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Stella Jean
Courtesy of Stella Jean

Why the Italian Fashion Council’s only Black member is on hunger strike

Stella Jean details the alleged events that led her to quit Milan Fashion Week and the systemic ‘sabotage’ that Italian designers of colour face

“I am an example. And I think it is clear I am irreversible,” says designer Stella Jean on her brand website. It’s a concise summation of her place within the Italian fashion world, and her resolve to create a wave of progress which pulls the industry along with its current. There are plenty of performative activists within fashion, but Jean, the only Black member of the Italian National Fashion Chamber (Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana or CNMI), has had a tangible impact, particularly with the foundation of We Are Made in Italy (WAMI), which has been described as the “answer to the lack of the presence of BIPOC designers in Italian fashion”. However, she has now quit Milan Fashion Week and embarked upon a hunger strike, claiming that WAMI has been “abandoned” by the CNMI, which organises the event.

WAMI was established in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Shortly after the tragedy, Jean wrote an open letter to the CNMI, asking: “Do #BLM in Italian Fashion?”. At the time, Jean said she would not return to the MFW schedule until she was no longer the only Black designer on it, which was something WAMI aimed to rectify. Participating from 2020 to 2022, the organisation’s first physical show took place in September last year, showcasing its ‘Fab Five’ Black designers.

WAMI was co-founded by Michelle Francine Ngonmo (Afro Fashion Association founder) and Edward Buchanan (founder of knitwear label Sansovino 6), with CNMI president Carlo Capasa sitting as a member of the board. To many, the repeated appearances on the MFW schedule, plus Capasa’s involvement, seemed like proof of a successful partnership between WAMI and the CNMI – but Capasa exited the board soon after last year’s September show. Then, on February 8 this year, Jean interrupted the fashion chamber’s pre-fashion week press conference – stating that neither she, nor any of WAMI’s ‘Fab Five’ designers, would be involved in this month’s Milan Fashion Week, alleging that CNMI had “abandoned” their promise to support and promote Italian designers of colour.

After being handed the microphone, Jean also told the audience that WAMI designers have received death threats, something she says she has personally dealt with since speaking out against racism during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. “We have been ignored. After I reported and submitted about these threats… I received a phone call saying that WAMI was being discharged and the [CNMI] didn’t want anything to do with us.”

The CNMI hasn’t responded specifically to the mention of death threats against designers, but a representative told Dazed that it did not withdraw support for WAMI. Despite this, Jean went on to accuse the CNMI of stopping financial aid because of an Instagram post that was published on September 9, 2022 by Edward Buchanan, which called upon the CNMI to call WAMI by its official name. “WAMI is the acronym for We Are Made in Italy. The name constantly reminds us that we, as BIPOC individuals, are building and working within the Italian fashion space and insist [on being] seen, understood, and respected,” the post read.

“In the post, we simply and civilly asked the Chamber not to exploit BLM for clout when they presented our collective to the press, but to simply call us by our name… That post led to relentless and vengeful fury aimed directly at WAMI immediately following our first live show in the history of the Italian Fashion Council,” Jean tells Dazed. 

The CNMI maintains it referred to the collective as per branding within its press kit – “BLACK LIVES MATTER IN ITALIAN FASHION COLLECTIVE – We Are Made in Italy (WAMI collective)” – and disputes that financial aid was revoked following the post, stating instead that it had only been available previously due to extenuating circumstances. “Economic support to brands for the production of collections and events is not part of the core of CNMI’s activities: any additional economic support may be exceptionally, one-off, made available to new brands especially at the beginning of their journey,” the CNMI representative tells Dazed, claiming in the case of WAMI funding was “due to extraordinary fundings, due to the COVID pandemic.” 

The aforementioned “extraordinary fundings” spanned three seasons according to Jean, and in revoking it she says the CNMI is leaving WAMI members in a financially vulnerable position as they had already begun producing their collections, with some paying with personal loans. Jean says that her hunger strike will last until Capasa provides a written guarantee that all WAMI designers will be safeguarded. “I wrote to the president, explaining that he had left many designers in extreme debt, asking for a justification for this sudden abandonment. The only response we received confirmed the council’s abandonment of WAMI without specifications or assurances. Many [WAMI members] saw themselves in total poverty,” Jean claims.

