United by Design: Gucci Changemakers exhibit focused on young designers, social change

Throughout history, creativity has played a critical role in solving some of society’s most pressing challenges — especially when it comes to art and design.

“Designers are problem solvers,” says Kiana Wenzell, co-executive director of Design Core Detroit, a nonprofit economic development organization housed at the College for Creative Studies, where design-based solutions have been a priority since the nonprofit was founded in 2010 as the Detroit Creative Corridor Center before rebranding nearly a decade later under its current name.

In 2018, DCD took its approach to purposeful design a step further when it released its inclusive design action plan for Detroit in response to the city’s earlier designation as the first UNESCO City of Design in the U.S. — a moment that brought Detroit’s creative community into the international spotlight.

“Our call-to-action for the UNESCO designation is a focus on inclusive design,” Wenzell says, noting that DCD has made it a mission to encourage the development of design-based solutions, products, services, and systems that unite communities and break down barriers, often by embracing interdependence and collaboration throughout the design process.

This year, DCD took that commitment to the next level while planning its 12th annual Detroit Month of Design, a month-long, multi-event design festival taking place throughout the city of Detroit and online during September, by adopting the theme “United by Design.”

“We need to be united in our design decisions — not just as an industry, but we need to be united with the business community, we need to be united with residents, we need to be united with government — coming together to create design solutions that are going to be more equitable and sustainable,” Wenzell says.

To highlight DCD’s belief in design as a catalyst for unity and change, the nonprofit collaborated with the Gucci Changemakers Scholarship program, a $1.5 million fund that provides scholarships to “diverse undergraduate students with unmet financial need, interested in the fashion and design industry” for the second time since 2019 — this time, bringing a special exhibition to this year’s Month of Design programming.

“As a producer of Detroit Month of Design, it made sense to have the exhibition as part of the festival — just to show that unity with the Detroit community,” Wenzell says.

Curated by Wenzell, “Building a Lasting Impact” was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) last week and featured the work of the 2022 Gucci Changemakers Scholars — emphasizing the perspectives of young designers utilizing art to create a lasting impact both in Detroit and across the U.S.

‘The power of sharing our stories with others’

“As a kid from Detroit, I’ll never be able to express how grateful I am to have a chance to participate in the Detroit Month of Design. I remember dreaming of one day becoming a well-known artist in my city,” says Miles "Mars" Richards, a rising junior in the animation program at the College for Creative Studies and a three-time Gucci Changemaker scholarship recipient.

Miles RichardsFor Richards, participating in the scholarship program and this year’s Month of Design helped him realize his potential “as a Changemaker and as a creative” — something that includes, at least in part, finding ways to make room for other voices to be heard.

“I feel our role as Changemakers [is] to help create these types of spaces for the unheard voices. To be a Changemaker, we can't only acknowledge the things a space may lack. Instead, almost equally, a Changemaker must help to create those spaces with the aid of those who will eventually occupy them,” Richards says.

Part of that process, according to Richards, includes inspiring others and giving back to future generations by forging a path ahead for them.

“Since the amazing opportunities many have provided to me, I’ve found a greater passion to carve a path and give back to the generation after me. Because I know the younger generation will have greater control of our futures,” Richards says.

Last weekend, Richards had the chance to inspire visitors at the “Building a Lasting Impact” exhibition through a digital portrait of his current partner. Inspired by their meeting in the fashion club during Richards’ senior year of high school at Cass Tech, “AAlayah T’Ahna” celebrates her continuous encouragement of Richards' journey.

Beyond the opportunities Richards has received after participating in the Gucci Changemakers program, including a summer internship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy Gold Rising program, the experiences of receiving a scholarship and exhibiting in this year’s Detroit Month of Design have been inspiring in their own right.

“I'm grateful for Gucci's outstanding support and the incredible opportunity to participate in the Detroit Month of Design in September. And I’m inspired to see my city push so much of its bright talent to [the] forefront,” Richards says.

‘A universally accessible story’

Like Richards, Cassius Palacio, a Chicago native and one of the Gucci Changemakers scholarship recipients whose work was included in last weekend’s “Building a Lasting Impact” exhibition, says participating in the Detroit Month of Design has provided “an abundance of new opportunities.”

“Being a Gucci Changemaker scholar means taking the council's initial ‘yes,’ including myself, and growing a positive return of ‘hell yeah's!’ It means a lot of things to me, but most importantly, it makes me feel grateful to be seen, heard and respected,” Palacio says.

As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, Palacio says the scholarship has also given him the confidence to approach industry professionals not only about his work, but also Architecture + Advocacy (A+A), an organization Palacio co-founded with fellow USC architecture students to “empower communities to un-design the spatial injustices affecting their neighborhoods.”

Through A+A, Palacio and his team reach out to architecture, engineering, and construction firms and conduct meetings to listen to their needs, desires, and current barriers to improving community outreach and DEI initiatives.

"These meetings then leverage A+A's community-based partnerships to bridge those sustainable relationships between firms and communities beyond financial investment into A+A,” Palacio says.

For Palacio, who applied to the Gucci Changemaker Scholarship program after learning about it from a college roommate who had previously received the same scholarship, the application process offered a chance to create work that aligned with his personal philosophies as a designer.

“It was one of the first projects where I had the agency to design something that would match my narrative. My primary goal in architecture is to imitate a fusion of the visual arts and architecture and each project. I need to tell a universally accessible story using various media,” Palacio recalls.

Inspired by Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” a song he first heard in kindergarten, Palacio’s Changemakers submission of the same name offered exhibition visitors an immersive glimpse into the artist’s personal journey as a Black man in the U.S.

“That song has constantly haunted me and has never left my mind when I account for any positive or negative experiences,” Palacio explains.

Despite the desire to share his experiences with others through art, the idea of showing the piece to others was an act of courage for Palacio — a risk that would ultimately strengthen his confidence as a designer.

“For someone who's not Black to interpret Black art is always something that leaves me weary. […] Would anyone get it through my Black perspective? I was scared it would be misinterpreted and that my cognitive hard work would've been for nothing. I'm glad that I stayed confident throughout my project. Fearless, even — capable of letting my work speak for itself,” Palacio says.

Photos courtesy of Shane Drummond & Zack Whitford/BFA for Gucci.
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Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.