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Social Designer Gabriel Fontana Wants to Change How We Play Team Sports with MULTIFORM

Words by Igor Termenón

Gabriel was in Rotterdam when he spoke via video chat with Igor in Madrid, in May 2020.
Below, you will find photos taken by Iris Rijskamp (including the cover image), Igor and Gabriel himself.

I met Gabriel Fontana during a visit to De Wasserij, an incubator for innovative fashion in Rotterdam. Although his studio is located there, Gabriel doesn’t really work in fashion – he’s a social designer and uses fashion as a research tool to explore how we perform identity through the clothes we wear.

Originally from Paris, Gabriel moved to Rotterdam right after studying a master’s degree at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. It was there where MULTIFORM started to take shape. With this project – designed to be implemented in PE classes at primary and secondary schools – Gabriel wants students to gain embodied insights in the workings of social inclusion and exclusion, and present them with tools to promote mutual understanding.

The main goal behind MULTIFORM is to make sport participation enjoyable for anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic and cultural backgrounds or physical limitations.

Let’s start by talking about the research that led to MULTIFORM.

Gabriel poses for Igor’s camera at his studio in Rotterdam

My research focused on sports, particularly looking at them from a queer and feminist perspective, and thinking about how we can redesign games in sports and how we can “queer” them. I was seeing sports as a very old, conservative and normative social practice – it has never really evolved and we keep on performing and playing the same games. Think about two teams competing at each other, the ideology of adding an enemy, the binary division, hypermasculinity, exclusion…

At the same time, I was also looking into fashion theory and identity: how we perform identity through the clothes we wear. I was considering clothes from a sociological point of view, and I was very intrigued and fascinated by the concept of the uniform itself. For me, sports are a kind of performance of social structure. You wear a specific uniform that identifies your team; which is similar to daily life, when we wear specific clothes that extend our individual identity to a social group. 

I did, what I call, a more performative design research. Not just designing clothes, objects or whatever, but really starting to think about how I could use my own body as a research tool. I spent my whole master’s organising games with people and analysing their behaviour, and this led to MULTIFORM.

For me, sports are a kind of performance of social structure. You wear a specific uniform that identifies your team; which is similar to daily life, when we wear specific clothes that extend our individual identity to a social group.

How does MULTIFORM work?

From uniform to multiform. Shown here, some of the different elements that compose the outfits of MULTIFORM

It is similar to a handball game, but you can actually apply the rules to any kind of existing ball game. In contrast to the binary system of sports, in which you usually have one team against another, there are three different teams and the objective is to score as many points as possible.

You play with a transformable uniform to constrict the traditional notion of stable teams in a game. When the whistle blows, all the players transform their outfits and a new colour appears, assigning them to a new team. This transformation happens a few times during the game: going from a uniform to a multiform.

What are the reasons for these garments changing during the game and assigning people to different teams?

I use the game as an activator for discussion and also look at how it can provide very unbiased, physical experiences of processes of inclusion and exclusion on the field. When the players change their uniforms and switch teams, the size of each team doesn’t remain the same. For example, you can be playing with a team of only 3 members suddenly. With the design and pattern construction of the transformable uniforms, I can script the whole game, deciding the sizes of each team and all the different power relations that each player gets to experience.

MULTIFORM answers questions like: what happens when you go from performing as a majority to a minority in a group? Or, how does this affect your behaviour in each of these groups? At the same time, the game plays a lot with creating some kind of disorientation and confusion, as there are more and more colours appearing in your outfit that make it difficult to identify the team you’re in. So, in a sense, it blurs all these distinctions of different teams.

The rules and power relations of MULTIFORM in action

Also, sometimes when you transform your uniform a yellow element appears, meaning that you are the goalkeeper – you have now a social role that it’s assigned in a group. This way, you’re encouraging the players to perform different roles in a group and, sometimes, even a role that they wouldn’t take on. 

After the game, we always have discussions to talk about the experience. I work with a philosopher, Nathanja van den Heuvel, and basically, we use the discussion to talk about what is fair, what is not fair, what is a majority and a minority, we talk about identity, gender differences, how you belong to a group, etc. We are using the game to actually frame some kind of workshop around a specific topic that relates to social inclusion.

With the design and pattern construction of the transformable uniforms, I can script the whole game, deciding the sizes of each team and all the different power relations that each player gets to experience.

You moved to Rotterdam to continue developing this project. Can you tell me more about this?

Just after my master’s graduation, I received a design prize that allowed me to work at an incubator for designers in Rotterdam, in order to develop this project. I moved here and used those 6 months to prepare a big application to propose the project to the Municipality of Rotterdam.

Rotterdam is such a multicultural city – more than 50% of the population comes from immigration1 – so the Municipality is always looking for new initiatives tackling social inclusion, and it was a good context to develop MULTIFORM.

And you’ve been testing it at different schools in the city. Is that right?

Time for a change! The players transform their uniforms and the colours identify their new teams

Yes, we’ve implemented the game through a pilot project and have worked with 4 schools: 3 secondary and 1 primary school. We go there at least once a month to play the game – they can also play it by themselves but when we go, we use this time to facilitate a discussion.

At secondary schools, we also realised that when playing ball games, the boys usually perform the role of attacker and girls take on the role of defender on the field. They’re already playing some kind of social roles in sports that are related to social structure, normative and gender rules, and other aspects.

What are some of the outcomes you’ve experienced so far?

