AltaRoma: A Beacon of Diversity in Fashion

“It’s a new generation that wants to speak about these things,” said Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri after the Accademia Costume & Moda show during the 32nd instalment of AltaRoma. “I was born in Roma; there is a generation born in Roma that is now working around the world. But I think Roma is a place where you can approach fashion in a different way, especially if you are young. There is not so much pressure.” Indeed. The Rome fashion calendar has become renowned of late for its championing of young, emerging talent.

ACT N°1 FW18 show in Rome. Picture by Latrofa/AltaRoma.

Once the city of Haute Couture, Rome lost much of its sartorial identity after the shifting schedule moved couture to Paris and Rome became overshadowed by its bigger Milanese counterpart. But AltaRoma is working on carving out its own niche. Whereas showing in Milan comes with commercial constraints, AltaRoma allows its emerging designers much creative freedom and encourages them to be inspired by – and openly discuss – topics that matter both in Italy and around the world. And it shows: this season, the theme was diversity. The designers showing on the AltaRoma schedule were encouraged to be activists, and cited topics such as women’s empowerment, politics, and sexual harassment as the starting point of their collections.

The theme filtered down to the models on the runway. Marco Rambaldi casted women of all ages. His eclectic cast included 70-year old women alongside the more traditional teen models, and Valery, a transsexual model from Bologna. “We want to talk about transsexualism, for it to not be taboo,” he said backstage. “We want women of all ages to be free to do what they want.” He took the sexual liberation of women in the 1970s and prostitution houses as a starting point – but embroidered his sweaters with slogans such as ‘Come Out’ that bore a more contemporary relevance. The show, titled ‘We Want Roses Too,’ was a plea for equal rights for gay couples around the world. “It is political,” he said. “Especially in this moment, with all this stuff with sexual harassment around the world. We need to talk about it – we don’t want to make collections just for the sake of it. We need to have an important subject behind it.”

SADIE CLAYTON FW18 show in Rome. Picture by Latrofa/AltaRoma.

British designer Sadie Clayton’s runway was equally as distinct. She showed at AltaRoma in partnership with the UK Department of International Trade to really push the message of diversity – her casting included models of all ethnicities and physical capabilities. “I myself am mixed race, from a small, white, middle class village in northern England, so when we were approached to do a show about diversity, I was totally engaged because I am diverse,” said Clayton, speaking after her show that was held in the British Ambassador’s private residence in Rome. “The message really is whatever size you are, whatever colour you are, whatever age you are, you can wear what you want. This is the first time that Italy has ever staged a runway season where diversity has been the focus,” she said. “Let’s face it, there’s still racism within castings in fashion.”

ACT N°1 FW18 show in Rome. Picture by Latrofa/AltaRoma.

Others designers, too, used the catwalk as a vehicle to talk about political messaging or ethnicity: the winner of last year’s “Who Is On Next?” competition (held by AltaRoma in partnership with Vogue Italia), Act n°1’s show was staged in the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. The streetwear collection fused together the heritage of designers’ Luca Lin and Galib Gassanoff, mixing original prints and Chinese watercolour motifs with Azerbaijani craftsmanship. Kimono silks were mixed with tapestry rugs that were reworked into bomber jackets and asymmetric dresses and styled with jeans, hoodies, and nose rings.

MIAHATAMI FW18 show in Rome. Picture by Latrofa/AltaRoma.

Meanwhile, Miahatami took inspiration from the Iranian revolution led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1963, when the Shah introduced various economic and social reforms to turn Iran into an industrial power that included giving women the right to vote. Soocha, meanwhile, referenced the second chapter of the Human Rights novel by Han Kang. Reflecting on the turbulent political climate and military repression in South Korea in the 1980s, designer SooJung Cha embroidered peace signs and poppies across padded puffer blankets that were worn cross-body and belted, like military armour.

SANNA SCHUBERT/POLIMODA installation in Rome in the context of the Artisanal Intelligence "Fifty Years Later" exhibition. Picture by Andrea Buccella.

And the message was taken off-runway, too. Artisanal Intelligence’s Fifty Years Later exhibit looked at subsequent generations of women in the aftermath of the 1968 fashion revolution. Also held at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, co-curator Alessio de’ Navasques hand-selected students from the best fashion schools around the world, including Polimoda and London College of Fashion, to participate as “demonstrators.” “It’s based on the relationship with the body, with women’s condition, with ecology, with politics,” said de’ Navasques. Reprinted political flyers emblazoned with hashtags including #Utopia, #MyBodyMyChoice and #MeToo lay scattered across the floor in front of each mannequin. In the background, video footage of demonstrations from around the world from the last 50 years played on loop, on an old TV.

SOOCHA FW18 show in Rome. Picture by Latrofa/AltaRoma.

The Italian Trade Agency also launched its Showcase at AltaRoma this year, offering a platform for nascent brands to gain exposure with international press and buyers. Over the course of four days, forty emerging Italian brands that manufacture in Italy were given dedicated showroom space. The presence of these labels – and those such as Inês Torcato, hailing from Portugal, who showed on schedule at a special Portuguese Fashion show – reinforces AltaRoma’s more holistic approach to diversity. “For the new designers, AltaRoma is an excellent platform to both broaden the brand’s exposure and to raise the profile of Portuguese fashion internationally,” says João Rafael Koehler, President of ANJE – National Association of Young Entrepreneurs. “Otherwise, everything in Portugal would remain in Portugal. AltaRoma allows these designers to stand up and be counted.”