An exchange of cultures seemed to be the theme at Milan’s recently concluded men’s fashion week, as well as at the menswear trade show Pitti Uomo it was preceded by. Immigration has always been a hot topic in Italy, and the current influx of refugees crossing the North African boarders in hope of a better future, has reignited the debate. Though the local mindset of many is aversive, with regards to a multicultural society in which immigrants fully participate, Italy’s fashion industry seemed to be more open-minded towards that idea this season.
Pitti Uomo, in partnership with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative headed by United Nations officer Simone Cipriani, launched a project called “Constellation Africa”. It concerned a fashion show at Florence’s Fortezza da Basso, starring four African menswear designers, hailing from Angola, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Africa. ‘We’re used to working with big brands for which we produce shoes and accessories, but since a few years we’ve been working closely with emerging designers. We organized a competition and asked designers across Africa to submit their portfolio. What was important to us, was that these designers created the type of fashion that could appeal to a global audience,’ says Ethical Fashion Initiative founder Simone Cipriani, when I meet him backstage after the Constellation Africa show. His organization’s aim is to connect the fashion business with artisans based in Africa and Haiti. Amongst the brands the Ethical Fashion Initiative works with, are Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood. ‘I’ve lived between Ethiopia and Kenya, and when I look at the amount of skilled artisans I see in Africa, it reminds of the artisans in Florence when I was a kid. Though there are many bottlenecks within the continent in terms of infrastructure, there are great opportunities if you manage to properly coordinate everything. Mali is great for fabrics, and in Ethopia and Kenya they can do amazing things with leather. Then, in a country like Nigeria you’ll find lots of creative talent as well,’ Cipriani concludes.
Amongst the four African brands which presented their spring/summer 2016 collection in Florence, there was Orange Culture by Adebayo Oke-Lawal (Nigeria), Dent de Man by Alexis Temomanin (Ivory Coast), Projecto Mental by Shunnoz Fiel and Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga (Angola) and Maxhosa by Laduma Ngxokolo (South Africa). The latter, notorious for his knits since day one, sent a colorful collection down the runway which honored his Xhosa tribe, through the use of patterns and light wools. Orange Culture showed a different side of Africa, by embracing the trend of androgyny, through sheer fabrics, oversized hats and intricate embroideries. Angola’s Projecto Mental decided to celebrate the modern gentleman, via a collection which featured menswear staples such as double-breasts, single-breasts and utility pockets, with the type of quirkiness that is typical of the Southern African nation. Finally, there was the London-based, Ivory Coast-born designer behind menswear brand Dent de Man, who used Vlisco fabrics to get his point across, in addition to print-on-print layering, oversized tailoring, and equally oversized accessories.
‘Today, 43% of the exhibitors at Pitti are foreign. Florence is the birthplace of Italian fashion, and many of the big names in Italian fashion started out at Pitti, such as Giorgio Armani, Ottavio Missoni and Gianfranco Ferré. The growing presence of international designers is one of Pitti’s biggest novelties, and this year we decided to host a group of designers from Africa, via the Constellation Africa project in partnership with the Ethical Fashion Initiative,’ says Pitti CEO Raffaello Napoleone.
At Milan’s recently concluded men’s fashion week, it seemed that globalization wasn’t just one-way traffic anymore (i.e. the Western brands venturing into the East), but a proper exchange which saw the East venturing into the West. Of course there were also the usual suspects such as Etro and Missoni, who’ve always looked for inspiration outside of Europe’s boarders. ‘Last Christmas I was in Rajasthan, but I’ve also been in Mumbai and Madras before,’ Angela Missoni told me with regards to her spring/summer 2016 collection which was inspired by India (see rose petals on runway for proof). ‘My parents have always been curious, and traveled a lot, so I guess that’s where my curiosity comes from as well. When I visited Africa for the first time I was 13 years old, and went to Mali. Exploring has always been part of the Missoni DNA, so it’s not as if I designed this collection just because India is amongst our key markets; I believe that every cosmopolitan man around the globe could wear these pieces.’
Dolce & Gabbana were also keen on celebrating the East on the Italian runway, with a collection which according to the designers was heavily inspired by Chinese culture, intertwined with the brand’s Sicilian aesthetic.
Inspiration aside – Stella Jean can also be considered part of that group by the way, as an Italian designer whose pieces are defined by an African undertone – the real Asian deal participated in Milan’s fashion week as well. Giorgio Armani, who each season invites an emerging designer to present a collection in his Via Bergnone show venue, hosted an Asian designer for the first time. Japanese designer Hiromichi Ochiai, the man behind the brand Facetasm, was the designer in question backed by Mr. Armani. Fellow Asian designers who made it on Milan Fashion Week’s official calendar, were Chinese designers Zeng Fengfei and Ji Wenbo, who both showed on the final day of the men’s week. In addition to that, the day prior to the two Chinese designers sending their garments down the Milanese catwalk, GQ China hosted the “China New Force” event on the Italian fashion capital’s Piazza Duca D’Aosta.
It’s a matter of time before Italy’s overall attitude towards immigration will change, but if fashion is indeed a reflection of society, it shouldn’t take too long until the unknown is embraced, rather than avoided.