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Elton Ilirjani On The Fashion Protest That Stole Art Basel Miami Beach

When Art Basel Miami Beach started 20 years ago, back in 2002, it was about the spirit of rebellion, very D.I.Y., and very rock and roll. After all, it was a bunch of New Yorkers in Miami in December, and everyone wanted to be partying in the sun with a margarita (not stuck inside a convention center under florescent tube lights all weekend, even if it meant cashing in on art sales).

As Art Basel Miami Beach celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2022, one performance art piece stole the show. The second-annual “Fart Basel” protest bus created by Milan-based fashion brand House of Mua Mua’s creative director Ludovica Virga brought a group of protesters, each of who were wearing the brand’s sequin-clad clothing, to the art fair with feminist protest slogans.

This ballsy fashion protest was led by LGBTQ+ activist and fashion luminary, Elton Ilirjani, who hails from Albania. He wore a pair of white pearl-embedded white jeans with matching round sunglasses, a bride-like train made of white tulle, and a sequin shirt that said: “Sugar Daddy Solves All Problems,” a tongue-in-cheek way of showing how far women have come—for equal rights, pay and the willingness to be bold, especially in the fashion industry, not only models, but the women working behind the scenes, too—from public relations to seamstresses.

“We brought fashion from the catwalk to the street,” said Ilirjani. “It was like a fashion runway on a bus. The message was clearly how the runway should go to the people.”

The event kicked off around noon on November 29 at the SLS Hotel South Beach Hotel, driving up South Beach’s main street, Collins Avenue, up to the Art Basel art fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center, and back.

They called it an “experiential pop-up protest bus” with “bohemian glam fashion” worn by the protesters, many of which were fashion influencers. The protest added laughter, glitter and sparkles to an otherwise uptight art fair that has become so money focused. Ilirjani led the protest, which he believes had a queer-positive message.

“I felt should bring a part of the LGBTQ+ community to be seen worldwide, as an activist,” said Ilirjani. “It’s not just for the U.S., when I protest for the LGBTQ+ community, it’s for those in Eastern Europe, Brazil, the Arabic countries, Asia, where people can’t freely come out of the closet.”

When the group arrived at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, they paraded in platform heels to the convention center, protesting outside. Then, they entered indoors, chanting “We don’t give a chic.”

The protest got the attention of passersby, art enthusiasts and international journalists from Spain and Brazil. “The goal of what we were saying is that art is for everybody, it’s not just for a certain group of people,” said Ilirjani.

A group of police and security guards stood around the fashionistas as they raised their placards, which read “We don’t give a chic,” “Bitchcoin” and “No money, no honey.” They weren’t asked to leave, but they were surrounded.

“It was totally performance art,” he said. “Everyone there was an influencer who had something to say. It wasn’t a mute model who was a slave to a big fashion brand. We were all free spirits; free and powerful women speaking up about freedom and beauty. There is no beauty without freedom.”

If they attempted to enter the fair, they might have been kicked out. But instead, security saw the protest was peaceful and started taking photos of them with their phones. The house photographer hired by Art Basel was also taking photos of the protest group.

“I wanted to laugh,” said Ilirjani, who was refused a glass of champagne in the convention center lobby by a group of women running a promotional booth. “They were told not to do so, so there must have been a man behind it. I felt sorry for the women there, the Art Basel organizers, I wanted to laugh. It was not a surprise, though.”

“I believe that women are the best part of society, but even in 2022, women haven’t reached where they should be—in terms of equal positioning in society, equal pay, having the same rights men have,” said Ilirjani. “We should come to a place where we don’t question a woman’s success. We are still too far.”

Ilirjani is known as the founder of the HeadHunter Group, a company that has pioneered workplace equality for both women and LGBTQ+ communities across 15 countries. In 2019, he founded a non-profit called the Dignity Global Foundation , which focuses on protecting human and civil rights for women and the LGBTIQ+ community at the workplace.

He first made history as the first publicly gay man in Albania and is no stranger to using fashion as a form of protest to support transgender acceptance. With over 10 million followers on Instagram as @eilirjani, he has walked the catwalk at New York Fashion Week for designers like House of Mua Mua and for BESFXXK at the Concept Korea fashion show at Spring Studios. Ilirjani will be walking at New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week and Seoul Fashion Week in 2023.

House of Mua Mua is a Milan-based fashion brand worn by Gwen Stefani, Paris Hilton, and Doja Cat. The brand’s creative director Ludovica Virga has always stood by fashion being fun, and not to be taken seriously (she once said “I’ll save the world one sparkle at a time”). This ethos rings true with Ilirjani. “Bling-infused fashion is fun, it doesn’t have to be greys and dark, colorless fashion all the time,” he said.

“Bling will never be out of style,” notes Iriljani. “Sequins are a symbol of femininity—they’re about speaking loudly of who you are, your shining spirit.”

“Women should be shining, always.”

Check out Elton Ilirjani’s HeadHunter Group, his Dignity Global Foundation and his Instagram @eilirjani.

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