Stella Jean An Ethical Journey

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Stella Jean’s bold Burkina Faso stripes have recently attracted the attention of Giorgio Armani and Christian Louboutin. Last year, she became the first emerging womenswear designer to show in Giorgio Armani’s Teatro space for Milan Fashion Week SS14, and she collaborated on shoes with Christian Louboutin for her AW14 collection. Back in 2011, she was recognised as Vogue Italia’s Who is On Next winner. Stella Jean is Milan’s rising star.

Surprisingly, the Italian-based designer has no formal training in fashion design. She studied politics and has a background in modelling. It was through modelling for Egon Von Furstenberg (designer and ex-husband of Diane von Furstenberg) that she realised she would rather design the clothes than wear them. Soon she was pinning fabric onto models, and her signature prints combined with her eye for Italian tailoring set her apart from the rest. 

Stella Jean’s collections follow her ‘wax & stripes philosophy’ –  the striped blouses symbolise her father’s European background, and the waxed fabric showcases East Africa and her mother’s Haitian heritage. Through a joint effort, Stella Jean sources her fabrics with the United Nation’s International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, providing her with the opportunity to work with the local artisans.

“It is about an accountable business which is environmentally sound, promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that do not need our charity,” says Stella Jean. Her work is her best outlet to communicate her values, and she hopes to touch the hearts of seven million people, one heart at a time.

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STELLA JEAN – AW 14

You recently were in New York for Fashion 4 Development, the 4th Annual First Ladies Luncheon, and showcased your collection. Can you tell me more about this and what it could mean for your collection?

Having been invited to showcase my collection for the occasion was such a great honor. It was organised for more than 40 First Ladies from all over the world, along with some of the major representatives from the fashion industry. Vogue Italia and yoox.com had selected me to design and develop a product specifically for this occasion. The results were two exclusive bags produced in Ethiopia. My inspiration in designing the Tap-Tap bags aims to be a reportage of different cultures – Italy, Haiti and Africa – and lies within the magical traditions of Haitian pop culture.

Let’s discuss SS15 while it’s still relatively fresh! For the collection, you went back to Haiti, your mother’s birthplace. What do you find most inspiring about the country and the locals?

The collection is a declaration of my intent and confirms my commitment in testifying, sharing and tracing back secular traditions through narrative images. Haiti is described by André Malraux as “the most amazing experience of the magic art of the 20th century,” and is unveiled through ‘Art Naïf’, a movement marked by active observation built around a simple soul. This artistic perspective is an expression of life, nature and spirit, animated by the market women. The market is where we can meet these proud vendors, who are adorned with scarves that enhance femininity.

Adding to the hustle and bustle of the market, ‘tap-tap’ buses also have a strong presence. The tap-tap is the traditional means of public transport, is also described as “pop art on wheels.” The tap-tap’s are painted by artists who attend art schools specialised in tap-tap painting, and paint subjects belonging to religious, popular and historical tradition, and ironic phrases, proverbs or messages. Also, donkeys are another important means of transportation and labour. And sugar cane is another recurring Haitian element. These symbols continually reappear on prints and hand-painted fabrics, which complete the visual landscape of this collection.

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Stella Jean – SS 15

The SS15 accessories were made in Haiti using papier-mâché and the jewellery crafted by Haitian artisans. How did you source the workers? Is this something you will continue to do for future collections?

Thanks to my sourcing trip to Haiti with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative team, we discovered the Haitian tradition of Art Naïf and the rare treasure of artisanal and skilled handcrafts. Through this, I had the opportunity to design these pieces directly with the local artisans.

The papier-mâché fruits are produced in Jacmel – the cultural capital of Haiti and home to the country’s largest carnival – for which, local artisans craft colourful papier-mâché masks and decorations. The Horn bracelets are produced in a Port-au-Prince atelier of around fifty artisans specialised in horn and bone material. This animal by-product is washed, cut, shaped, and polished to perfection to achieve a smooth and glossy surface. The Fer Forgé Metalwork jewelry collection was made in several different ateliers that are part of a large community of metalwork artisans based in Croix-des-Bouquets, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. There, the local metalsmiths forged the Stella Jean pendants and bangles out of recycled oil drums using just a hammer and physical strength to create the design.

