Cultural reform from the runway: Black lives matter at Milan fashion week

Designer Stella Jean and other Black designers urge industry heavyweights to fight racism in fashion
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Designer Stella Jean and other Black designers urge industry heavyweights to fight racism in fashion

The National Chamber for Italian Fashion (CNMI) has announced a digital Black Lives Matter presentation delivered by Black-led brands during the spring/summer 2021 Milan Fashion Week, a hybrid physical-digital event from Sept. 22-28. The occasion will be kickstarted by a think tank of council members tackling problems of racial discrimination in high fashion, including cultural appropriation and a lack of diversity.

This landmark achievement is largely credited to Stella Jean, a Haitian-Italian designer based in Rome, whose persistent push for racial diversity in Italian fashion houses has gained worldwide traction this year.

“The influence of Italian fashion has direct cultural and social implications on a global scale on billions of people,” Jean writes in an Instagram post.[1]

To Jean, this is a privilege that Italian designers must enjoy responsibly.

“This power has to be put into action and fortified with integral accountability measures, driving change by example as we already do in aesthetic matters.”

Cultural fashion reform: the think tank will grapple with entrenched issues of racial inequality at MFW. Photo Credit: @stellajean_sj_ on Instagram

Jean is the sole Black designer in the Italian fashion council. She has been a champion of racial justice beyond the high-fashion sphere as well, having appeared at a demonstration for George Floyd this June.[2]

In July, Jean penned an ardent letter titled, “Do #BLM in Italian Fashion?”, urging the president and executives of the CNMI to enact top-down industrial reform.[3]

In the wake of this spring’s Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent social media movements, Jean urged brands to go beyond performative allyship to take concrete action against the racial disparity in the trade.

Co-signed by fellow designer Edward Buchanan, Jean’s missive demanded “a constructive, working dialogue” about including Black designers during the upcoming MFW.[4] As a result of her behest, five POC creatives will make their debut on the official fashion week calendar with the CNMI’s support, Jean announced on Instagram.[5]

The think tank at Milan will also adopt the letter’s title.

“Black designers in Italy are not asking for a seat at the table. We build tables,” one of Jean’s Instagram posts read.[6]

Photo Credit: @stellajean_sj_ on Instagram

Along with their esteemed pedigrees, Italian fashion houses also have a poor track record when it comes to racial sensitivity. In the past few seasons alone, several luxury brands have committed racist blunders that have been objects of public censure.

Last February, Gucci faced online vitriol for its Balaclava knit top that resembled blackface. The fashion house promptly issued an apology for the oversight.

But individual designers such as Jean are working to change that; Jean’s eponymous clothing line promotes itself as a bastion of diversity and inclusion. The Maison Stella Jean has launched a social awareness campaign, “Italians in Becoming,” that spotlights the country’s multiculturalism through portraits of 20 women, including entrepreneurs, students, professionals, models and athletes.

The project also includes an accompanying video in which its participants debunk common stereotypes that have been levelled against them as women of colour living in Italy.

“Italians in Becoming” aims to illuminate the lived experiences of BIPOC women in Italy while demystifying the country’s rich multicultural history. It invites viewers to take pride in their roles as “cultural lighthouses in the world.”[7]

“This project aims to portray these women not as victims, but as active agents of a change that is, willingly or unwillingly, already well underway,” the website reads.

Sources

[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/CEw5v97I9N_/

[2] Testa, Jessica. “Black Lives Matter and Italian Fashion.” The New York Times. 31 July 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/fashion/italian-fashion-black-designers.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.instagram.com/p/CEw5v97I9N_/

[6] https://www.instagram.com/p/CEFPdGFI9hG/

[7] “Italians in becoming.” Stella Jean. https://www.stellajean.it/italian-on-becoming-project/

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