Jean, who debuted in Milan in 2013, vowed after Black Lives Matter protests not to return to Milan Fashion Week as long as she remained the only black designer represented. This week, she won’t be.
Maximilian Davis, a 26-year-old British designer with Afro-Caribbean roots, is making his debut as creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo. Filipino American designer Rhuigi Villasenor is bringing Bally back to the runway for the first time in 20 years. Tokyo James, founded by British-Nigerian designer Iniye Tokyo James, is launching a women’s only collection.
Jean said the real difference that convinced her to return to the Milan runway was the work on the We Are Made in Italy campaign, which she launched in 2020 with Milan-based African-American designer Edward Buchanan and founder of Fashion Week Afro Milano, Michelle Ngonmo.
Jean is scheduled to perform 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 handbag designer. It is the third WAMI group to present their collections in Milan.
“We’re making ourselves feel,” Jean told The Associated Press. “We invited all these young people. We created the space. There have been gains.”
Among the successes of the 2-year campaign: both Trussardi and Vogue Italia have used WAMI’s database of black fashion professionals who are based in Italy, although the lists have not been used across the industry as the founders had hoped. One of the designers from the first WAMI class, Gisele Claudia Ntsama, worked in the design office at Valentino.
Giorgio Armani, who helped launch Stella Jean in 2013, presented textiles for the new WAMI capsule collections to be shown here. Conde Nast and European fashion magazine nss are helping finance their production. The three founders of WAMI are covering the rest out of their own pockets after the fashion council offered a venue for the show but limited funding compared to previous seasons.
Ngonmo said Italian fashion houses often confuse diversity — such as featuring black models — with true inclusivity, which would include employing professionals in the creative process.
“I have a feeling that 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 that the post-pandemic market is difficult as stores are not investing in collections from new designers.
“We knew going into this that this was going to be a slow growth,” Buchanan said. “Working with designers, we need to be transparent about what’s in front of them. … They’re not going to be Gianni Versace tomorrow.”
Jean noted that young designers for major fashion brands did not come through the Italian system, but from abroad. Despite the progress, she and her colleagues still see some resistance to hiring people of color in creative roles and to the idea that “Made in Italy” can include local black talent.
“It’s more fascinating to have someone from the outside,” she said.
Jean said he is also waiting for the Italian fashion council to follow up on 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.
“None of us believed all the promises. We are now entering familiar territory where people feel free and comfortable not to keep their promises. It’s obvious,” said Jean.
As for her future: “I’m at a crossroads,” said the designer. “My companions are outside the door 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 outside the door are better than you, you realize that you were not special. You were very lucky.”