Words by Nneka Samuel
Former model turned fashion designer Stella Jean launched her Rome-based eponymous label in 2011. To say it’s been a busy few years for the Italian-Haitian trailblazer would be a gross understatement. From being personally invited by fashion icon Giorgio Armani to show her spring/summer 2014 collection at the Armani Teatro for Milan Fashion Week (becoming the first womenswear designer to do so), to collaborating with shoe designer Christian Louboutin for her autumn/winter 2014 collection, to singer and budding fashion maven Rihanna instagramming photos of herself at the world’s most prestigious address, invoking Scandal’s Olivia Pope in this striking Stella Jean ensemble – the designer’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric.
Add to that list of accolades Stella Jean’s partnership with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, part of the United Nation’s International Trade Centre. Their goal is to empower women by connecting marginalized African and Haitian artisans with the fashion business, creating sustainable jobs, offering training catered to market demands, and invaluable education on everything from HIV prevention to fair labor practices.
The initiative’s goals blend perfectly with Stella Jean’s signature Wax & Stripes philosophy, the designer’s nod to her multicultural makeup. The Wax represents her maternal Haitian roots via Haitian and East African prints and fabrics. The Stripes, as seen in her collection’s shirts, take on her father’s Italian heritage. As Stella Jean’s website powerfully states, “Fashion can be used as a cultural translator and a tool against colonization: reestablish the balance between symbols, stories and different worlds through style.”
Through the EFI and trips to Haiti, Stella Jean’s newest collection is inspired by everything from the country’s colorful, pop art-like tap-tap buses to its open air markets. Stella Jean designed jewelry, some made of papier-mâché, others with horn and bone, directly with artisans in areas like Croix-des-Bouquets. The result? Luxurious. Feminine. Bold. Unique, handmade pieces that cater to the stylista in us all.
In the midst of her busy schedule, Stella Jean took the time to talk to POTENT about how she got involved with EFI, what ethical fashion means to her, the need for diversity in the fashion industry and much more.
POTENT: How did you come to partner with the Ethical Fashion Initiative and how does their motto “Not Charity, Just Work” mesh with your own principles?
STELLA JEAN: That’s the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative mantra which I fully support, and I did mine. It’s all about creating luxury handwork produced 100% ethically by disadvantaged communities, generating work and creating an infrastructure where the fashion luxury business can develop and produce products.
Everything started thanks to my mentor Simonetta Gianfelici (ITC project representative for Altaroma) who introduced me to Simone Cipriani (the UN official in charge of the ITC Ethical Fashion Project). They guided me and gave me the opportunity to go to Burkina Faso, Mali and Haiti. There I found a rare treasure, looking at the busy hands of extraordinary women who tell, with dignity and hard working, a creative and cultural mosaic without any kind of mystification. People I met on my trips, in their villages, showed me which are the new basis for a sustainable future associated with fashion. Today craftsmanship is the expression of a new concept of slow fashion and of a responsible luxury. But the change must first take place within each of us, in our minds. It’s a matter of choice, information, diversity and, at the same time, of cultural identity and it can cover all phases: design, production, consumption.
POTENT: How do you personally define ethical fashion, how does your work exhibit that definition and is this practice something you believe more designers should be involved in doing?
STELLA JEAN: I don’t want to speak for others. Surely for me it is an attitude, supported by the great chance I had thanks to the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative. It is something about a proper, accountable way of acting which is environmentally sound, promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that do not need our charity. And I think that I would not have achieved the results I achieved till now if not through this direct meeting of beings.
POTENT: You create such an eclectic and beautifully bold blend of colours and patterns in a way that’s familiar. How does your clothing and jewelry change people’s minds about the concept of fashion, whether that be Italian fashion or fashion at large?
STELLA JEAN: I don’t know if my way of creating fashion is changing people’s minds. What I do with my work is to offer a point of view, personal undoubtedly because it’s mine, but I hope it will be shared by others. I want to communicate through clothes a concept of opposite worlds and traditions fusing together in a sophisticated way and standing side by side with equal importance, not covering the other up. For me it’s essential to remain faithful to the basic concept that, in my case, is expressed in wanting to reconcile worlds so near and far. A fundamental starting point is supported by the need to convey, through my work, a new concept of multiculturalism. Surely I’d like I could generate a new thought, a new approach, stimulating the conscience and reaching the widest number of people in order to promote not just a way of dressing, but a way of living.
POTENT: What narrative does your SS15 collection evoke and how does it utilize the tradition of Art Naïf?
STELLA JEAN: My Spring Summer 2015 is a collection with a strong anthropological story characterized by a succession of cultural trompe-l’oeil. The collection is a declaration of intent and confirms my commitment to testifying, sharing and tracing back secular traditions through narrative images and it is characterized by something new, the return to home: Haiti. Thus, this collection is a cultural symposium, a conversation between worlds apparently contrasting, united under an aesthetic linking Burkina Faso, Haiti, Mali and Italy. A reversal of Babel. About the jewelry, thanks to my sourcing trip to Haiti with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative team, we got in touch with the Haitian tradition of Art Naïf, discovering such a rare treasure of artisanal and skilled handcrafts and having the opportunity to design these pieces directly with the local artisans.
POTENT: Your multicultural fashion exhibits an awareness that is often missing on runways, in magazines and ad campaigns. How do you see that lack of diversity changing in the near future and do you consider your work as being part of that change?
STELLA JEAN: I think that every person is increasingly becoming aware that a change of the ethical approach is proper, inevitable, necessary. And as Arancha Gonzalez, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, said on the occasion of the The Power of Empowered Women 2014 event at the United Nations in Geneva, “you can not change what you do not know, but once you get it, you can not exempt from changing it.”
Get involved. For more information on the Ethical Fashion Initiative, visit the ITC’s website, follow them on Facebook and on Twitter @ethicalfashion. Keep up with Stella Jean’s latest designs @StellaJeanLtd.