Last year, Rome-based designer Stella Jean decided she would not take part in Milan fashion week because of the bevy of microaggressions happening in the Italian fashion industry towards people of color. “The racial issues in Italy were no longer acceptable. I could not remain silent and hold a fashion show if nothing serious was happening,” said Jean.
Instead, she refocused her energy to create space for designers of color to be seen. Now, one year later, Milan Fashion Week showcased 5 designers of color for the first time, redefining what Made in Italy design is and who the designers making it are.
Michelle Ngonmo, founder of Afro Fashion Week Milan has been spotting BIPOC talent for the past 6 years and discovered the 5 designers that showcased they are part of the brand new initiative known as, We Are Made in Italy. They even recently graced the cover of Vogue.
The global groundswell of support for the BLM movement was certainly part of why this initiative happened when it did. Last summer, the world saw the biggest protests for racial justice and civil rights in a generation filling the streets, countries around the world also began to take part and reflect on what discrimination and inequality had become normalized in their home nations.
The designers are known as “The Fab Five” and recently graced the cover of Vogue Italia. Their scope is to act as bridge-builders to educate what the new Made in Italy looks like through their fashion collections. Sheetal Shah, Nyny Ryke, Romy Calzado, Zineb Hazim, Judith Saint Jermain are their names and the faces and hands of a defining moment.
In Italy, whether done intentionally or not, the point is that designers of color who live and work in Italy, feel like the mark is being missed, often. Like when Gucci’s blackface sweater was being sold online, or Prada’s golliwog accessory was made available in their stores. Many designers of color in Italy believe the only way to avoid this is to allow people of color inside the editorial design room to make some of the design decisions that hold global impact.
Multiculturalism is not just a form of performative propaganda crafted for media consumption; it is the true reflection of a rapidly changing Italy. “This milestone presentation gives hope and reassurance to the often unacknowledged creatives that the future is bright the glass ceilings are permeable, and that inclusivity in the creative sector is an ongoing, essential, and imperative part of Made in Italy,” says Ngonmo.
“When I founded Afro Fashion 6 years ago, I wanted to create a platform for BIPOC designers, more precisely for Black designers because within the system they were invisible,” says Ngonmo.
With a database of nearly 3 thousand BIPOC designers in Italy, it seemed absurd to Ngonmo that there were no members of color that were part of the National Italian Fashion Council or part of Milan Fashion Week last year. We were able to start a dialogue with the Council and now you can see the presence of more BIPOC designers during this year’s Milan Fashion Week who work and produce Made in Italy designs,” says Ngonmo.
Sheetal Shah, originally from India, has been living and designing in Italy for years. She explained to me what her experience has been like entering the Italian fashion scene. “When I initially started, it was very hard for me to fight against the discrimination,” explains Shah.
After some time in the north, she moved down south to Naples, the sartorial suit capital of Italy “to work a bit in menswear tailoring because they are specialized in sartorial tailoring and I wanted to do something in menswear after my experience in textile design. It is quite different from the north to the south, way different. I did feel more accepted in the south. But the reality is that all over Italy there is still this perception that people have about where you come from and creating judgments based on where you come from, explains Shah.
Despite the more welcoming experience in the south of Italy, Shah was aware that she had to move back north to grow as a designer. “Everyone who knew me said for the style of clothing I do, I had to go to Milan where my type of clothing would be accepted.”
Shortly after, Shah and the other women were selected to be part of the project, We Are Made in Italy.
“This project is very interesting for visibility, but also the creative side, the sales side, and learning how to do that. It’s not just about designing, they also help us connect and meet with buyers, learn how the production line works,” says Shah. This cultivation of relationships Shah explains usually can only happen if a designer has access to a certain type of established network.
The designers had a 7-day exhibition in Milan where buyers went to see the collections and spoke face to face with the designers. “We were able to also speak with more established designers who shared their experiences of how hard it is to sustain being a designer,” explains Shah.
We are Made in Italy had great support from Camera Della Moda, Vogue Italia, Conde Nest and many old guard fashion fraternities. Naomi Campbell, Anna Wintour, Edward Enninful also were present to see collections by different designers at Afro Fashion Week, “they are all supporting this project and they want to help the whole team to build more around this project that can give vision to more BIPOC designers who are talented,” says Shah.
The definition of a people in a globalizing world has to evolve, “We Are Made In Italy has chosen to combat racism through fashion, but it’s important to remember that We Are Made In Italy is also fashion, but not only fashion.” Says Judith Saint Jermain, another designer part of the Fab Five, We Are Made in Italy initiative.
“The world is globalizing but that doesn’t always mean that this is fully happening in Italy. Our country has gotten much better in terms of its way of thinking, how it sees other cultures and people, but that doesn’t mean that there is total integration and acceptance compared to many other countries. There are still so many stereotypes and discriminations in the Italian culture, but we are working to make it more equal and I think we will get there soon,” says Nyny Ryke, designer and member of the We Are Made in Italy initiative.
Romy Calzado, Cuban-born designer part of the Fab 5 of the We Are Made in Italy initiative says that it may be premature to say if this business model will last, but she is realizing that the women are making an impact. “It’s still too soon to know if this is a new cultural business model but I still feel the support of many BIPOC people even on social media that see us as a model.”
Creating opportunities and opening doors to allow the best in the business to thrive is how each fashion sector can aim at being more inclusive. “To all be the same doesn’t mean speaking the same language, having the same accent, practicing the same religion, but it’s to have the same objective of coexistence and equality,” says Zineb Hazim, designer and member of the We Are Made in Italy initiative.