Fashion designer Stella Jean has pulled out of this month’s Milan Fashion Week and gone on hunger strike, citing a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Jean, who was born and raised in Rome to a Haitian mother, said she would strike out of concern for other minority designers associated with her, who she feared might suffer a backlash.
She said the Italian National Fashion Chamber, of which she is the only member of Afro-European background, previously cut support for the We Are Made in Italy (Wami) collective after she gave a speech on highlighting racial injustice in Italy last year.
The Wami collective is made up of young designers of colour working in Italy.
Jean added that she would only end her strike with written assurance that no professional harm would come to the Wami designers ‘as a result of our history of misunderstanding’.
Based in Rome, Jean’s brand has become an international force, featuring in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on Italian fashion in April 2014.
She has used her platform to speak on issues close to her, attending the Palace of Nations as a speaker on the ‘Power of Empowered Women’ and working with the UN on an ethical fashion programme.
Stella Jean, pictured, is the only Black member of the Italian National Fashion Chamber
The Wami collective celebrate at the end of Stella Jean’s Spring/Summer collection in Milan
The Wami collective also confirmed they would withdraw from Milan Fashion Week, which will run from Tuesday 21 until Monday 27 February.
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.
In a letter to Caprasa regarding the strike, Jean said: ‘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.’
Kehinde Wiley, Stella Jean, Naomi Campbell and Afua Hirsch (L to R) speaking in Qatar in 2022
Stella Jean attends the Palazzo Portinari Salviati to celebrate the Renaissance Awards in 2022
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.
President Carlo Caprasa pictured in 2019. He said he regretted Jean’s decision to withdraw from Milan Fashion Week and said he had not yet read the letter detailing the hunger strike
Designer Stella Jean talks during an interview with the Associated Press, in Rome, in 2020
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.