MILAN — The curtain will be raised today on a Milan Fashion Week edition like no other, in a city and country that have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the uncertainties and caution in preventing the spread of the virus, the calendar is rich enough to span until Sept. 28 and the schedule is more rounded, with several new brands appearing on the scene and initiatives that respond to the global demand for more inclusivity.
The Italian fashion industry is giving voice to five designers who reflect its multicultural structure and, in collaboration with the Black Lives Matter in Italian Fashion Collective, Italy’s Camera della Moda will present the “We Are Made in Italy” project that will highlight the work of five Italian designers of color, mentored by Stella Jean and Edward Buchanan. “The Fab Five Bridge Builders” will show their spring 2021 collections as a unique collective of Black-owned Made in Italy businesses — the first of many events set to define the future of Italian fashion, according to Camera della Moda’s president Carlo Capasa.
For the first time, Sindiso Khumalo from South Africa, Shuting Qiu from China and Ji Won Choi from Seoul appear on the Camera’s official calendar, while the following are part of the Spotlight on Lebanese Designers digital event: Azzi & Osta; Boyfriend the Brand; Emergency Room; Hussein Bazaza; L’Atelier Nawbar, and Roni Helou.
Paolo Landi, marketing and communication adviser with extensive experience in the fashion sector, argued that the industry has long overcome the concept of targeting customers — “those pies split in colored slices that represented sex, geographic provenance or spending capacity.”
He attributed this shift to the fast-fashion giants, which have been catering to customers without any distinction for years. In the luxury sector, he said Gucci was the first to catch on, bringing “a breath of fresh air in communication, suddenly making all the others seem old” and Dior, “with its shout out to feminism, floored everyone.” To be contemporary, fashion, he contended, needs to dive into diversity and experiment.
He noted that while Italians have become more inclusive when it comes to appreciating food, art or music, fashion is catching up and the diversity executive is a more recent position within companies. By being inclusive, brands are more innovative because they leverage multiple points of view, “sometimes even in conflict with one another,” he explained.
To be sure, Gucci and Prada, for example, have committed to projects of diversity and inclusion, and for some fashion brands, it’s all par for the course.
For Dean and Dan Caten at Dsquared2, inclusivity is “a way of thinking” and “always a defining part of the label’s vision simply because it is who we are as individuals. When we established the brand, we created a place where diversity and individuality could freely be, because we ourselves had to face adversity by being free and diverse. Being gay twin brothers of a family of nine kids in a suburb in Toronto, our upbringing was not always smooth sailing. We were bullied and shamed. There is no different way of being for us — not for Dsquared2, not in business, nor in our private life. Being understanding and open in every aspect of our brand has got us to where we are now,” they wrote in e-mailed answers to WWD.
“For us, fashion is a visual language that is constantly evolving with many different and beautiful voices. We work with different personalities with different points of view because they can enrich this story. As creators, we are curious and excited about new stories to embrace into and to build on the diverse community we are. In light of the state our world is in right now, we aim even more to share our vision through openness, respect and love.”
Asked if they believe that Italy is lagging behind in embracing inclusivity, they responded: “We think everyone has to engage and act upon these ongoing issues now — without exceptions. It is about being empathetic toward each other; it is about helping enact real change even if it starts as a chat between friends. No one should be silent. The topics of diversity and inclusivity are becoming louder and stronger than ever before in Italy, and with good reason.”
They underscored how exceptional the year 2020 has been, giving them “the opportunity to reflect and spread awareness to force change. To us, as designers and individuals, it is important that we keep on working toward the goal of creating safe and equal spaces that are defined by inclusivity, diversity and true representation. This is who we are and what we stand for and it guides us every day.”
Veronica Etro, creative director of women’s wear at the family-owned company, said that “embracing diversity has always been part of the Etro mind-set, with inclusivity being one of the key brand values.”
She and her brother Kean, who is in charge of men’s wear at Etro, have always offered designs inspired by globetrotting, distant and diverse destinations and cultures. Etro’s fashion, she continued, “should be ageless, portraying a multigenerational group of diverse personalities, far from the concept of a stereotypical beauty.”
Case in point: Etro’s latest Pegasus Club campaign is fronted by an eclectic group that includes Halima Aden, Elsa Hosk, Anna Dello Russo, Alton Mason, Hend Sabri, Hikari Mori, Naty Abascal and Myss Keta.
Etro has not only dressed Lina Wertmüller as she received an honorary award at the 2019 Governors Awards, but it has also cast Marisa Berenson and Lauren Hutton in its advertising campaigns, invited transgender actress MJ Rodriguez for her first time in Milan to watch the women’s show in February, and had Farida Khelfa and Tatjana Patitz, among others, walk the runway.
“I wouldn’t call it a heightened attention to the subject, I feel it is more like there is a broader diversity in the world compared to past decades, with social media finally giving voice to individuals,” noted Veronica Etro.
Silvia Venturini Fendi said “the old codes that have been dictating femininity for decades are being overtaken by new rules that represent today. Women have so many facets and all needs to be represented. That is also why since the show in February, I wanted to have different women, different generations, ages, body shapes on the catwalk.” For Fendi’s fall 2020 runway show, the designer tapped models of different sizes such as Paloma Elsesser, and ages, including Carolyn Murphy and Karen Elson, marking a departure for the Italian house.
