Stella Jean in conversation with Valerie Steele.

Italian designer Stella Jean, who has been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter conversation in her native country as it relates to the fashion industry, says she is starting to see initial signs of change.

Speaking in a virtual discussion with FIT Museum director Valerie Steele, Jean recalled the personal history that led her to this moment and the difficulties she encountered while advocating for people of color in a country that she feels is, “resistant to acknowledge that Italy is not just white people.”

Jean, who is of Haitian descent on her mother’s side, grew up in a household that strived to educate her on the history of her ancestors. Her mother would have history books shipped from Haiti so her children could learn what she felt was a more accurate representation of the country’s history.

“My mother was a proud, proud Haitian woman. I’d ask, ‘If what you say about your land is true, then why is it not in my French or Italian history books?’ Her answer was an important life lesson — ‘Do not ask the lion the story of how mouse escaped.’”

We are used to history written exclusively by the victor and it’s fundamental to go back a few pages to hear the voices of those silenced for so long and to rewrite those pages with necessary objectivity to transform what was a tool of propaganda into one of education,” Jean said.

In Italy, the Black Lives Matter movement has played out differently than it has in the U.S.

“It’s quite different in Italy where multiculturalism and ethnicity is extremely appealing when it comes as a colorful form of inspiration,” Jean said from her home in Italy. “That same enthusiasm decreases significantly when it comes to Black people beyond the gaze of multiculturalism.”

“When you dare to be vocal, that often coincides with the moment that people realize your identity goes beyond you being pleasantly tropical and that you are Black. I have extreme fatigue facing this issue in Italy right now. Since September things have been changing. You have to understand that Italian fashion is a representation of a new mix of society, but having that on the cover of magazines and in advertising and on the catwalk does not correspond to a real Black minority presence in the local Italian workforce. We are completely lacking in decision-making roles. Black Italians are not granted access but on the contrary, our physical images are in great demand and widely exploited for promotional purposes.”

But for Jean, the glaring truth is that these images “in no way align” with these companies’ businesses. Speaking that glaring truth, however, hasn’t always been welcomed. Jean said she has been threatened and blacklisted in the process of exposing what she considered to be deep hypocrisies in the Italian fashion industry. She called this “corporate colonialism masked.”

“It’s clear almost every single fashion company has run to fill their ads with Black models while major fashion magazines make lists of Black talents and designers who are mostly not Italian,” Jean said. “No one can reveal the shocking national truth about a whole invisible generation of Black Italians deemed not glamorous enough by the media because they belong to a minority group that is not accepted as a true part of our country.”

In the past few months, Jean has worked closely with the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana — from which she felt initial response to her cause was severely lacking — to establish a Black Lives Matter in Italy Fashion Collective, as well as tools that the Italian fashion industry can use to improve diversity and avoid cultural appropriation.

There will soon be a database of textile and artisan manufacturing hubs in Africa for companies to contact in moments where African arts are used as collection inspiration. A new portal will be established for Black Italian fashion professionals to list their experience for hire.

“They are all trying to participate [in] racial sensitivity training but I think they should save that money and invest in a new generation of designers and fashion professions of different backgrounds,” said Jean.

And in a moment of true change, Jean’s program “We Are Made in Italy — The Fab Five Bridge Builders” helped open Milan Fashion Week where five African-born, Italian design talents showed their collections on a global stage.

“It’s a new age in Italy, I’m determined to counter the misconception that Italians are all white,” Jean said. “We are part of the same multiculturalism that all Italians are made of regardless of color. This is ongoing and I’m sorry to be the one to tell people but there is no going back.”

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