08 February 2023

Stella Jean quits Milan Fashion Week over ‘lack of diversity and inclusion’

08 February 2023

The only black designer on Italy’s fashion council has pulled out of this month’s Milan Fashion Week – citing a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Stella Jean also announced a hunger strike out of concern other minority designers associated with her will suffer a backlash.

She said the Italian National Fashion Chamber significantly cut back support for the We Are Made In Italy (Wami) collective of young designers of colour working in the country after her speech about the personal price she paid for highlighting racial injustice in Italy during a runway show last September.

Along with Jean, the Wami collective is withdrawing from fashion week, which they were set to open with a digital presentation.

Italian Fashion Chamber president Carlo Capasa said he regrets Jean’s decision, saying the final fashion week calendar being presented on Wednesday is “full of diversity”.

“In the calendar that we are presenting today, you will see all that we are doing for people of colour who are working in Italy,” he said.

A press conference is scheduled for later on Wednesday.

Jean sent a letter to Mr Capasa telling him of her hunger strike, which she said will be revoked only with his written assurance no professional harm will come to the Wami designers “as a result of our history of misunderstanding”.

“This admittedly extreme measure of mine stems from having heard several voices from the collective worried about ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ repercussions, including difficulty in securing funding and services from sponsors and partners, given the power wielded by you as president of the chamber in the industry,” she wrote in a letter.

Mr Capasa said he had not yet read the letter and was unaware of the hunger strike and Wami’s withdrawal.

Both Jean and Wami appeared on a draft of the Milan Fashion Week calendar of mostly womenswear previews for next winter released last month.

Wami was launched on the heels of the Black Lives Matters movement in 2020 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 racial gaffes by major fashion houses which made global headlines.

Ngonmo said financial support for the project from the chamber has dwindled over the three years it has run so far and Afro Fashion Week Milano was not able to come up with the 20,000 euros (£17,800) it would have cost 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 the third generation has not received any funding from the chamber, Ngonmo and Jean said.

The September show featuring Jean, Buchanan and Wami was financed through other allies and their own contributions.

“Maybe the message is the whole industry needs to open their eyes and say, ‘What can we do to make that happen?’” Ngonmo said.

Wami designer Joy Meribe opened Milan Fashion Week previews for spring-summer 2022 in a major milestone for the movement.

But Jean said such moves turned out to be “performative”.

“They used Wami as a free pass of safe conduct for diversity,” she said.

She said she is withdrawing out of fatigue with the “continual fight” for recognition for designers of colour in Italy.

“I am a fighter by nature but I cannot be this way all the time,” she added.

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