The only Black designer belonging to Italy’s influential fashion council is demanding a “long overdue cultural reform” from her colleagues under the slogan: Do Black Lives Matter in Italy? The conversation has gotten off to a rocky start. Stella Jean, a Haitian-Italian designer born and raised in Rome, launched her appeal this summer.
She asked the Italian National Fashion Chamber and the global powerhouses steering it, including Prada, Ferragamo and Zegna, to back their social media pledges supporting the Black Lives Matter movement with concrete, transparent commitments toward greater racial diversity.
In response, Jean received a letter from the council president saying that addressing racial disparity within Italian fashion was not within the body’s area of responsibility, despite the fact that members had backed a diversity manifesto in December. According to the letter, such initiatives “pertain instead to parliament, the government or any other bodies.”
Exasperated, Jean has decided not to preview a runway collection at Milan Fashion Week until “they demonstrate awareness of the problem.” “When you talk with them, they have no bad intentions, I know them. But they say something like ‘What are you talking about, Stella? We have never heard about racism in Italy. It is not an Italian story, it is about the US, the UK, other countries. Not Italy,’” Jean said. “My response is: ‘Why do you see all these people filling squares from the north to the south of this country for Black Lives Matter, this entire generation of invisible new Italians?’” Soccer, another important Italian cultural institution, recognized that Italy has a problem with racism and worked to eliminate it.
Racially charged gaffes by Italian fashion houses have been well-documented, from Gucci’s Blackface sweater to Prada’s Little Black Sambo bag charm to Dolce&Gabbana videos that were seen by many as mocking Asians. This summer, Marni, another major fashion house, apologized after being called out for its images of a Black man with chains around his ankles.
Jean and the co-author of her appeal, Milan-based US designer Edward Buchanan, said in interviews that the issue is deeper than just culturally insensitive designs. But they say those gaffes highlight the lack of diversity in Italian fashion houses and the “pervasive racism and prejudice” in the industry despite ‘funds allocated to provide sensitive training.” “These ‘mistakes’ can be better recognized, labelled and addressed as ‘decisions,’” Jean asserts.
Their push is to open doors to Black Italians who would like to work in fashion but don’t see themselves represented and don’t see a way in. They also are demanding data on Black personnel employed in decision-making roles in fashion houses — not models or marketing staff who they say “are sadly more often than not displayed for show.”
’’We want to send a resume to a head-hunter and not have it shut down because you are a Black designer,” Buchanan said. In their appeal, they spoke for dozens more whose names did not appear but include Italian and Italy-based Black creators like Michelle Ngonmo, who launched an AFRO Fashion Week Milano on her own after failing to get the backing of the fashion industry, and Louis Pisano, a writer and influencer who has worked in Italian fashion for a decade. Pisano cites incidents like having his fashion show invitations scrutinized while white influencers are waved into events.
Many more “are hesitant to speak out for fear of a professional lynching,” Jean said. A frequent refrain from Black creatives in Italian fashion is that they are often the only person of colour in the workplace. They also see their opportunities and access limited by their skin colour.