Could you ever see yourself opening a store and curating it, selecting pieces made by locals in Mali, Haiti or Africa?

I do not believe I am suited for this. My job is my strongest way to communicate. Everything is moved by a basic concept that, in my case, is expressed in wanting to reconcile worlds so near and far. The fundamental points I convey are new concepts of multiculturalism, through promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that do not need our charity. I will continue to do what I do best and what has led to me achieving my goals so far.

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STELLA JEAN – SS 15

The Iniative’s slogan is ‘Not Charity, Just Work.’ The women in Burkina Faso and Mali hand-wove your textiles. The prints are incredible – truly one-of-a-kind! Can you explain how these women have benefited from this collaboration? It obviously must have a huge impact, and it must feel very rewarding for you.

That’s the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative mantra, which I fully support. This is 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. It is about a proper, accountable business, which is environmentally sound, promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that do not need our charity.

Thanks to my sourcing trips, through looking at the busy hands of extraordinary women, I was exposed to a creative and cultural mosaic (without any kind of mystification). They are excellent handloom weavers and are able to create fabrics of exquisite craftsmanship. 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.

You modelled for Egon Von Furstenberg when you realised you preferred to make clothes rather than showcase them. Having no traditional technical training, you would design just by pinning the clothes on a form. Has not having a formal education in design ever posed as a setback in your career or do you feel people are more drawn to the fact you are self-taught per say?

I do not know if this has influenced the opinion people have about my work, as this is not apparent in the final result of my collections. But for me, it was definitely like having that extra oomph as I am in constant contact with the fabric, with its size, its smell and touch.

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STELLA JEAN – AW 14

You were the first womenswear designer to be shown at Giorgio Armani’s Teatro Space last year (AW14 collection), and collaborated with Christian Louboutin on shoes that feature your signature Burkino Faso stripes this past year. Those are huge accomplishments! What did you learn from both those designers?

It was a great lesson of generosity, proving the will of a ‘Renaissance’ thanks to the creativity of new talents with the support of the giants in fashion. The fashion system is making common front to give great hope to young people. In Italy, for example, organisations such as AltaRoma, Camera Nazionale della Moda, and Pitti are fielding a new twist to ‘Made in Italy’ and more opportunities for young talents.

To my surprise, I did not realise you did menswear! June 2013 you showed your first collection at Pitti Uomo. I am sure not every man is bold enough to wear the prints you create. Can you describe the Stella Jean man?

It’s not about the gender. Man or woman, Stella Jean’s costumer is independent and a frequent flyer who is constantly evolving. People who are attracted to my collections are curious, inclined to learn and, more importantly, to understand. But they need to recognise and to ‘live’ dress, without disguising. I like to propose them elements of their own culture, fielding a new philosophy of métissage that allows them to travel anywhere without forgetting their point of departure.

Where will you be jet-setting off to next for inspiration?

I’m sorry, but I cannot share so much. I am very superstitious. I prefer to talk about something that I’ve already done… Facta, non verba! (It is time for deeds, not words!).

What are your future aspirations for yourself and also your line?

Thanks to what I do, surely I’d like I could generate a new thought, a new approach, and to stimulate the conscience. What I do with my work is offer a point of view – personal, undoubtedly, because it’s mine – but I hope it will be shared by many others in the coming years. If I was able to get to the heart of just one person, to make people understand what is the direction that I believe we should go, that could already be for me a great triumph. What I want to achieve, is the heart of the remaining seven billion people.

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STELLA JEAN – SS 15 

INTERVIEW: Janine Leah Bartels
ILLUSTRATION: Christy McCormick

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www.stellajean.it | @StellaJeanLtd

Images courtesy of Stella Jean