Milan Fashion Week hears calls for more designer diversity

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MILAN (UKTN) — Milan Fashion Week starting Wednesday will showcase collections from arguably the most ethnically diverse lineup of designers, including the debuts of new creative directors Salvatore Ferragamo and Bally and the return of the Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean after a two-year break.

But Jean and other industry insiders behind a campaign to open up the Italian fashion world to talent from minority backgrounds say true inclusivity remains elusive.

Jean, who debuted in Milan in 2013, vowed not to return to Milan Fashion Week after the Black Lives Matter protests as long as she remained the only black designer represented. She won’t be this week.

Maximilian Davis, a 26-year-old British fashion designer with Afro-Caribbean roots, makes his debut as creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo. Filipino-American designer Rhuigi Villasenor brings Bally back to the catwalk for the first time in 20 years. Tokyo James, founded by British-Nigerian designer Iniye Tokyo James, presents a women’s collection.

Jean said the real shift that persuaded her to return to the Milan catwalk was the work of the We Are Made in Italy campaign, which she launched in 2020 with Milan-based African-American designer Edward Buchanan and the founder of Afro Fashion Week Milano, Michelle Ngonmo.

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Jean is slated to lead a runway show featuring Buchanan and five new We Are Made in Italy designers, including a Vietnamese clothing designer, an Italian-Indian accessories designer and an African-American bag designer. It is the third WAMI group to present their collections in Milan.

“We make ourselves feel,” Jean told The UK Time News. “We’ve invited all these young people. We’ve created the space. Profit has been made.”

One of the successes of the 2-year campaign: Both Trussardi and Vogue Italia took advantage of WAMI’s database of fashion professionals of color based in Italy, although the lists have not been used as widely across the industry as the founders had hoped . One of the designers from the first WAMI class, Gisele Claudia Ntsama, has worked in Valentino’s design office.

Giorgio Armani, who helped launch Stella Jean in 2013, joined in with textiles for the new WAMI capsule collections shown here. Conde Nast and the European fashion magazine nss are helping to finance their production. The three founders of WAMI cover the rest out of their own pockets after the fashion council offered a venue for the show, but limited funding compared to previous seasons.

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Ngonmo said Italian fashion houses too often confuse diversity — such as showcasing black models — with true inclusivity, meaning that professionals are involved in the creative process.

“I feel like they don’t understand what diversity means at all. They tend to confuse diversity with inclusion,” she says.

Buchanan said he maintains his optimism, but acknowledged that the post-pandemic market is difficult as stores are not investing in collections from new designers.

“We knew this was going to be slow growth,” Buchanan said. “In collaboration with the designers, we have to be transparent about what awaits them. … They will not be Gianni Versace tomorrow.”

Jean noted that the new designers for major fashion brands did not arise through the Italian system, but from abroad. Despite the progress, she and her collaborators still see some resistance to taking on people of color in creative roles and to the idea that “Made in Italy” can involve homegrown black talent.

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“It’s more glamorous to have someone from the outside,” she said.

Jean said she is also waiting for the Italian fashion council to heed an invitation to create a multicultural board within its structure. She said she feels the industry’s initial embrace of the diversity project has cooled down.

“None of us believed the totality of the promises. Now we are entering an area we know well, where people feel free and comfortable not to keep promises. It’s clear,” said Jean.

As for her future, “I’m at a crossroads,” said the designer. “My traveling companions are standing at the door where I was allowed to enter. For a while, being the only one in the room, you feel special. But when you see that many of those still out there are better than you, you understand that you were nothing special. You’ve been very lucky.”

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