How culpable is Italy in fashion’s current race crisis? Very, according to black members of the Italian fashion industry.
When the media cites examples of fashion houses co-opting centuries-old racist imagery and making it new (Gucci’s blackface jumper, Prada’s golliwog trinket, Dolce and Gabbana’s pizza advert) one commonality is often overlooked: Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana are Italian companies.
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“Knowing the culture, I’m absolutely not surprised these racist clothes originate from Italian fashion houses,” says Edward Buchanan, who runs the knitwear label Sansovino 6 and moved to Milan from the US in the 90s. “Everyone is prepared to say: ‘Oh, we’ve put a black or mixed-race model on the catwalk, or on the cover of a magazine,’ but behind the scenes there are no black designers or merchandisers.”
Kudzai King, a photographer who has shot for Vogue Italia, says that the attitude toward BAME people in Italy is a “fascination and a dislike all at once”. He recalls entering “multiple elevators where I am the only black person in there and felt a thick atmosphere of discomfort”. He describes a climate where “people want to touch your skin, your hair and ask you some really uncomfortable questions that are derived from a place that is lacking knowledge”.
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Buchanan says that when he left New York to join the luxury Italian fashion brand Bottega Veneta in 1995, he felt like an outsider: “In this industry I’ve always had the impression that if you were black the majority of Italians thought you were African and selling [fake] Prada bags on the street.”
The Rome based designer Stella Jean took a stand when the micro-aggressions became too frequent. “During last Milan fashion week I decided not to showcase my collection, since the racial issue in Italy was no longer acceptable,” she says. “I could not remain silent and hold a fashion show, as if nothing serious was happening.”
Instead, she focused her efforts on Italians in Becoming, a photography and video project that highlighted the multiculturalism of 20 Italian women. She says the project was ignored by the Italian fashion press, because the idea of Italian identity is such a sensitive topic. “Most of [the magazines] didn’t even respond. Some institutions go as far as suggesting not collaborating with me anymore.”
The blowback Jean encountered is indicative of how contentious the idea of “Italian identity” is. In February the model Maty Fall Diba appeared on the cover of Vogue Italia with the coverline “Italian Beauty” and Diba holding the word “ITALIA” close to her body. But Daniele Beschin, a councillor for the hard-right League party, said she was not an “Italian beauty” because she did not have the right skin colour (Diba was born in Senegal and grew up in the Italian city of Chiampo).
“That’s a real issue,” says Buchanan. “You speak to an Afro-Italian who lives in Milan, who speaks Milanese, and they are considered African. As a culture Italy is not ready to say: ‘This person is Italian.’”
In the aftermath of the blackface jumper and trinket scandals, Gucci hired Renée Tirado as their diversity chief while Prada set up a diversity council (and it was announced that the creative director, Miuccia Prada, was having racial sensitivity training). For Jean, these moves miss the point. “I find it absurd that we need them, when the simple application of common sense should allow each of us to direct these energies elsewhere,” she says.
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Buchanan agrees. “You need to talk to the executive recruiting firms who are blocking black and brown people from getting jobs at the company. You need to talk to educational systems and ask why black and brown people are not arriving at design school. You cannot even have a real conversation about inclusiveness or diversity if you’re not diverse on the inside.”
Buchanan says the root of Italian fashion’s race problem is a colonial history that no one really talks about.
“In Valenza I go to have a coffee and it’s served to me in a mug with a black mammy figure on it,” he says. “No one questions that, and if you do you get an arrogant defensiveness. Italians think racism is something which happens over the water in America, but no one talks about the colonial history in Somalia, Eritrea and Libya,” he says. “I’m not sure those conversations are happening in educational systems.”
Jean speaks of “extreme fatigue” around the admission of racism in Italy. “But that doesn’t justify the constant denial.” He says the next step involves a deeper change of philosophy in the Italian psyche. “A coherent first step would be to talk to us, instead of talking about us.”