In response, the CNMI says that it was not aware that designers had started to produce collections and it doesn’t know the names of the designers that were supposed to show. “When the collections were financed by CNMI during the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire creative process, the suppliers and textiles used and the budget required were presented to [us] four months in advance and all designers were mentored by our technical tutors. For this collection we were not involved and had no knowledge of the process,” a representative tells Dazed.

The Italian fashion industry has long faced accusations of racism and a failure to progress its diversity and inclusion efforts, compounded by a string of racism scandals linked to brands on its schedule – from the Gucci Blackface sweater to the Prada Blackface keyring. Jean’s long-standing position as the only Black member of the fashion chamber is indicative of the landscape in Italian fashion, and Italy more broadly. “You speak to an Afro-Italian who lives in Milan, speaks Milanese, and they are considered African. As a culture Italy is not ready to say: ‘This person is Italian’”, Buchanan said to The Guardian in 2020. His comment speaks to why the request for the CNMI to use WAMI’s real name, and respect its underlying meaning, was so important.

Jean’s experiences appear to reflect this refusal to recognise people of colour. “BIPOC Italians are completely invisible. When I first asked [the CNMI] why I was the only Black representative at Milan Fashion Week, the response I received was, “Well, are there Black Italians? Are there any Black ‘Made in Italy’ designers?” That was the first of many disconcerting responses [from the CNMI], which revealed a complete ignorance towards the social fabric of Italy, which is now indisputably multicultural,” she alleges.

The apparent dismissal of WAMI by the CNMI is simply the latest in a long line of disappointing interactions, and Jean decided enough was enough, claiming WAMI designers were afraid of professional and personal retaliation. “Many saw themselves in total poverty, others felt their lives were in danger due to the possible retaliation that Casana might pursue directly or indirectly – they fear the sort of professional backlash I faced when I called for equal civil rights,” she tells Dazed.

“I had to act immediately since the seriousness of the consequences facing these people made everything extremely time-sensitive and critical,” Jean says of her decision to address the situation publicly. “For those directly involved, we are talking about the most fragile topics – I mean, these kids are terrified about not having a place to sleep and making ends meet.”

The ensuing fallout has been contentious. In its correspondence with Dazed, CNMI listed its measures of support for WAMI, including a raft of free slots in the MFW February 2023 schedule for designers including Tokyo James, Zineb Hazim, Karim Daoudi, and MAXIVIVE. It also says an email was sent on January 18 offering a day in its new Fashion Hub at Palazzo Giureconsulti free of charge as part of its MFW FORWARD project. WAMI declined, the CNMI claims, opting for a different location, so it offered to make the hotel available, free of charge.

It is undeniable that CNMI can compile a reasonable-looking list of diversity and inclusion activations, from its 2019 Manifesto of Diversity and Inclusion and free schedule slots to its support of the Black Carpet Awards. But for Jean, it is a copy and paste of initiatives from other fashion councils which doesn’t run deep enough.

“Diversity and inclusion strategies are not superimposable, since the BIPOCs of each of these territories have a totally different historical path. In Italy, we are fascinated by all that is different but we immediately lose interest when these people dare to call themselves Italian. We still have to become aware and accept that even with a different skin tone, we are the present and future of this country. We might not have that glamorous flavour, because we were born and raised in Italy, but we are living proof of the country’s social change,” Jean says.

“When those representing the reality of a country speak out, we all have a duty to listen. The truth remains clear: a great deal of corporate involvement does not provide increased coverage and economic support to underrepresented minorities. It is a purposefully missed opportunity to assist BIPOC designers and instead exploit them as a gimmick, all while taking advantage of the consumer interest in all things multicultural. What we need are real job opportunities, not cocktail soirees. We need to create collections, show them, and sell them – not photo ops,” she adds. The hunger strike continues.