Rafael Kouto: Exploring West African Upcycling and Decolonization in Fashion

Rafael Kouto: Exploring West African Upcycling and Decolonization in Fashion

We are thrilled to announce that Rafael Kouto began an exciting new residency at G.A.S. Foundation, supported by the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia. A multidisciplinary creator with a focus on fashion, design, research, and materiality, Rafael brings a wealth of experience and a unique perspective to our community. His diverse itinerary will take place across various locations, including G.A.S. Lagos, and G.A.S. Farm House in Ikise, after which he will go on to Ibadan. During this period, Rafael aims to engage with local artisans working with textile techniques such as embroidery, dyeing, printmaking, weaving, and more, with the goal of exploring local methodologies to circular fashion; specifically how artists and designers engage with contemporary West African material culture, decolonization in fashion, and traditional crafts and rituals linked to the Yoruba community.

Rafael's research builds upon groundwork initiated in Ghana at the beginning of the year, where he investigated the intersections of sustainability, fashion, and traditional craftsmanship. As he sets out on this residency, Rafael plans to reflect on his experiences and translate his insights into tangible outputs, including samples, sketches, and experimental works using various techniques. Throughout his residency, Rafael aims to deepen his understanding of West African culture and actively contribute to the local creative community. He envisions presenting the outcomes of his residency through talks and potentially organizing upcycling workshops within local communities.

 

What is the current focus of your creative practice?

In 2017 I founded the avant-garde upcycling and community couture brand, of which I lead the creative direction, the development of strategies, collaborations and engaging projects for the promotion of upcycling and sustainability through the use of textile waste, dead stock and other materials in the creative and production process. The promotion of upcycling takes place through workshops in collaboration with various institutions and through teaching as an associate professor in Fashion Design at the IUAV in Venice. I collaborated as a consultant at the Education and Learning Office at Fondazione ITS - International Talent Support in Trieste (IT) for the creation and planning of the activities, courses, workshops and special projects with past finalists and local artisans.

During the residencies at TaDA in Arbon, Istituto Svizzero in Milan, Lottozero in Prato and VU.CH in Lausanne I developed participatory projects, installations and research related to sustainability, upcycling, fashion and textile history engaging with local communities.

 

Costume by Rafael Kouto. Photographed by Flavio Leone

 

What drew you to apply for this residency and how do you think it will inform your wider practice?

Since the beginning of my practice, I have always had a strong interest in sharing the upcycling process to engage and provide empowerment tools to the customers and the public. The experiences through the upcycling workshops and as an associate professor in fashion design at the IUAV of Venice allowed me to understand the potential of craft, ritual and the performativity of the creative act. I am considering the potential of developing the research in collaboration with an institution or a university into a practice-based Ph.D.

 

Costume by Rafael Kouto. Photographed by Emidio Battipaglia
 

Can you give us an insight into how you hope to use the opportunity?

I am planning to meet artists and designers working with upcycling to better understand the West African material culture, to research de-colonisation in fashion and crafts and rituals in the Yoruba community.

 

 

About Rafael
Rafael Kouto, who lives and works between Lausanne, Zürich and Venice, is Swiss with Togolese origins. He is a creative director, fashion & textile designer, as well as a researcher in upcycling methods, and sustainable and engaging strategies with a particular focus on open source and craftsmanship. He studied Fashion Design at FHNW-HGK in Basel, earning an MA in Fashion Matters from the Sandberg Institut in Amsterdam. He has had various work experiences at Alexander McQueen, Maison Martin Margiela, Carven and Ethical Fashion Initiative.
In 2017 he founded the avant-garde upcycling couture brand of the same name, of which he leads the creative direction, the development of strategies, collaborations and engaging projects for the promotion of upcycling and sustainability through the use of textile waste, dead stock and others materials in the creative and production process. The promotion of upcycling takes place through workshops in collaboration with various institutions and through teaching.

 



About Pro Helvetia

The Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia has been working at the heart of the Swiss and international cultural scene since 1939. It fosters contemporary art production in Switzerland and helps disseminate and promote Swiss arts and cultural exchange in Switzerland and abroad. Pro Helvetia has its head office in Zurich and maintains an international presence through its liaison office network, located in six major regions of the world. These include Johannesburg, Cairo, Moscow, New Delhi, Shanghai and South America. Pro Helvetia Johannesburg is committed to cultural exchange and artistic collaboration between Switzerland and Southern, East, Central and West Africa. The office forges ties with local organisations, institutions and event organisers, develops and nurtures long-term partnerships, initiates co-productions with artists from the region and organises residencies for Swiss and African artists in both geographic contexts. 

 

How You Can Support Our Foundation

Your generous contributions support the Foundation’s distinctive interdisciplinary residencies, research, education programmes and public events.