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Why Did African Asylum-Seekers Walk In This Fashion Show?

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At one of the fashion shows on Florence's Pitti Immagine Uomo's schedule yesterday, there was some very meaningful casting behind the model roster: Three of the models on the Generation Africa catwalk were asylum-seekers from Mali and Gambia. (An asylum-seeker is an individual who says he or she is a refugee, but his or her refugee claim status hasn't yet been fully evaluated.)

The show, organized by the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) and Fondazione Pitti Discovery, showcased the fall '16 collections of four African labels: Lukhanyo Mdingi x Nicholas Coutts, AKJP, Ikiré Jones, and U.mi-1.
Photo: Courtesy of Giovanni Giannoni/Generation Africa.
The models' identities can't be disclosed due to the sensitive, precarious status of being an asylum-seeker. But according to a press release from Lai-momo, an Italian organization that works with migrants, the models are between 19 to 27 years old with vocational backgrounds that vary from farming to construction work to waiting tables. Prior to their (paid!) modeling debuts at Pitti, these three men have been living in Bologna, Italy, since May while going through the asylum application process.

It's the first time that EFI has featured asylum-seekers on the runway, and the rationale has a pretty admirable end goal. "We wanted to offer a different view of the problem of asylum seekers in Europe today and a practical solution to address it," Simone Cipriani, EFI's founder, told Refinery29. That solution, according to Cipriani, involves "training [asylum-seekers] in the value chain of fashion [and] for some of them to work in it or develop some micro business back in Africa with our network of African fashion designers and producers."

Globally, there are currently 11,899 asylum-seekers originating from Gambia and 10,919 asylum-seekers from Mali, according to the UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency). Since 1994, Gambia has been under the exceptionally cruel (as well as deluded and homophobic) dictatorship of President Yahya Jammeh. In November, there was an attack on a Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako; and Northern Mali's conditions are "generally uncertain," according to UNHCR.
As for the optimal outcome for this trio of asylum-seeking models, Cipriani hopes they'll partake in training at Lai-momo's centers for asylum-seekers and, once their juridical conditions are cleared, "they will decide where to use these [fashion or modeling] skills: Europe or Africa," he says.

Ideally, there's a significant takeaway from this unconventional model casting for the international fashion community, particularly in Europe and most specifically in Italy, according to Cipriani. "The time of engagement has come," he told Refinery29. "Some CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategies are not sufficient anymore."
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