In 2013, Louis Pisano was 23 years old, living in Milan and working at a fashion PR agency. Every Halloween, the photographer Giampaolo Sgura, editor Miguel Arnau, and art director Marco Braga would throw a very exclusive party, Hallowood, where people went “all out” on the costumes.
In 2012, the first year Pisano attended the theme was religion, blasphemy, and sacrilege. “It was a very, very strict door,” Pisano recalled to The Daily Beast. “You couldn’t just show up or sneak in. You had to be approved by all three of the organizers.”
A year later, Pisano got another invitation. The theme this time around: Disco Africa.
“I was like, ‘OK, this could go two ways,’” Pisano said over a Whatsapp call, while drawing a sharp inhale. “One way, people are respectful and they do something well thought out, to honor the heritage and spirit of Africa. And the other side of my brain, ugh, well, there’s a big problem with ignorance in Italy.”
Pisano, now 30 and a writer and advocate for diversity in fashion, knew that the theme “could be problematic.” But he spoke to a few people before the party who were planning “respectful” costumes. “People were going to dress up like zebras, African animals, things like that,” he said.
Pisano’s boss at the time, who had been in Milan for a while and seen her fair share of cultural appropriation antics, passed on the invite.
“I just thought it was really good exposure in general,” Pisano, originally from New York, said. “To be in this inner circle of some of the most exclusive people in fashion in Milan was next level. So I planned this really crazy look and was ready to live my supermodel Naomi Campbell fantasy.”
He spent extra time in the gym to compliment his outfit—a leopard thong and bra top underneath a fur cape and piles of jewels.
Things started to go “downhill” when Pisano arrived at a friend’s apartment to get ready. He saw an acquaintance there with “Afro wigs, bronzer, things like that.”
“I said, ‘Hm, maybe you shouldn’t do the bronzer,’ and he said OK,” Pisano recalled. “Just the Afro wig then. That was a little [problematic], but it’s a lot better than doing complete blackface.”
After arriving at the club, Pisano’s worst expectations were realized. As the writer recently shared in a viral tweet, “almost everyone in the Milanese fashion system was in blackface, dressed as slaves and other racist shit.”
Using photos as evidence, Pisano shared images of designers like Dean and Dan Caten (the twins behind fashion house DSquared), influencers like Ale Magni, and insiders like the PR Carlo Mengucci and Luigi Pugliese, who manages advertising at GQ Italia and L’Uomo Vogue smiling for the camera in various states of offensive costumes. (None of the individuals or the party’s hosts responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
“I remember upon waiting to go inside, I got closer and I thought, ‘Oh, these are not real Black people,’” Pisano said. “These are white people in blackface. They were making all of these sounds—speaking whatever they thought was an ‘African language.’ Oh my God. I needed a drink. I knew it was going to be a mess, but I was going to stay to see what was going on.”
The inside of the club, as Pisano put it, resembled “a complete shitshow.”
“People were in slave chains with shackles taking pictures of being whipped,” he said. “You had child soldiers. I can’t even describe it because I thought, ‘This is not really happening.’ I was in the space and half of me was really happy I gained entry and the other half was walking around being like, ‘Oh my God, there’s the head of this and designer of that completely ignorant of what they’re doing.’”
Pisano stayed, he said, “because I was there already. If anything, I could say I was there and can tell what really happened if anyone tries to say it didn’t happen.” It was a “voyeuristic experience,” too. “I stayed partly because I wanted to see how over-the-limits people would go.”
The hosts of the party ultimately apologized for the blackface, but only after photos leaked to Fashion Bomb Daily. “When the press jumped on the story, there was that pressure to make the apology,” Pisano said. But, in his mind, “they really don’t care. All of those people, a lot of them, felt the same way—we’re at this party, we’ve officially made it, we are above reproach.”
Racism in the Italian fashion industry, Black professionals working in Milan tell The Daily Beast, is symptomatic of nationalistic attitudes within the country itself.
“In Italy, they really don’t care what the outside thinks,” Pisano said. “Any outside opinion on what’s going on in Italy is automatically invalidated. You’re not Italian, so why are you commenting on Italian things and telling us what to do?”
There have been points when the international press and watchdog Instagram accounts like @DietPrada have pointed to a reckoning in the industry. It usually comes after a brand does something insensitive, problematic, or downright racist, and there is no shortage of recent history to pull from. But while those call-outs (usually) produce a public apology, these instances keep happening.
In the past two years, both of the biggest Italian fashion houses—Gucci and Prada—both put blackface in their stores. Gucci’s came last year in the form of a balaclava sweater with oversized red lips. In late 2018, a civil rights attorney named Chinyere Ezie noticed an offensive $550 bauble in a Prada Soho store window.
In Prada’s case, the brand reached a settlement with the New York City Commission on Human Rights. While the brand denied practicing discrimination, it took up a slew of reforms, including promises of donations, hiring a more diverse set of candidates, and allowed for “external monitoring of its progress for the next two years,” Vanessa Friedman reported for The New York Times.
For its part, Gucci hired a global director for diversity and inclusion, set up global scholarships, and invested $5 million in “community programs.”
Some might see this as progress, but the call-outs have done little to quell other bad behavior. Dolce & Gabbana has a long track record of problematic posturing, and despite mass boycotts online, Greta Gerwig, Blake Lively, Kate Middleton, and Melania Trump all wore the line this year.
“It’s difficult to be Black in Italy,” Pisano said. “It’s difficult to be Black in fashion in Milan. I’m just waiting for the turnover of power in fashion.”
