Haitian Italian designer Stella Jean returned to the Milan runway after a two-year hiatus with a tour de force that highlighted the talents of 10 new designers of color whose design history is tied to Italy.
Jean pledged in 2020 not to return to Milan Fashion Week, which opened Wednesday, until she was not the only Black designer. The We Are Made in Italy movement she founded with Black American designer Edward Buchanan and Afro Fashion Week Milano founder Michelle Ngomno ensured she would not be.
Maximilian Davis, a 27-year-old British fashion designer with Afro-Caribbean roots, is making his debut as the creative director for 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 presenting a women’s-only collection.
Jean is headlining a runway show with Buchanan and five new We Are Made in Italy designers, including a Vietnamese apparel designer, an Italian Indian accessory designer and an African American bag designer. It is the third WAMI group to present their collections in Milan.
“We are making ourselves felt,” Jean told The Associated Press. “We invited all these young people. We created the space. There have been gains.”
Buchanan opened the show with jersey knitwear with a denim feel from his Sansonvino 6 line, followed by capsule collections by the latest group of Fabulous Five WAMI designers, and Jean’s creations combining Italian tailoring with artisanal references she sources around the globe.
Each of the new WAMI designers share a connection with Italy, either through family or by relocating to study or work here.
Italian Indian designer Eileen Claudia Akbaraly showed her Made for a Woman brand that makes ethically sourced raffia garments and accessories from Madagascar. New York-based designer Akila Stewart founded the FATRA bag brand that works with reused plastic waste. India-born Neha Poorswani designs shoes under the name “Runway Reinvented.” Vietnamese designer Phang Dang Hoang’s apparel line mixes Asian and Western cultures, and Korean designer Kim Gaeun’s Villain brand combines elements of traditional Korean costumes mixed with modern hip-hop culture.
“There are so many Italians who are not Italians, who are immigrants who feel Italian. I think that is so beautiful,” Stewart said.
The show closed on a celebratory note, with the models, designers and activists gathered on the runway, clapping and swaying to Cynthia Erivo’s song Stand Up.
Both Trussardi and Vogue Italia have used WAMI’s database of fashion professionals of color who are based in Italy, although the listings have not been employed as industrywide as the founders hoped. One of the designers from the first WAMI class, Gisele Claudia Ntsama, has worked in the design office at Valentino.
Giorgio Armani, who helped launch Stella Jean in 2013, pitched in with textiles for the new WAMI capsule collections to be displayed here. Conde Nast and European fashion magazine nss are helping to fund their production. The three WAMI founders are covering the rest from their own pockets after the fashion council offered a venue for the show but limited funding compared with previous seasons.
Ngonmo said Italian fashion houses too often confuse diversity — such as showcasing Black models — with true inclusivity, which would involve employing professionals in the creative process.
“I have a feeling they don’t understand at all what diversity means. They tend to confuse diversity with inclusion,” she said.
Buchanan said he holds on to his optimism but acknowledged that the post-pandemic market is difficult as stores are not investing in collections by new designers.
“We knew going into this that this was going to be a slow grow,” Buchanan said. “Working with the designers, we have to be transparent about what is ahead of them. … They are not going to be Gianni Versace tomorrow.”
Jean noted that the new designers for major fashion brands did not come up through the Italian system but from abroad. Despite the progress, she and her collaborators still see some resistance to hiring people of color in creative roles and to the idea that “Made in Italy” can involve homegrown Black talent.
“It is more glamorous to have someone from the outside,” she said.
Jean said she is also waiting for the Italian fashion council to follow through on an invitation to create a multicultural board within its structure. She said she feels the initial industry embrace of the diversity project has cooled.
“None of us believed the totality of the promises. Now we are entering a territory that we know well, when people feel free and comfortable not to maintain promises. It is obvious,” Jean said.
As for her future: “I am at a crossroads,” the designer said. “My traveling companions are outside the door that 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 who are still outside the door are better than you, you understand that you were not special. You were very lucky.”