Research overview

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Mozambique’s Capulanas in a D4S design perspective: identity, tradition and fashion-able challenges in the XXI century.

This research is focused on the study of capulana from Mozambique. More specifically in a hedonic exploration that furthers our understanding of tradition and exposes the creative complexities of contemporary African fashion – focusing in both urban centers Maputo and Lisbon. This project is searching for methodologies to find fashion praxis (fashion-able), which enable a refined work in the field of construction of identity, culture and sustainability.

The study points out that there is much to learn about the cloth and suggests cultural concepts of capulana (slow-fashion, design and co-affectivity) as potential guidelines for the development of creative empirical processes, which are justified – by the narratives of Anglo-European origin – as key concepts for the development of design for sustainability (D4S). In doing so it asserts a space for the inquiry of African creative, in their singular multiplicity, suggesting capulana and its cultural concepts as a source of inspiration from which designers can ‘theorize back’ to the Anglo- European fashion and also to the African fashion systems.

Indeed by creating spaces for reflection, action, mediation and dialogue, which intend to innovate the tradition of this cloth and open new methodological approaches that enable fashion-abe praxis and creative expressions that are ‘situated’ in the culture, the research raises questions about mechanisms and universal standards used by African fashion systems: cultural creativity and production chains (involving the full cycle of production to use). The challenges arising from an assumed isomorphism between place and culture highlights how identity and creativity are intertwined in cultural processes of ‘self-making’. Also the ‘situated’ creative expressions potentiated by the spaces of mediation and dialogue play a crucial role for the revitalization of culture and the creation of economic sustainability that enhances human development, social transformation becoming the key engine of a ‘local’ participation in a global ecosystem.

The study starts from a contextual historical analysis of the cloth to expose and map the complexities of creative fashion production in urban centers (Maputo and Lisbon) and highlight the cultural concepts of the cloth. Because there is an overlap between the three levels: history ,culture and fashion  there is necessary further research. The past and present levels of African production of capulana and pattern design from North to South, are by no means clear, nor is the pattern of overseas production and its impact on local economies. Comparatively little research has been done into the profound cultural significance of capulana  – religious, social, political, educational – and this will be a primary focus level of the project. Part  of the historical and cultural research will be done in Lisbon, in the archives of Ethnology Museum in Lisbon, Historical Ultramarine Archives,IPAD archives , Tropical Scientific Archives and Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa  ; on line: memoria de Africa , Arquivos da Torre do Tombo  ;  some through the collection of private individuals; and on the streets (Maputo and Lisbon) interviewing users, especially women which have an intimate role with capulana.

In a second phase introduces and develops spaces for action to foster new epistemological and methodological approaches that contribute to a reading of the cloth into a design for sustainability perspective. By analyzing ‘threats’ to the tradition of capulana this laboratories (labs) proposes a practical work with two different focus groups here considered agents for creativity with capulana: African tailors and Mozambican women. Focusing on cultural concepts of the cloth (defined by the author as co-design, slow-fashion and inclination) these labs seek to integrate design methodologies to understand how these three concepts can be key to delineate the parameters of design for sustainability and to implement ‘alternative’ design practices with capulana. Exploiting the designer role, the (social) role of fashion and how collaborative processes with the community may enable the construction of identity, collective experience of production chains, empowerment and cultural sustainability.

These actions should result in models for fashion-able practices, framed in two levels: on the educational level (with the group of tailors) and on the creative level (with the group of young Mozambican women). These models underline co-design processes that encourage sustainability. They are focused both on the productive exchange of deeper cognitive levels of identity and self-representation ​​and also economic values ​​linking clothing production to human development and social transformation.

In methodological terms, the research follows a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, Glaser & Strauss, 1967), which induces a more detailed historical analysis and the combination of anthropological data with design methodologies. With a strong component of fieldwork (in Maputo and Lisbon), qualitative methods were dominance. Data collection was made ​​from examination of archives, semi-structured interviews, direct observation, photographic and videographic records and field notes, justifying the study.

Considering the general aim, this research would be able to introduce new epistemic and methodological design approaches that will contribute to a deeper design reading about the Mozambican fabric. At this stage it was necessary to introduce a new methodology approach: participatory action research done through the use of several experiments on the exploratory study with the two focus groups- the African immigrant Tailors and the Mozambican women.

Specifically the first action developed with the group of tailors ( developed at Modatex)  has grown from the concepts of constructivist approach (Marshall, 1996; Steffe & Gale, 1995) mixed with the prospect of Mayer (2004) on education. The ideas of the designer Ehrenfeld (2008) were also the base to develop an educational program, which could contribute to empower tailors knowledge and skills on tailoring. This practical application should result to the improvement of the chances for the African community as well as a sustainable tangible manifestation of intangible cultural heritage.

The second action, capulanar (developed at National Costume Museum) developed from collaborative process and relied on action research to conduct a design process that incorporated 4 distinct phases of action: presentation, negotiation, effectiveness and evaluation. This action enabled to test how the cultural concepts of capulana (slow fashion, affection and co-design) can be a vehicle for a sustainable fashion practice that will revitalize the tradition of capulana – dressing a rectangle of fabric.

One of the main achievements in this research is that the project creates both an epistemological reflection and new methodological approaches in the fashion design field, which can also be applied to other studies and objects. The achieved results with the community of practice highlight how identity and politics are intertwined in cultural and creative processes of self-making (personhood, improving autonomy, hope and wellbeing) – for both groups – and of ‘place making’ (improve livelihood, behaviour, skills and enhance the role as citizen and practitioners on urban contexts) – for the tailors group. Both actions also remind us of how spaces of mediation and dialogue in which creativity and technical skills – through its institutional-informal continuum – are the key engine of ‘local’ participation in a global ecosystem.

The main conclusion of this study is to suggest capulana and their cultural concepts as a source of theoretical [and] empirical inspiration from which it’s possible to develop fashion praxis (fashion-able) that frame design for sustainability. The study develops actions that discuss the multiple ‘sites’  (local as well as trans-local, with their diaspora dimension) of production and promotion of knowledge, culture and creativity. Raising the interest on the cloth at both levels educational and design process for sustainability. Another contribution of this study is to create models for collaborative fashion practices that enable individual participation (as a human need) in the design process. Also create alternative spaces that expand the range of action for the production of contemporary fashion that fosters the creation of knowledge (cultural) and knowledge transfer mechanisms that allow illuminate the construction of identity (personality, enhance autonomy and well-being), revitalize and enhance competitive culture based economic growth and environmental solutions social challenges.

Keywords: Capulana, Design for Sustainability, Tradition, Identity, Fashion-able


This Phd research involves knowledge from three recognized expertise centers: Delft University (NL), the Faculty of Architecture (Lisbon) and the Social Studies Centre (Coimbra).

Advisor: Prof. Dr. Henry Christiaans , TU Delft Sustainability Nestor TU Delft

Co-Advisor : Prof. Paula Menezes ; head of Social department of Coimbra University.

The project is financed by FCT (Tecnology and Science Foundation )



One Response to “Research overview”
  1. Jorge barros says:


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