The reaction is usually better at primary schools than at secondary schools. Young children are much more excited and focused, somehow. When we go to the primary schools they scream “MULTIFORM! MULTIFORM! ” and at secondary schools, you really need to convince them. 

At secondary schools, we also realised that when playing ball games, the boys usually perform the role of attacker and girls take on the role of defender on the field. They’re already playing some kind of social roles in sports that are related to social structure, normative and gender rules, and other aspects.

You have also connected with the local community in Rotterdam to produce the outfits of the game.

Production was super important for me. I wanted to think about the project in its globality: it’s not only about playing a game at a school or designing the clothes, but also about how these are going to be produced, who are the people who I wanted to get involved in the process, etc. I started to work with Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie2, a cooperative that offers sewing workshops, textile facilities and work to residents of Rotterdam South, who usually don’t have direct access to the design economy. 

It was really  nice to create a relationship with them. The clothes are kind of complicated to make, because of all the colour combinations and transformable elements, so I was there quite often. It was important that people who produced the clothes could then see the kids wearing them and playing the game. And I would also love for the kids from school to go and visit the atelier, so they can see how the clothes they use have been made.

A match of MULTIFORM in progress, captured by Iris Rijskamp

How do you plan to continue developing MULTIFORM?

We’re now launching a foundation and we want to use it to upscale MULTIFORM, and also as a structure to develop new projects, promoting a crossover between sports, philosophy and design.

I would like to make a new game that challenges how power is usually performed through the voice in sports. For example at PE class, you usually only hear the boys playing on the field – it’s only their names that are called during the game. You can close your eyes and imagine all the power relations that are happening just by listening to what’s happening during the game. I want to start a new research focusing on the voice and sounds to challenge this. I’m currently looking at how I could create sonic uniforms that would produce sounds, with the idea of how these could create a feeling of belonging to a specific team.

So, instead of using colour or a visual element you would have sounds to identify the different members of the team?

Yeah. By doing this, I would like to explore how we use sports as a practice to pay attention to the sounds that others produce. And, in consequence, create more empathy by being aware of each other and how much space each person takes.  This is a new direction I’d like to explore, and also continue working with Nathanja to see how we can find discussions within the game.

Maybe we could design a parliament [laughs], in which politicians would have to switch parties based on their outfits, and look at the situation from a different perspective.

Do you think MULTIFORM, or some of its elements, can be applied to other fields that aren’t necessarily sports?

Maybe we could design a parliament [laughs], in which politicians would have to switch parties based on their outfits, and look at the situation from a different perspective. 

That would be interesting, I would like to see that! Going back to the idea of the uniform, apart from identifying your team, what role does it generally play in sports? 

It usually reinforces ideologies or identities that don’t evolve. If you look at PE class, it’s the only space at schools where you can see lots of flags from different countries, coming from the football t-shirts the children wear. It’s not necessarily nationalist, but an identity of where all these kids come from. Somehow, sports bring back all these elements which, again, are related to belonging to a certain group or a certain culture.

And how do you see the role of the uniform in other fields of society? 

Inspired by Exactitudes, Gabriel shows the different combinations of MULTIFORM‘s outfits

I think the uniform can be a social marker and it can allocate power; if you think of security, police, etc. It can also allocate privilege and it can mark some kind of social hierarchy between people. For example in the army, depending on your role you have different types of uniforms. 

Just like clothes, in general, the uniform is a kind of mold in which we are supposed to fit – with the way we dress, we navigate constantly between a process of individualisation and uniformisation. 

Just like clothes, in general, the uniform is a kind of mold in which we are supposed to fit – with the way we dress, we navigate constantly between a process of individualisation and uniformisation.

Do you think a uniform, in terms of someone deciding to wear the same type and style of clothes, can allow some differentiation?

I’m not sure, because if you just look at size and clothing, in general, these are already like a uniform. The concept of dressing is very normative in an industrialised society. Do you know the project Exactitudes3 by Ari Versluis & Ellie Uyttenbroek?

Yeah, I actually saw part of it when I was in Rotterdam at ‘The Hoodie’ exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

This was the main reference of my work when I was looking into this idea of the uniform: how we constantly act as individuals, but also as a group just by performing some specific roles, and also specific gestures like the simple act of getting dressed.

And, what’s your uniform?

Gabriel enjoys a blue garment, as displayed here in his closet

[Laughs] It changes a bit. When I moved to Eindhoven and started my research and looked at the uniform, I realised that most of my clothes are blue. I remember posting this picture on Instagram of my closet and it only had blue clothes. When I was living in Berlin and clubbing a lot, I used to dress in a specific way and belonged to a specific group of people and then, when I was at the Design Academy, almost everyone wore black, so I also started wearing black clothes.

I guess my ‘uniform’ has been impacted by the different spaces and contexts in which I have lived.

1. As a port city, Rotterdam has a long story of migration and is considered the most multicultural city in the Netherlands. Ahmed Aboutaleb became the first Muslim mayor of a Dutch city and, today, still continues his role as Mayor of Rotterdam.
2. Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie encourages sustainable local production, knowledge exchange, cultural development and entrepreneurship with the goal of making Rotterdam South, and specifically the Afrikaander district, a stronger and financially more stable area with active inhabitants and entrepreneurs.
3. Started in 1994 in the streets of Rotterdam, Exactitudes is a visual record of more than three thousand neatly differentiated social types photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek have documented over the last twenty years.