The Italian fashion system was recently called to a reckoning over issues of inclusivity, diversity and racism by the powerful intervention of designers Stella Jean and Sansovino’s Edward Buchanan. The road to bringing about effective long-term change will certainly be long and bumpy; Italian society has yet to come to terms with endemic cultural issues of racism and xenophobia. But a first step has at last been made. Conversations have taken place, hopefully opening doors to a way forward.
One of the players involved in broadening the spectrum of Italy’s fashion landscape, granting access and visibility to a wider pool of talents, is the Afro Fashion Association. Non-profit and volunteer-driven, it’s a platform for cross-cultural exchange, fostering the creativity and potential of emerging designers of color. The driving force behind it is Cameroon-born, Italy-based Michelle Francine Ngonmo, who founded it in 2015. Since then, the Association has organized events, workshops, and exhibitions; operating as a sort of ecosystem, it has also promoted the Afro Fashion Week Milan, where a selection of talents Ngonmo has scouted have presented their collections.
This year, together with Jean and Buchanan, she selected five designers to showcase. Each of them will receive mentorship and guidance to help expand their creative potential and brand-building skills. During Milan Fashion Week, their work was showcased in a space at the White Show at Superstudio; to further celebrate their presence as part of this seasons’ CNMI calendar, a video called We Are Made in Italy—The Fab Five Bridge Builders was digitally broadcasted. It was a meaningful closing to a digital/physical fashion season like no other—with fewer people in attendance, but full of energy and goodwill for a better future.
I sat down with Michelle Ngonmo to learn more about her work and the five designers of color who were part of this year’s showcase during at Milan Fashion Week.
Tell me a little about yourself and how the Afro Fashion Association came about?
I was born in Cameroon; I arrived in Italy with my family when I was a kid. We settled in Ferrara, where I did my studies in communication, specializing in foreign languages. I did internships in Belgium and France to broaden my education. I’m naturally quite curious and I like learning. When I was at university, I became extremely involved in activism, and that brought me a deeper understanding of other cultures and their many problems. Being Black and living in a society where I didn’t see representation of the multiculturalism that was my actual life and the reality I was living, I decided to act and, as the saying goes, to bring my water to the mill. I started organizing events, also working with the city’s authorities. That’s how I became president of Ferrara’s African students’ association. I’ve always kept strong cultural bonds with my native Cameroon, working with universities and cultural institutions there. When you live in a society that always reminds you from where you came, you have no choice but to celebrate your roots. You have to embrace your ‘double culture’ and make it a point of strength and pride. I understood early on that I had to deepen the bond with my native culture while keeping alive the sense of belonging to two different cultures, Cameroonian and Italian.
Italy is apparently a welcoming, open culture. However, racism and xenophobia are problematic issues that haven’t been properly confronted.
I don’t want to say that Italy isn’t a racist country, because we know very well that racism exists everywhere. In France, in the US—it’s everywhere, we’re not talking fairy tales here. Yet there are different stories that have to be taken into account when talking about these issues, and I don’t like to be superficial on such complex matters. It’d take days, if not years, of studies on the socio-historical causes that led to racism and xenophobia before getting the complete picture. That said, I’m not afraid of racism in Italy. What I’m afraid of is paternalism—it’s worst than racism, it’s much more devious and sneaky and it’s underestimated. A paternalistic attitude means that if I’m a Caucasian-European, I have the right to teach you what to do, what’s right and what’s wrong, and that you as POC must listen to me and follow my rules. Paternalism means that I, as a Caucasian-European, have the right to educate you. It’s a very, very dangerous attitude. So we have to take action and to change the rules—nobody will do it for us. But I really do believe that things can change—that’s why I keep fighting.
From being an activist during your time as a student, how did you end up being involved in the fashion world?
My activism actually put me in touch with many fashion students in Italy—it isn’t true that there aren’t POC in fashion schools here. Maybe they aren’t able to access the most prestigious ones because of money problems, but there are lots of POC students who, after finishing a fashion school, cannot find a job and have to fall back to humbler jobs, or at least very different ones from those for which they had studied. But probably this is also a problem for Caucasian-European students: Fashion isn’t an easy business, it’s very selective and quite difficult to access. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. So I thought, why not create a platform to make those talents visible and heard, a place where their work can be seen? That’s how I started my fashion scouting in Italy. It has been a rather complex process. My research has involved not only POC, but people from different ethnicities and backgrounds: I’ve called my association Afro Fashion and not African Fashion, because there are other emerging Afro-descendants, from different provenance, struggling to be known. We are all for a multicultural approach, our platform is open to all the emerging talents who somehow reference African culture in their creations.
How did you find the means to support and finance such the initiative?
