer sciences, and the first cohort of students we had were coming from Engineering, IT and design. I remember thinking: where are we going with this? Because we had the engineers, and you had the people making stuff. But when you have these designs and engineering, where does it go? It needs to be consumed, it needs to have a consumer, it needs to meet customer needs within a market, that’s the end goal.

So, the unique contribution that we give as London College of Fashion is to provide an outlet where these projects and innovations could be converted into business solutions. As a fashion business school, the complexity of the creativity and the innovation that comes with fashion was a very close match in terms of realising the design thinking and realising that ability to make products, which should then result into an output that can be put in the market to answer real marketing needs.

For my module ‘Applied Business and Marketing Strategy for Disability Developments’, students learn about applying business models and marketing to create solutions for disability development. Throughout the module, we might ask them to think of a policy change or policy impact, an actual product or service, or it could be a complete innovation within the context of an existing organisation. They then think about how they could reinforce or re-innovate those to provide specific solutions to meet a market problem linked to disability.

One project I supervised was by Gabriella Daniels from MSc Cosmetic Science at LCF, which was looking at finding solutions for visually impaired people shopping for cosmetic products.

How are you hoping to see the course and its cohorts grow in the next few years?

This course is a great opportunity to excite a new generation of creative changemakers. We're looking at a generation of people who are very conscious about world issues in relation to social purposes, and they’re interested in coming up with solutions that impact the world in terms of accessibility.

We normally have a cohort size of about 20 students, and we’d like to encourage students from all creative design courses to apply.

People might be put off because they think they need an IT or engineering background. But we do get lots of students who come from a design, communication and social sciences background. And I think we should have a lot more students and graduates from LCF joining us because of the creativity that fashion creates and brings in terms of its versatility of application.

What opportunities for disability justice do you see in the fashion industry?

We’ve seen principles of inclusive design being incorporated by big brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, we know that ASOS did a special collection, we’ve seen Burberry doing that. A few companies or brands have also started including runway models who use wheelchairs, crutches or other assistive technologies.

I think there's a great opportunity here in terms of the equality, diversity and inclusivity agenda. We saw that movements like Black Lives Matter created a seismic shift in terms of how we approach equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), including the fashion space.

In the fashion industry, it's the first time that major designer labels like Gucci, Chanel, LVMH, hired diversity officers, and EDI became a major agenda in the boardrooms. In the boardrooms and discussions and debates around fashion, fashion is used as a vehicle through which these brands began to communicate their EDI agendas, and much more importantly, the element of allyship.

The discussion about disability also entered the landscape. One of the key things that we've seen is the adoption of principles of universal design in the making of garments and clothing. 2018 is usually regarded as a date in which most fashion companies became much more diverse, particularly the three major fashion events New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week.

So, I think there is an opportunity there for how fashion can actually be a changemaker, especially as fashion is often explained as an indicator of where we are as a society and can therefore be a good vehicle for change in terms of how people think. The big brands and fashion companies have already embraced how they deal with issues around disabilities. That's why I believe in working with the Global Disability Innovation Hub and their ambition to align their mission with industry. It works with fashion, because it tends to be at the cutting edge of how we in society carry ourselves as a people.

I hope that our students can support this change as disability innovators and take up the mantle of advocacy and activism in as far as disability is concerned, so we can make the world a fairer and much more just place for everyone.

Find out more about the MSc Disability, Design and Innovation course.