Milan Fashion Week Hears Calls for More Designer Diversity

Haitian Italian designer Stella Jean returned to the Milan catwalk after a two-year hiatus with a tour de force that highlighted the talents of 10 new color designers whose design history is linked to Italy.

Jean vowed in 2020 not to return to Milan Fashion Week, which opened on Wednesday, until she was the only black designer. The We Are Made in Italy movement, which she founded with black American designer Edward Buchanan and Afro Fashion Week Milano founder Michelle Ngomno, made sure she wouldn’t be.

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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.

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Jean is leading a runway show with 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 its collections in Milan.

“We’re making an impact,” Jean told The Associated Press. “We invited all these young people. We created the space. There were wins.”

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Buchanan opened the show with denim-feel jersey knitwear from its Sansonvino 6 line, followed by capsule collections from the latest group of Fabulous Five WAMI designers and Jean’s creations, combining Italian tailoring with artisanal references she sources from around the world .

Designer Stella Jean accepts applause at the end of her Spring Summer 2018/19 womenswear collection presented in Milan, Italy on September 24, 2017.

Designer Stella Jean accepts applause at the end of her Spring Summer 2018/19 womenswear collection presented in Milan, Italy on September 24, 2017.

Each of the new WAMI designers has a connection to Italy, either through family or having moved here to study or work.

Italian-Indian designer Eileen Claudia Akbaraly showcased her brand Made for a Woman, which creates ethically sourced clothing and accessories from Madagascar raffia. New York-based designer Akila Stewart founded bag brand FATRA, which works with recycled plastic waste. Indian-born Neha Poorswani designs shoes under the Runway Reinvented name. Vietnamese designer Phang Dang Hoang’s clothing line blends Asian and Western cultures, and Korean designer Kim Gaeun’s Villain brand combines elements of traditional Korean costumes with modern hip-hop culture.

“There are so many Italians who aren’t Italians, who are immigrants who feel Italian. I think it’s so beautiful,” Stewart said.

The show ended on a celebratory note as the models, designers and activists gathered on the catwalk and clapped and swayed to Cynthia Erivo’s song Stand up.

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 launched Stella Jean in 2013, helped with textiles for the new WAMI capsule collections on display here. Conde Nast and the European fashion magazine nss help 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 involve employing professionals in the creative process.

Creations part of the We Are Made in Italy fashion event are shown during Spring/Summer 2023 Women's Fashion Week in Milan, Italy, on 21 September 2022.

Creations part of the ‘We Are Made in Italy’ fashion event are shown during Spring/Summer 2023 Women’s Fashion Week in Milan, Italy, on 21 September 2022.

“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 the designers, we need to be transparent about what’s in front of them. … You won’t 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 travel companions 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.”

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