Afrofashion's Michelle Francine Ngonmo

The Afro Fashion Association founder on creative freedom, collaborative education, and replacing the ubiquitous “special project” model with sustainable systems

Michelle Ngono is the founder of the Afro Fashion Association, a not-for profit launched in Italy in 2015 to respond to the lack of visibility and resources for POC talent. The organization has since emerged as an incubator representing any underrepresented or emerging creator who taps into what Ngonmo calls “the Afro style.” With a rich program of cultural exhibitions, public-facing activations, and trade events aimed at directly connecting industry gatekeepers to emerging labels, Afro Fashion’s fusional approach emphasizes clothing’s function both as a form of creative expression and a powerful medium for institutional change. It’s a rare view in a commercial milieu driven by lightning fast turnarounds, and prone to superficial, quick-fix collabs and tokenist gestures. With the Afro Fashion Association, Michelle is keen to change – and expand – the model.

Since 2018, the volunteer-driven non-profit has operated not only in Italy but in Ghana, Rwanda, and Michelle’s native Cameroon, with educational and professional development programs geared toward creative empowerment, sustainable support systems, and promoting cultural exchange, innovation, and preservation. In the meantime, Afro Fashion has developed its footprint at home, too. The inaugural edition of the Black Carpet Awards took place earlier this year, adding a celebration of professional achievement in diversity and design to the organization’s flagship event, Afro Fashion Week Milan. During the Autumn/Winter 2023 womens’ season, activations also included a special tribute to Virgil Abloh and a showcase of 12 designers at MODES’ Piazza Risorgimiento store, where each talent was given free reign of their own window display. Supported by Vogue Italia, the takeover was the first iteration of what is now an ongoing partnership with MODES, aimed at cultivating creative expression, dialogue, and mutual discovery.

The Afro Fashion Association isn’t just about fashion, according to the founder: “it’s about fashion, culture, identity, art, food – everything,” she says. “Plus, fashion is not as exclusive as we’ve made it out to be.” Michelle comes from a background in media and communications – something she views as integral to the Afro Fashion project, not just as tools for getting the word out but as a means of changing how we collectively talk about representation in fashion. She found time to speak with MODES.COM at the height of Milan Fashion Week, between our photo shoot and the myriad events of the latest Afro Fashion season.

MODES: How did you come to found Afrofashion? What needs or gaps were you responding to at the time?

MN: I have been an advocate and an activist since the high school, and at university I was president of the POC student organization in Ferrara. I had the opportunity to travel a lot, and meet many other POC studying in Italy, where the media represented this entire part of society as dealer and prostitutes – that narrative. So I would confront this with other members of my community and ask, “what do you think is the problem?” People would tell me they would send out their resumes but couldn’t get job interviews. I wanted to do something to change the situation. At some point, you better get a seat at the table, right? So why not be at a table of our own, and tell the story that we want to tell – the story that is not told by others. Since I founded Afro Fashion Association in 2015 we’ve gone from, say, 10 volunteers to more than 80 people, working with us all around Italy. But I’ve never been into an “us versus them” mentality – I didn’t want to recreate that system. At a certain point I realized that we needed to expand the association, to extend it to emerging designers of all origins. They still have something in common: they need to somehow channel the Afro style. That’s why it’s Afro – not “African” – Fashion Association.

MODES: There wasn’t anything like this in Italy when you got started. Were you looking at projects in other countries to provide a model for the organization?

MN: It was always about Italy first. I was born a dreamer, let’s say. I used to want to be a journalist, and people used to say to me, “have you ever seen someone who looks like you working as a journalist here in Italy?” And I would say, “you know what? I’m going to try.” Because representation is something that mattered the most. You could look at France, England, or the USA, but those countries have their own history of immigration, their own story. I didn't want to compare the situation in France with what was going on in Italy. I wanted to create something for POC creatives here that would platform their expression.

MODES: You have grown internationally, though, with satellites in Cameroon, Ghana, and Rwanda. How are you exporting the work you do in Italy to these other countries?

MN: Outside of Italy, we work a lot on education. We know that education is the key for us. POC creatives cannot access opportunity without that access to mentorship. Organizations will go to Africa to teach their views, from an outside perspective, but we are not there simply to teach. We are there to learn, to build capacity. That is something we talk a lot about with the local populations. We are trying to help create a global product without taking out the identities of the creatives that we are working with. We want to help build a fashion ecosystem in those countries, and institutions we work with have been super welcoming on that side. We bring a kind of experience from within the Italian fashion system to boost local populations and organizations in ways that can fit what they’re already working on in their area.

MODES: It seems like a lot of what you're working on is sustainability, broadly defined – not just environmental, but in terms of building networks that at some point can operate on their own with longevity

MN: That’s part of how we take a distance from the tokenistic approach that you see so often in other organizations. Again, are not there to teach a European perspective, we are there to build systems in which people are able to be independent and succeed. That begins with a dialogue where we try to understand local needs, and where they can understand what we can do, without mentorship simply coming from Italy. We work with local mentors with a keen understanding of the social, economic, and cultural context in their regions. We work a lot with women, helping them to be super independent, and now, in 2023, we are seeing them build their own unique brands and companies. That approach includes environmental sustainability. It may be trending in fashion in the west right now, but sustainability is part of the DNA of African artisans and creativity. You have hand-made products, people working with natural dyes and fibers. We tend to forget that essential part of the creative world in Africa. With Afro Fashion, we are trying to bring that DNA into practice.

MODES: And that’s something that you can then bring back to Italy, right? Every part of the fashion industry can learn from the sustainable production and educational practices that are a part of that DNA, outside of the world of Afro fashion.

MN: Absolutely. Obviously, the fashion world is still very exclusive. But we are still at a starting point. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 put Black Lives on an international radar, we saw the black squares on Instagram, et cetera, but it was mostly that tokenist approach, where people would approach POC creatives but just to show diversity, imposing their own ideas onto these designers instead of platforming them. It should be the contrary. The designer has to be free to express their own creativity. Fortunately with Afro Fashion we have been able to find partners who are supportive of our approach and mission of giving the floor to the creative to let them actually show their vision. People often put the spotlight on fashion shows or tend to think that representation in fashion is just about putting someone on magazine covers. The creative needs to live with their art. Our partnership with MODES is super dear to us because it goes beyond that, opening doors to designers not through the typical tokenism in media or in one-off collaborations with brands, but in the actual retail world. This means the creatives we work with can be protagonists in the system. They’re not just spectators, they’re not just checking a box. These designers are given the floor to display what they want the world to see about their work. When we started the project with MODES, we told designers, it shouldn't be some signature product that you think will sell. It should be your creativity that you put out there. We give them the time to work on their displays, and it's not just a one-time thing. Over several days, we invite buyers to come and experiences the collections – do build sustainable business relationships. Hopefully, other retails and showrooms will get the message.

MODES: What can retailers, magazines, and brands, do to support what Afro Fashion is trying to build?

MN: I think communication is key. You can educate society by communicating. The more we speak about it, the better people’s understanding gets. And when we communicate things, we should make sure that we are using the right words. For example, media coverage about Afro Fashion tends to talk about the designer in a charitable way or frame the work we’re doing as a “special project.” When someone approaches me to develop a “special project,” I’m like “ok, bye.” This is not the vibe we want.
The wording is fundamental. We must be super aware of the language that we are putting out there. When it comes to retail, understanding a designer’s creative vocabulary is key, too: you have to accept the dialogue. You cannot decide or think for designers, or take them out of their creativity, because otherwise you're just creating a clone. Fashion is most beautiful when everyone can express themselves as they want to.