Michelle Ngonmo is the creator of Afro Fashion Week Milan, an annual event that presents leading and emerging collections by Black designers.
The mission is to showcase the diversity of styles, celebrate their creators, and encourage investment in Black creators. Afro Fashion Week also hosts workshops, exhibitions, and social events, involving photographers, bloggers, and influencers.
In this interview, Michelle tells us more about her business and her life in Italy.
What inspired you to start Afro Fashion Week?
Growing up in Italy, I never felt the country fully acknowledged its history of exclusion, as well as its colonial history in Africa (i.e., in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Libya). This might explain its resistance to migration and to imagining itself as pluricultural.
I founded Afro Fashion Week because the general media and fashion industry weren’t reflecting the society I lived in.
In Italy there are more than one million people of colour; you have many Black Italians, and I had seen firsthand the fashion and creative talents that Black designers brought to the table.
However, there weren’t the same opportunities for them when it came to representation, mentorship, or career potential.
What is the “Unseen Profiles” project?
When I was in university, I was the student body president of my city. During that time, I formed relationships with a lot of students and former students of colour that studied specific courses in school, but were doing something completely different as work.
This was because they were unable to land interviews for jobs in their actual field of study. So, they finished school and ended up doing something different because of course one has to pay bills.
It was from this moment that I began to realize that something wasn’t right and that these people, these CV’s(resumes) , were actually invisible to society. It was like they didn’t exist.
I got the idea to call the project ‘Unseen Profiles’ because there are always those that are on the surface, but there is so much more that lies beyond that. So, in collaboration with Vogue Italia, I launched “The Unseen Profiles”, a platform that connects professionals of color in Italy directly with local and international companies across all industries including Fashion, architecture, sports, engineering, maintenance, tourism, and much more.
What do you enjoy most about living in Italy?
There are so many reasons to love Italy: its food, wines, language, architecture, design, history, landscapes, beaches… the list is endless… Italy is HOME even if someone thinks it’s not or that I don’t belong here!
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a business owner?
Being undervalued because of my skin tone and because I’m a woman is routine! The biggest struggle I had to face during my journey is being underestimated.
Being Black and a woman in a white and mainly male chauvinist society can be a great disadvantage. Usually, people undervalue my level of education and experience.
They often that believe my objective information or analysis is not based on deep research of the sector in which I am specialized. In the course of time, experience has taught me to simply ignore that and focus on my work.
What are your thoughts on diversity in the fashion industry?
Do you mean real diversity or tokenism? (LOL). After the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the fashion industry vowed that there would be a change. We are in 2022 and yet, we still have a long way to go.
I know we can’t pretend that things can change in one day, but, I’m noticing that in 2020, the fashion industry was moved and keen to bring some changes to the table, but now it seems like the topic is become less important and than there are other trends to follow.
Most in the fashion industry still need to understand what diversity REALLY means. Fortunately, a few are really open and seeking collaborations, and comprehension to build a solid and better workplace and opportunity for all.
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