I’ve invested all my savings in it, I never received any money from anyone. I’m deeply grateful to my staff of 30 collaborators who are working with me and believing in what we’re doing, and who have contributed to making it work. Honestly, no one ever cared about what I was doing or offered help. But I understand. You have to know how to win people’s trust. When we started, our first Afro Fashion Week edition in 2016 was organized by a group of just 15 people. Today, to organize this event at White, we are 150. On our website, we now host 53 designers, plus the five designers showcased here—so it’s 58. It has brought me to tears, I have to admit it. We’re expanding our reach, we also work with Afro-Italian models, beautiful young girls with absolutely no experience we’re helping introduce in the fashion world. In terms of support, from last year we’ve received the patronage of SMI ( Sistema Moda Italia). We work with them to facilitate the integration of young designers and talents into fashion companies and in the workplace. It’s vital for their creative growth and for their survival.
Also, Stella [Jean] and Edward [Buchanan] have been instrumental in getting the attention of CNMI . Their strong intervention through the BLMIF #BlackLivesMatterinItalianFashion collective to tackle discrimination and misrepresentation of POC in the Italian fashion industry has been hugely important in steering the conversation in the direction of true, effective change. They’ve made very specific requests to acknowledge and include diversity within the Italian fashion system through concrete actions. Thanks to Stella’s and Edward’s tireless engagement, CNMI has contacted us. In the past, we’ve written several times to Camera Della Moda without ever getting an answer. I’m not saying that they didn’t answer me because I’m Black. Maybe it was because our project wasn’t of interest to them—but I would’ve liked to have an answer, be it positive or negative. In this I see their mistake.
Talking about your extensive talent scouting, how does it work? What are you looking for in the collections you see or in the work of young designers you find?
I travel extensively in Italy and I often organize meetings in various cities, working with fashion schools but mainly connecting with local Afro communities. I work closely with them, they’re an invaluable source of knowledge and experiences—the only way for me to know firsthand what’s going on, what’s worth looking at. Talking with people is the best way to gather information and to get in touch with them on a personal level. Our ancient culture is an oral culture, the network operated through word of mouth. It’s a lively, deeply human way of connecting. I always start from the human quality of the work I’m seeing, my judgment on its potential always takes into account the stories of the people and of their community. This is what I’m looking for: those stories, those lives, those communities, whose spirit often reflects in the creative work of the young talents I’m trying to support.
Here, the five emerging designers and check out some pieces from their latest collections below.
Karim DaoudiPhotographed by Jon Bronxl
Born in Morocco, Karim Daoudi is a young designer who lives in San Mauro Pascoli, working at a footwear company. To broaden his fashion skills, he studied also as a shoe modeling technician. In his creations, he mixes different materials using multiple sewing techniques, balancing elegance and functionality. In 2017 he won the Fashion Young Stylists CNA Federmoda Roma award; he also participated in The One Milano event. In 2019 he took part in the "Fashion Graduate Italia" show.
Joy Ijeoma MeribePhotographed by Jon Bronxl
Joy Ijeoma Meribe was born in Nigeria. After graduating in Foreign Languages and Literatures, in 2003, she moved to Italy and specialized in cultural/linguistic mediation. After obtaining a Master’s degree in International Business Studies in Reggio Emilia, she attended a fashion school connected to the Istituto di Moda Burgo in Modena and Bologna. In 2017 she launched her brand Modaf Designs, which she defines as “Afropolitan Made in Italy.”
Fabiola ManirakizaPhotographed by Jon Bronxl
Originally from Burundi, Fabiola Manirakiza, moved to Italy as a young girl with her family. Trained as a doctor, she decided to pursue fashion studies in Italy and abroad. She started creating small collections for herself and for her friends; Italian culture and art have a strong influence on her design. The feedback she received was so positive that in 2016 she launched her Frida Kiza brand.
Pape Macodou FallPhotographed by Jon Bronxl
Pape Macodou Fall, alias Mokodu is a Senegalese artist and fashion designer based in Rome. Born into a family of diplomats, he made his debut at a very young age as a cartoonist. He cultivates a passion for figurative painting and portraiture by focusing on the iconic figures of the African Renaissance, and his works have been exhibited in various countries: at the Art Fair Paris, at the Biennale of Contemporary Art and Culture in Rome, and at the Dak’art Biennale in Dakar. In 2017, a meeting with the founder of the Afro Fashion Association founder Michelle Ngonmo gave him an opportunity to enter the world of fashion; the following year Mokodu launched its first Jardin de l’amour collection.
Claudia Gisèle NtsamaPhotographed by Jon Bronxl
Born in Cameroon, Claudia Gisèle Ntsama studied fashion in her homeland and moved to Italy to attend the Fashion Design course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna; after the three-year degree, through the Erasmus program she attended the Haute Ecole des Arts du Rhin in Strasbourg for textile design. Her style is inspired by the world of contemporary art and Asian fashion.