Protesters at Milan Fashion Week. Photo courtesy of PETA.
In 2021, fashion is no longer confined to the individual’s self-expression sphere. It is a radical tool for societal messages and a new medium for protesting. While many countries have adopted fashion as a new form of activism, what is the message like in Italy?
AOC and the question of fashion as protest
American Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked both controversy and celebration after wearing a white gown to the infamous Met Gala with Tax the Rich written in red graffiti. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also nicknamed AOC, has always supported reform measures for a fairer tax system in the United States. Since 2019 she has proposed a reform that would include a 70% bracket on income over $10 million. The MET Gala is of course the biggest fashion event of the year, where designers are offered to invite their own guests who will wear their creations. AOC was invited by designer and activist Aurora James, founder of the brand Brother Vellies, to wear the custom white gown. AOC pretty much broke Instagram the night of the Gala when she posted a picture of her and Aurora with the following caption “Proud to work with @aurorajames as a sustainably focused, Black woman immigrant designer who went from starting her dream @brothervellies at a flea market in Brooklyn to winning the @cfda against all odds — and then work together to kick open the doors at the Met. The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich.”
People all around the world have been inspired by her move. “The medium is the message and fashion is the medium,” she rightfully tells her audience in another behind the scene Instagram video. It is true that using fashion as a tool to address wider social concerns has been a strategy for activists seeking to foster change. AOC’s decision to appear with the Brother Vellies gown at the MET Gala of course did not please everyone, both right and left. However, this whole brouhaha certainly raises the question ‘what constitutes protest fashion?’ AOC is now a woman with political and societal power whose whole political ideology and strategy is to serve the disempowered, those left behind by American society. Fashion has always been political. Looking at one of the most influential countries in the world, Italy, is there any form of protest fashion that already exists in Dante’s nation, has it been part of its history all along, or is it a movement that has yet to be born?
What about Italy?
To the general public, Italian fashion often equals luxury — Versace, Gucci, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and the like. These brands have often been criticized for their lack of sustainability, the inhumane work conditions of their garment workers, or their use of fur. Italy has a strong activist community when it comes to animal rights. In 2018, the British organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in partnership with the Italian animal rights group La LORO Voce — Iene Vegane, crashed the opening of the Milan Fashion Week. Three activists posed in front of the Duomo, in their underwear and wearing giant rabbit masks. Their goal was to bring awareness around the cruel treatments of rabbits who are used for their fur in the fashion industry.
It was not the first time that activists stood out against the mainstream use of fur by Italian designers. Activist Dan Mathews successfully managed to ambush a Gianfranco Ferre fashion show in 2004 to also protest against the use of fur. Matthews’ goal was to infiltrate the actual fashion show, something that other activists were not able to do before. Dressed as a priest, he showed up to the Gianfranco Ferre show and claimed to the staff that he was part of the church Ferre was attending. A miracle or not, he was in. His luck did not run out, as he passed security and got to the catwalk. He walked down and showed everyone in attendance a sign that read in English ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. While he was obviously taken off the stage and dragged outside, Matthews still viewed his action as fruitful and hoped it encouraged other forms of fashion activism.
The activists who push forward the movement
2017 was a year that shook the world. When Donald Trump became president in the United States, it provoked a global wave of anger and revolt throughout the international community. Activism grew and protests happened globally. In February, in response to the historical Women’s March in Washington DC, the Italian fashion brand Missoni had their models walk the runway in the iconic pink knit hats worn as a protest symbol of women’s rights. The collection was named Pink is the new black, and proceeds were donated to the American Civil Liberties Union and United Nations Refugee Agency. One could argue that it was easy for designers to ride the popular wave of activism for their own benefit, but perhaps it was also the beginning of a conscious change for Italian fashion.
The pioneers of activism and fashion in Italy were here long before 2017. Franca Sozzani is of course an Italian legend — one might know her as the editor of Vogue Italia, but she was also an activist and very ahead of her time. According to her, fashion was geopolitical. She shook the dust off Vogue’s editorial line. Fashion was not frivolous it had a place at the political table, and deserved one. She took bold editorial risks. The Black Issue of 2008, which featured only models of color, sold out twice. In 2012, she got UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations to appear on the cover of an issue of L’Uomo Vogue entitled Rebranding Africa. She was not shy to grapple with other important societal topics such as domestic violence, plastic surgery, drug addiction and the BP oil spill for other special issues.
More recently, you might have heard of designer Stella Jean. For the Haitian American, the Black Lives Matter protests were a turning point for her. Not pleased with the lack of representation of designers of colour in Milan Fashion Week, she drafted a letter with co-authors Michelle Ngonmo of Afro Fashion Association and American designer Edward Buchanan from Bottega Veneta to the representatives of Milan’s Camera Della Moda. “It’s not a protest,” she said in a New York Times article. “I’m not protesting. It’s a proposal.” Jean and her collaborators denounced the lack of inclusion of their industry, but also the tendency to draw free inspiration from and appropriate Black culture. Their fight saw some results: an initiative in partnership with Milan’s Camera Della Moda was created. For the first time, five designers discovered by Ngonmo showed exclusively at the 2021 Milan Fashion Week as part of a new focus on Black-owned businesses. They also received resources and mentorship.
How today’s designers are using their creations as a medium for change
Milan continues to be the ground for profound change and progressive initiatives. ANTI-DO-TO is “an activist brand that addresses the issues of our times and acts to help solve them.” The brand is one year one and has already revolutionized the industry with their unique model built for social change. Sharing is the core of their business model with 50% of their net profits that are invested to fund social projects (recently, a skatepark for children in Gaza). Their t-shirts, jumpers and other products are also made locally in Veneto, and with organic material. “It’s a self-feeding mechanism, product by product, project by project: only together with our community can we challenge the status quo and start making a real IMPACT. We can make a difference.” they describe on their website. For them, fashion as a protest is done right here right now and not just on the street or on catwalks, it is the motor behind their everyday choices and actions as a company.
For an Italian politician to mirror AOC’s move, perhaps we need a generation change. However, protest fashion in other ways does exist in Italy. Fashion designers, activists and strategists are joining forces to raise awareness around societal issues. A more inclusive industry with fairer practises and a focus on sustainability is the goal.
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