A designer to the “queens,” this do-good brand blends heritage and high fashion.
Lauded as Italy’s first black fashion designer, Stella Jean was born and raised in Rome to a Haitian mother and Italian father. The former model traded in her catwalk strut to create fashion that combines her Haitian heritage with Euro fashion sensibilities.
I use fashion as a tool to fight against any cultural segregation.
“For me, fashion is very conceptual. I want to share ideas and tell stories through my work,” she told Forbes magazine in 2019. “To create a sort of marriage between my Italian background and international patterns in order to produce something that has a mixed origin, one with its own distinctive identity: something local that aspires to the global.”
The Stella Jean pre–fall 2020 collection shows off the fashion designer’s trademark fusion of eye-catching African prints and classic Italian fabrics. Bold prints, floral crochet embroidery, Haitian-inspired motifs and a touch of simplicity are woven into the pieces—which include a playful mix of tailored culotte pant suits, vivid printed skirts, sassy short frocks and turbans made of colorful kente and Baoulé textiles.
True to her heritage, Stella Jean is compassionate about inclusion and uplifting the vulnerable and voiceless. For each collection, she collaborates with Laboratorio di Sartoria Sociale Coloriage. It’s an atelier in Rome where migrants and those seeking asylum develop skills and work on creative projects. The fabrics used for the turbans in this collection were sustainably sourced in Mali, Ghana and Ivory Coast and assembled at Coloriage (stellajean.it).
Why did you choose this career path?
For me, it has begun as a personal necessity. Born in Italy in the early 80’s and struggling–being so diverse from my fellow citizen, has motivated me to find a way to show people not to be afraid of different cultures and colors. But, instead to see them as opportunities and as a chance to grow better, together.
I use fashion as a tool to fight against any cultural segregation. The beauty of fashion has no borders. You accept beauty a priori without prejudices. This allows me to “talk” through fashion without preconceived opinions. Just beauty. My style reflects and evokes my own métissage and Creole heritage.
The cultures from the old continent blend with the proud verve of the new continent. This marriage of opposites creates an ensemble that is tuned in to a new hybrid, precious uniqueness. Convergence and exchange are the fundamental points of origin. They’re sustained by the need to convey a new concept of multiculturalism applied to fashion, which promotes cultural crossover without ever compromising one’s own identity.
Who and what are your inspirations for this season’s collections/designs?
For the SS20 collection, I’ve worked with the reality of an emerging Pakistan. I collaborated on the ground with some exceptional minority communities, some of which are at risk of extinction. This includes the Kalash people, located in one of the most remote areas of the world–an isolated valley at an altitude of 2000 meters in the Chitral region, on the border province northeast of Pakistan, very near the Afghanistan border.
The Kalash are an ancient population who holds a unique heritage in their background. For this reason, the government has provided them with an extraordinary amount of safety, protection and recovery. We are talking about a situation that currently counts only about 3,000 people; it is a literal near extinction. They speak their own native language and have unique traditions, which have not yet been completely lost.
For the first time in history, the Kalash women have embroidered their traditional motifs for an international audience through the project: “Laboratorio delle Nazioni”. These embroideries have left the Kalash valleys for the very first time, to enable the world to partake in this women empowering path.
Do you regard fashion and style as the same thing? Why or why not?
No, fashion is about clothes; style is about personality.
What does sustainability mean to you? How do you incorporate it into your business?
I’m focusing on human sustainability. First, in my missions, I’m working with people struggling to gain their everyday food. So let’s take care of all the human sustainability projects first. Then we will take care of the materials. This is an acknowledgment of fashion’s potential, as a cultural activity, to provide significant opportunities for decent work for men and women around the world. It gives them an incentive to keep that traditions alive. This is the power of fashion.
How do you source materials? What factors do you take into account?
To me, it’s important to make clear the importance of not behaving as we were in a candy shop, choosing from different bowls of “cultures” … just what we found more attractive. We must look closer at them. Next, study them in advance. And finally, work with local artisans who are able to make us understand the deep sense of what they do.
Dealing with fabrics or local products means talking about the history of an entire nation. So we must do it with extreme respect and consideration. I hope fashion decides to not give up on segregation or on cultural fixism born from who wants to manipulate it.
When we stop talking or lighting up the world on those cultures, this will be the day when they will vanish. I am here asking to not turn down the light on amazing countries like Haiti, Burkina and Kenya, and their craftsmanship. They need a powerful voice in order to make it happen. Through missions on the field, one, the collection is the result of the construction of a cultural bridge between Italian designs. And two, the women artisans of a developing country, during each season. An international cooperation which aims to promote cultural heritage as an enabler and a driver of sustainable development.
Despite the thousands of miles of distance that may lie between them, countless hands of women artisans in different countries work together in an ideal Laboratory of Nations–with the common goal of caring and preserving an endangered global cultural heritage. In so doing, these women are building their own economic autonomy, preserving their own traditions, and at the same time gaining a small seat at the global market table.
What are three biggest tips that you’d share with a young designer fresh out of fashion school?
To be bold and magic enough to be able to turn walls into doors.
Is there a celebrity, politician or public figure you are just “dying” to design a piece for?
What social cause(s) do you champion? Why?
The need to put forth and preserve the multiculturalism inherent in this world comes from the fact that I’ve always had to. My mother comes from Haiti and my father from Italy. I was born in Rome. But, I’ve spent few years in Haiti. And, I was mortified that such a great country was known just for some wrong reasons. When believe me, after immediate emergency cases, help should come in a totally different form.
Considering these populations have so many cultural resources, which would allow them to rise up again on their feet without the need of charity action. What they need is someone who decides to believe in their capacity and give them the opportunity to work, putting in place their own competencies.