MILAN (AP) – Milan Fashion Week showcases collections from perhaps its most ethnically diverse designers, including the debuts of new creative directors Salvatore Ferragamo and Bally and the return of Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean after a two-year hiatus.
But Jean and other industry insiders behind a campaign to open up the Italian fashion world to minority talent said true inclusion remains elusive.
Jean, who debuted in Milan in 2013, vowed not to return to Milan Fashion Week following the Black Lives Matter protests as long as she remains the only black designer represented.
It won’t be her this time.
Maximilian Davis, a 27-year-old British fashion designer with Afro-Caribbean roots, makes his debut as creative director for Salvatore Ferragamo. Filipino-American designer Rhuigi Villasenor brings Bally back to the runway for the first time in 20 years.
Founded by British-Nigerian designer Iniye Tokyo James, Tokyo James presents a women-only collection.
Jean said the real change that pushed her to return to the Milan catwalk was working on the We Are Made in Italy campaign she launched in 2020 with Milan-based African-American designer Edward Buchanan and the founder of Afro Fashion Week Milano, Michelle Ngonmo, had launched .
Jean is scheduled to headline a runway show with Buchanan and five new We Are Made in Italy (WAMI) designers, including a Vietnamese apparel designer, an Italian-Indian accessories designer and an African-American bag designer. It is the third WAMI group to present its collections in Milan.
“We’re making an impact,” Jean told The Associated Press. “We invited these young people. We created the space. There were wins.”
Among the wins of the two-year-old campaign: Both Trussardi and Vogue Italia have used the WAMI database of Italy-based fashion professionals of color, although the listings have not been deployed as industry-wide as the founders had hoped. One of the designers of the first WAMI class, Gisele Claudia Ntsama, worked in Valentino’s design office.
Giorgio Armani, who helped launch Stella Jean in 2013, helped with textiles for the new WAMI capsule collections to be exhibited.
Conde Nast and the European fashion magazine nss are helping to finance their production. The three WAMI founders are covering the rest out of their own pockets after the moderator offered a venue for the show but only provided limited funds compared to previous seasons.
Ngonmo said Italian fashion houses too often confuse diversity – like showcasing black models – with true inclusivity, which would require employing professionals in the creative process.
“I feel like they don’t understand what diversity means at all. They tend to confuse diversity with inclusion,” she said.
Buchanan said he maintains his optimism but acknowledged the post-pandemic market is tough with stores not investing in new designers’ collections.
“We knew early on that this was going to be slow growth,” Buchanan said. “When working with designers, we need to be transparent about what’s in store for them. You will not be Gianni Versace tomorrow.”
Jean noted that the new designers for big fashion brands came from abroad, not through the Italian system. Despite the progress, she and her staff still see opposition to hiring people of color in creative roles and to the idea that Made in Italy can engage native black talent.
“It’s more glamorous to have someone on the outside,” she said.
Jean said she is also waiting for the Italian moderator to accept an invitation to create a multicultural board within his structure. She said she felt initial industry acceptance of the diversity project had cooled.
“None of us believed in all of the promises. Now we are entering territory we know well, where people feel free and comfortable not to keep promises. It’s obvious,” Jean said.
As for her future, “I’m at a crossroads,” the designer said. “My fellow travelers are standing in front of the door that I was allowed to enter.
For a while, being the only one in the room feels special. But when you see that many of those who are yet to come are better than you, you understand that you were nothing special. You were very lucky.”