Piero Piazzi, president of Women Management Milan model agency, admitted the attention to inclusivity “should have happened a lot earlier,” but now designers and people in general “are seeking for the truth, a real vision of life,” and that models on the runway are not all as pencil-thin as they were in the past. He admitted Italy was lagging in terms of diversity and inclusion, citing the country’s regulations on same-sex rights, for example. He also conceded that since Italy does not have as large multiethnic population as other countries, “some people don’t really understand” some of the issues and are more focused on the situations derived by the arrival of immigrants from war-torn countries. Piazzi believes “fashion has welcomed diversity,” citing for example a new generation of Black models who were born in Italy, such as Nabou Thiam, whose family is from Senegal and who has worked with the likes of Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Off-White, Missoni, Benetton, Etro and Ermanno Scervino.
“The word inclusivity, the concept it expresses, didn’t even exist in everyday vocabulary when Marina Rinaldi was founded back in 1980,” observed Lynne Webber, managing director of the brand, part of the Max Mara group, which aims to propose different role models in the industry. Catering to curvy and plus-size figures, the brand has long been pushing boundaries, working in 2015 with Patricia Arquette, seen as embodying a successful career and different values, including self-acceptance, or Ashley Graham, and tapping Roksanda, Antonio Berardi and Fausto Puglisi for capsule collections.
“There was no conversation over this issue at that time, and, consequently, no competition in our segment of the fashion field. Over the years the fashion world has opened up to values such as body positivity, body confidence, inclusivity, more voices have added up to the conversation we started and more brands have ventured into a wider size range. For Marina Rinaldi this is a much welcome challenge,” said Webber, as the company has diversified with red carpet gowns, technical sportswear and luxury denim.
She admitted there still is “undoubtedly, some prejudice toward curvy women in Italy and France, and there are certainly brands that have approached this segment of the market out of mere economical interest and for marketing reasons, without the necessary sensitivity. But steps have been taken in the right direction, and seeing curvy models walking the runways for several brands in both Milan and Paris last February is to me an excellent sign that times are ready for a major change, a change society and women are demanding.”
René Caovilla on Sept. 24 will launch its “Walk Your Way” video, which “merges the brand’s most important elements — Venice, the evolution of our style and the concept of women’s empowerment,” said chief executive officer Edoardo Caovilla, as the voiceover encourages the models to walk boldly and “like nothing’s stopping” them. “We are spurring women to pave their way, to express themselves, as so many in many parts of the world still face restrictions.”
Conveying a message of internationalization and multiethnicity, the company for the first time tapped a Chinese model, Xian Xian Peng, flanking Alice Goulart in the video. “We have 15 different nationalities in our production team and 75 percent of our employees are women,” said Caovilla, emphasizing the structure of his family’s company.
Massimo Giorgetti, founder and creative director of MSGM, believes “inclusivity is a representation of nowadays,” and that it is “linked with the development of the world, of our society that is continually changing and in movement. Working in fashion would mean to be able to understand and represent the social trends before they happen, but unfortunately it’s not always like this. We have been probably too lazy and too self-referential to understand how ‘closed’ our small world was and we started to be sensitive about this only once big social revolutions were actually happening. We can’t close our eyes anymore in all the activities we do, we have to try to educate and sensitize even working on a clothes collection because at the end of the day fashion can have a social relevance.”
Asked if he was planning to further emphasize the relevance of inclusivity in any way, Giorgetti said he would “try to do [his] best and to improve for sure, but I really want the process to be natural and organic….I don’t want to do it just because we have to.” These issues have always been part of his brand, and he cited the first LGBTQ-oriented ad campaign in 2014 with same-sex models kissing each other, “and it was because that was part of my life and I wanted this to be part of the brand, too.” Giorgetti did the same with the men’s spring 2021 video.
The designer admitted that in Italy inclusivity “is more difficult because we are not used to having so many different cultures and the political situation is not helping for sure but we can’t avoid to admit that the society is changing and we have a growing number of second generations of Italians that are originally from other countries and new LGBTQ families. Also, I think fashion is ‘unexpectedly’ conservative and this is reflected also in the difficulties the sector has in being supportive and inclusive sometimes…”
Giovanna Brambilla, partner at the Milan-based executive search firm Value Search, also wondered whether the fashion industry is “ready to pass from exhibited diversity to inclusivity that is lived” on a daily basis. She admitted that the fashion industry has for some time now promoted “a message of universal brotherhood,” or as some may say, favored “the identification of a specific brand with a target of potential followers and consumers that is as large as possible,” starting as far back as Benetton in the Eighties with Oliviero Toscani’s photos.
“How much are fashion companies and especially luxury companies ready to really include those with different cultures and ethnicities? How much are minorities inserted in the value chain and listened to in a decision-making process? Unfortunately, if we consider the number of creative directors and top women managers, for example, we immediately see there is no comparison between the diversity exhibited on the catwalks and on Instagram and the real inclusivity within the company,” in some cases, she opined.
Brambilla cautioned against tricking sophisticated consumers, who have learned to differentiate between what is original and what is fake, “between those that value sustainability and are credible and those that wash the concepts with commercial objectives. Because inclusivity is becoming a shared value and the expression of our society, I potentially see a very high risk for many luxury brands: if they do not quickly bring inclusivity within their companies to make it one of the key values at all levels of their hierarchy, they will miss an enormous opportunity to develop innovative concepts and a creativity that is not stereotyped. But in particular, they will risk losing credibility in the eyes of their followers and clients. And we very well know that there is no worse disappointment for a customer than to feel deceived.”