Nigeria-born designer Joy Meribe opened Milan Fashion Week on Wednesday with her debut runway collection, a concrete success for a movement to promote diversity in Italian fashion just a year after launching.
The Italian National Fashion Chamber tapped Meribe to open six days of womenswear previews for Spring-Summer 2022 after her inaugural collection for the “We are Made in Italy” initiative last year found commercial success.
“Beyond whatever video, proclamation or manifesto that we make, the real test is whether clients buy your products. Joy passed that exam,’’ said Italian-Haitian designer Stella Jean, who helped launch the initiative in the summer of 2020, asking the question, “Do Black Lives Matter in Italian Fashion?” inspired by the U.S. movement and following racists gaffes by major Italian fashion houses.
“It wouldn’t have been so quick, if there wasn’t an acceleration from the United States,’’ said Jean, who basked in the early achievement in the front row alongside Italy-based U.S.-born designer Edward Buchanan and Afro Fashion Week Milano founder Michelle Ngonmo.
Meribe broke down in tears after the show as she thanked the fashion chamber and the movement’s founders for getting her to the runway.
The collection featured tiered and ruffled skirts and jackets with built-in capes that were both regal, as seen in an off-shoulder dress sweeping the ground, and hip, including a mini day-dresses and shoulder-baring tunic. Textiles were an explosion of bright yellow against an aqua blue, with tropic prints featuring thatched cottages against flourishing banana trees, which Meribe said was meant to celebrate a return to more normality.
“We have passed from a dark moment, and I wanted to create something full of hope and light, the joy of restarting,’’ she said backstage.
The initiative that launched Meribe opened its second edition this fashion week, an all-female group of designers working in Italy with roots in Togo, Morocco, Haiti, Cuba and India, following last year’s “Fab Five” inaugural class of all African-born designers.
“There is movement happening,’’ said Buchanan, the American designer behind the Sansovino 6 label. “Of course everything takes time, but it takes somehow an industry to get used to the idea that these are talents like any other.”
To point, they have created a database of more than 3,000 fashion professionals with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds living in Italy, including designers, merchandisers, photographers and stylists, with the aim of putting to rest the notion that diverse talents weren’t available in Italy.
In this year’s “Fab Five” class, Judith Borsetto created a line of shoes and hosiery with embroidered details for her Judith Saint Jermain label, recalling her birth name in Haiti before she was adopted by an Italian family at age 4. Zineb Hazim designed a line of business wear for abaja-wearing Muslim women, using European plaids on the long garments, which were double-sided to extend a business traveler’s wardrobe.
Fallylah Nyny Ryke Goungou sourced woven fabrics from her native Togo in western Africa for looks inspired by her love of Japan and know-how in her adopted Italy. Romy Calzado, a former textile designer born in Cuba, created a collection with honeycomb graphic elements on fabrics with anti-viral properties, while Sheetal Shah, originally from India, designed an all-denim collection from textiles treated to resist water and wear longer.
But even while marking progress on diversity being made in the industry, organizers said that a racist incident at a four-star hotel in Milan aimed at this year’s “Fab Five” underlined the work still ahead.
Ngonmo said that she was checking into the hotel with the five women when the desk clerks rudely dismissed routine requests by paying guests, indicating that they didn’t belong there. She posted the incident on social media and later spoke with management, who apologized and fired the workers responsible.
“They dehumanized us, taking away our humanity and treating us like animals. It is really, really bad,’’ Ngonmo said.
Jean said the incident “is the proof that everything we are doing today, more than ever, needs to be done. It is a necessity.”