Fashion Strives for Diversity As Populism Spreads

At first blush… watching Winnie Harlow, a Jamaican Canadian model with vitiligo; Teddy Quinlivan, a transgender model and activist; and Stephanie Seymour, now 50, lead the runway finales during Milan fashion week… it might seem like we are living one of the most inclusive moments in fashion’s history… One that does not discriminate against race, religion, creed, age, and, sometimes, even waistline. 

Winnie Harlow at the Byblos Fall/Winter 2019 show in Milan. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.


But while the fashion world continues to tout inclusiveness via ad campaigns and the most diverse runway castings in the industry’s history, an ominous wave of populism has spread from the Mexican border towns of the United States to the Ipanema shores of Brazil to the industrial heartlands of Italy. 

As Milan’s ready-to-wear shows kicked off, the Italian Senate committee voted to block an investigation into the kidnapping accusations  against Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini over his decision to hold 150 migrants on board a ship for five days during the sweltering hot last days of summer. Brushing off the matter, Salvini suggested the migrants be given Perugina chocolates made in shades of dark or milk chocolate, with the same nonchalance the ill-fated Marie Antoinette suggested the poor eat cake during the French Revolution.    

Salvini’s “Italians first” campaign and arrogant comments that conjure the same sort of sentiment US President Donald Trump stirs with his unfiltered tweets, are worrisome as his popularity grows. 

Fashion creatives are not buying Salvini’s nationalist hype that has spread from the rich northern regions to the southern coast of Sicily. 

“We aren’t moving fast enough,” said Haitian Italian fashion designer Stella Jean, who rose to fame after becoming the first black designer to win Vogue’s Who Is On Next talent competition. The former model is famous for her eclectic line that incorporates artisan craft from ex-European colonies in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. This season, her prints were adorned with natives working the fields, reflecting, overall, a 17th century grand tour from Central America to the islands of French Polynesia.  


Backstage at the Stella Jean Fall/Winter 2019 show in Milan. Photos by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

“I base my creative expression on my own identity, which is mixed. By using fashion as a tool, people can break down their barriers. With my collections, they realise there is a real story behind it and they start to understand and dialogue with other cultures,” Jean said. The Rome-based designer, herself, has traveled and worked with artisans in countries like Haiti, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, in order to tell their stories through her collections. 

In response to controversy surrounding Gucci’s blackface balaclava sweater and Dolce & Gabbana’s culturally stereotypical Chinese ad campaigns, the New York Times published an article “Working for a New Normal in Italian Fashion’s Understanding of Race.” The article pointed out how the Italian fashion industry is not diverse enough and how designers like Edward Buchanan, who founded knitwear brand Sansovino 6, and Jean are among the only designers of color in top positions here in Italy.  

Carlo Capasa, President of Italy’s Chamber of Fashion, said that Italian companies are open to creative talent no matter from where it hails. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, if you are gay or not or what religion you are. If you are good, you have talent and you have the proper documents, you can make it here.  There are tons of international students here who go on to land jobs here,” Capasa told NOWFASHION.  

Brazilian designer Paula Cademartori, who staged her Fall/Winter 2019/20 presentation in a Milan antique shop, reflected on the political situation in her own country where Jair Bolsonaro is promoting a “right-wing utopia,” a phenomenon press reports say is defined by Christian fundamentalism, machismo, and capitalism. 

Paula Cademartori Fall/Winter 2019 presentation in Milan. Photo: Courtesy of PR.


“It’s 2019. It’s time for fashion to be more open. It’s a time more than ever, to emphasise the importance culture and what people are and what they believe. That’s what my collection is all about,” Cademartori said, noting that when she came to Italy when she was 21 and started her own accessories line at 26, the language and cultural barrier made starting her own business an uphill climb. 

Studded with crystals, her shoes and accessories collection was inspired by her belief in astrology and numerology. “It’s all about beliefs and how people should have the right to believe in what they want,” she said. 

Change has been slow, but at most top fashion schools, like Istituto Marangoni and Domus Academy, courses are taught in English and geared towards predominantly international student bodies. 

Last year, during the Vogue Photo Festival, in a retrospective, curators Micaela Flenda of the curatorial platform Timnby and Pelin Sozeri of the Milan-based creative agency the Candy Box staged an exhibit dedicated to immigrants active in the worlds of art, music, fashion, design, communications, and even the culinary world. Among them was Viennese designer Arthur Arbesser, gallerist Federico Luger, Iranian artist Mahmoud Saleh Mohammadi, and Turkish content creator Nazli Yirtar who works for Spotify.  

“The whole project is based on the idea that a foreigner is a vessel of positive possibilities,”  said Giovanna Pisacane, who interviewed the artists and wrote the essays, for the exhibit. The Vogue Photo Festival is a way for Vogue Italia to perpetuate the work of the late editor Franca Sozzani, whose most famous tools against political and racial injustice were her magazine covers.

“Until now, Italy has been more or less a homogeneous country, but things are changing,” Capasa said. In response to the nationalist climate sweeping Italy, Capasa said fashion needs to be open to all ethnicities, adding that his team is committed to ensuring a more diverse industry.

Teddy Quinlivan at the GCDS Fall/Winter 2019 show in Milan. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

“Multi-culturalism and diversity is an asset for this nation and for fashion. And I hope fashion can accellerate this process. We’ll be working on that, setting guidelines, working with human resources offices of various brands, to ensure openess, over the coming months,” Capasa said.

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