Last year, as Pisano pointed out, Vogue Italia published a photo on its social media accounts and websites by Morroccan-Belgian artist Mous Lamrabat. The photo showed a Black man in a pointed white hood, an unmistakable nod to KKK robes. The image was later deleted. (A representative for Vogue Italia declined to comment.)
While the Instagram feeds of many Italian fashion brands may have the tell-tale black square of solidarity with global protests against the public murder of George Floyd and too many others, anyone with the shortest of memories can recall a time those in charge did something racist.
As Europeans began to mobilize in support of Black Live Matter this month, many Black fashion professionals living overseas spoke out about their experiences.
The Italian designer Stella Jean told WWD, “Being Black in Italy means learning how to deal with racist speech from the early age of seven years old... It’s a routine of normalized barbarism that builds a path with obstacles, where you inherently learn how to constantly be alert.”
Jean added she did not show during this year’s Milan Fashion Week “since the situation I was facing was no longer acceptable.”
The Fashion Spot, which catalogues casting on runways every season, frequently notes Milan having the “least diversity” in its shows. That was again true for the most recent Fall 2020 runways.
Tamu McPherson, an influencer based in Milan, has called for more luxury lines to collaborate with Black content creators. She told the Associated Press: “In seven years, I am still one of the only Black people invited into those spaces. That is unacceptable.”
Edward Buchanan, an American designer who has been based in Milan since 1996, told The Daily Beast that in his six years of teaching in Italy, “I can’t ever recall having a Black student in my class. That’s shocking. Institutions do recruiting, and there has to be efforts to make sure students in those communities know the creative industry could be something for their future. I don’t think that effort is really being made.”
Last week Tiffany Reid, a stylist and fashion director at Bustle, detailed a racist incident at Paris Fashion Week, where she entered a building for fittings and a woman said, “You can’t be here! You need to leave! There have been robberies in the building and people like you steal.”
“Imagine if you were trying to do your job, and do it well, and you were faced with situations like this,” Reid wrote. “This was a major incident, but just like all the Black fashion editors who have come before me, I have experienced microaggressions throughout my career.”
Though the exchange occurred in Paris, Reid’s story adds to the growing chorus of Black professionals sharing their stories about racism in European fashion capitals. Italy, which colonized Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, still reeks with echoes of nationalism, advocates told The Daily Beast.
Razzismo Brutta Storia, an anti-racist group in Italy, referred The Daily Beast’s inquiry to two fashion professionals in Milan: Jordan Anderson, a writer with NSS Magazine whose work has also appeared in Vogue Italia, and Choice E. Imarhiagbe, the social media manager of Afro Fashion Week, a Milan event founded by Michelle Francine Ngonmo.
“Italian racism is passive aggressive,” Imarhiagbe said over a Zoom call. “In America it’s more mainstream, people see it in police brutality. In Italy, it’s more like xenophobia.”
Anderson added that while he would not compartmentalize racism as “Italian” or “American,” he said that microaggressions are an everyday occurrence in the country. “It’s not blatant, in-your-face racism that you would see in America,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s better, that just means it’s different.”
So naturally, the culture of Milanese fashion would reflect the country’s norms. “The Italian fashion industry is a fort built by white people to pretty much keep Black people out,” Anderson said. “Whether that’s on purpose or not, that’s how it is.”
This glaring lack of equity, of course, is often what leads to brands releasing offensive products or posting racist imagery. “The problem is that there are not people of color at companies,” Imarhiagbe said. “There are so many Black students who have qualifications to be in some position. I don’t see why we can’t join the teams and be part of marketing. It’s just common knowledge.”
Anderson called the scene in Milan “a huge energy of complacency.” The unspoken mantra: “We don’t care because we don’t have to care.”
Why did it take a PR disaster for Gucci and Prada to recognize blind spots in hiring? “You can save money by caring, you can make money by caring,” Anderson said. “If you invest in Black and Brown talent, then you would make twice as much money than you’re already making.”
“What I would hate to happen is for there to be a divided industry—a ‘mainstream’ fashion industry and a ‘Black Italian’ fashion industry” Anderson added. “What I would prefer to happen is for both of them to collide and become one. We want equal opportunities and to be held to the same standards. But the realities of that happening, unfortunately, look very slim.”
It would behoove old guard institutions like Vogue Italia and Grazia to integrate their offices and magazines, Imarhiagbe said. “If [the fashion industry] does not support Black businesses, if they do not want to give us a chance, we will have to create our own space. Then we will become competitors. There is no reason for [big brands] to not have us on their own teams.”
The Milanese fashion world is small and insular. It’s so contained that when someone says “everyone in the industry was at the party,” it’s often not an exaggeration. That makes the lack of Black visibility even more glaring.
“If there was a Milan fashion week where no international people came, there were just people there from Milan, you would only see one or two Black people in the shows and front rows,” Anderson said. “One or two people, in an entire week of events. That is a problem.”
As DietPrada noted this month, the Italian retailer Luisa Via Roma launched a new June campaign featuring influencers from around the world sharing stories they loved about Italy. There was not a single Black face in the crowd of women. Anderson and Imarhiagbe both agreed that call-outs from the international press and Instagram accounts help draw attention to the segregation in Italian fashion.
“If brands are shamed on an international platform, they have no choice [but to address a problem],” Anderson said. “It’s sad that we have to resort to that. But they’re not listening. If you’re constantly shouting and screaming and nobody is listening, one would want to resort to the last option.”
And so the call-outs continue, until brands reform or a new generation takes over. But the endless cycle of cancellations and Twitter wars could be dulled if brands hired more Black people both in front of cameras and behind the scenes.
“Through our Afro Fashion Week events, we want to raise awareness in the media,” Imarhiagbe said. “We really need representation, to show people that we give so much to Italian culture. That’s really what we want.”