(AP) — The only Black designer belonging to Italy’s fashion chamber withdrew Wednesday from this month’s Milan Fashion Week, alleging a lack of support for diversity and inclusion after the chamber “abandoned” a project to promote young designers of color working in Italy.
Stella Jean interrupted a press conference by the Italian National Fashion Chamber to announce that neither she nor five members of the We Are Made in Italy collective of designers of color would participate in fashion week.
She also said she had started a hunger strike Wednesday out of concern members of WAMI, an initiative launched in 2020 on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, could suffer a professional backlash for her activism.
The moves signaled a dramatic denouement of a nearly three-year-collaboration with the chamber to promote designers of color.
“The chamber told us, ‘We didn’t know there were Italian designers who weren’t white.’ We brought them to the runway. They supported us for two years. Then we were abandoned,” Jean told the press conference.
Italian Fashion Chamber President Carlo Capasa assured her from the dais that the chamber had no intention of retaliating in any way. He expressed regret that neither she nor the WAMI members would participate in Fashion Week.
“Stella’s contribution has always been appreciated. We Italians need to have our conscience stimulated,” he said. “As for WAMI, we are not people who retaliate. For us it is important to promote new brands.”
He noted that two WAMI designers from previous seasons were presenting collections during Milan Fashion Week, which runs from Feb. 21-27.
In addition, the chamber has included on the fashion week calendar the inaugural edition of the Black Carpet Awards recognizing the achievements of minorities in Italian society, and was hosting another diversity initiative by the owner and editor of U.S.-based Blanc Magazine, Teneshia Carr.
Jean charged that the chamber had significantly cut back support for WAMI after she made an impassioned speech about the personal price she had paid for highlighting racial injustice in Italy during a runway show last September.
She also said it backtracked on a promise to create a Black board within the chamber to promote diversity and inclusion. Capasa told AP that he decided against the board after WAMI made social media posts that cast a negative light on some Italian fashion brands.
“We wrote a nice letter, saying we want to give them the liberty to express themselves,” Capasa said, adding that the chamber could not host any board that appeared to take public swipes at other members.
Italian-Haitian Jean, who made her Milan runway premiere in 2013 on the Armani runway, said she and her family have been subjected to retaliation for her activism for racial justice in Italy. She said that included death threats against her daughter by other minors, and the termination of professional relationships for her.
“When you speak of retaliations, of death threats, people, I work in fashion. I don’t traffic arms, I don’t traffic drugs or make money from trafficking women,” Jean said. “It is absurd, vile, shameful and inhuman that I must speak for people who feel their lives are in danger, who feel they will suffer the same retaliation.”
WAMI was launched by Jean, African-American designer Edward Buchanan and the head of Afro Fashion Week Milano, Michelle Ngonmo, to draw attention to the lack of minority representation in the Italian fashion world. It followed some racial gaffes by major fashion houses that made global headlines.
Ngonmo told the AP that financial support for the project from the chamber had dwindled over the three years it has run so far, and that Afro Fashion Week Milano wasn’t able to come up with 20,000 euros ($21,000) to support the five young designers in making solid looks to present, plus a video.
The Italian fashion chamber fully supported the collections for the two WAMI classes, each with five designers, but hasn’t funded the third generation, Ngonmo and Jean said.
A September show featuring Jean, Buchanan and WAMI was financed through other allies and their own contributions. The latest WAMI collections were to be presented by video on Feb. 22.
“Maybe the message is the whole industry needs to open their eyes and say, ‘What can we do to make that happen?’” Ngonmo told the AP.
Capasa emphasized that the project by Blanc Magazine’s Carr is receiving the same support he offered WAMI: a slot on the calendar and a physical space in the Fashion Hub where journalists and buyers can view the collections.
But Jean insists that Italy’s designers of color deserve special promotion by the chamber, whose role is the promotion of Italian fashion.
Jean said progress in recent seasons — including opening fashion week with WAMI designer Joy Meribe’s runway show, and Jean’s own return to the runway in September — had turned out to be “performative.”
“They used WAMI as a free pass of safe conduct for diversity,” Jean told the AP. She said she was withdrawing out of fatigue with the “continual fight” for recognition for designers of color in Italy. “I am a fighter by nature, but I cannot be this way all the time,” she said.