Haitian-italian designer Stella Jean is the future of fashion according to Giorgio Armani. With her expansive vision, vivacious search for new fabrics, classic European tailoring and artisanal production spread across several of the ITC Ethical fashion Initiative’s hubs, he may well be right. Grant fell and Rachael Churchward meet her for an espresso near the Complesso Monumentale, Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome. Images by ITC EFI, unless otherwise credited
Grant Fell: Kia ora Stella, tell us a little bit about yourself. You were born here in Rome? Stella Jean: Yes, I was born here in Rome. My mother is from Haiti, my father is Italian he is from Turin, the city of Fiat. Growing up in Italy in the 80s wasn’t that easy for me, it is a wonderful country but back then it wasn’t really that ready for a multi-racial family. It is muchmorereadyforthatnowbutasyoucan imagine in the 80s it wasn’t. So, through my childhood and then my teenage years, I have been through some…i would say…struggles because I had a huge problem with my identity… GF: In what sense? For instance, my school, which is now my son’s school, I wasn’t the only black girl in the school but at the same time I was Italian like all of the others weren’t. I didn’t have the opportunity to go into a community or group like say Haitian, because I am not just Haitian, I am Haitian-italian. So at 16 I started pretending that I was just Haitian but the Haitian kids didn’t really accept me because I was also Italian!soistartedlookingforanopportunity to create something, I started looking to see if I had the skills to paint or write, and then I discovered I had the capacity to work with fabrics, I liked clothes and found it was my way to communicate so that is what I started to do. It wasn’t about aesthetic at all, I didn’t start for an aesthetic reason. It wasn’t a link to the fashion mainstream, trends, it wasn’t about that at all. It was just to show that I can put in the same styling, the same outfits, Italian structures that I would see – which is typical of my collections because it represents my father’s side, 99% of Italian men wear these shirts and most of the time they are striped! GF: Were either of your parents in fashion Stella? No, no. They use fashion in their lives but in a very easy way, they do not follow trends, it is not about that, I used to go with my father to the tailor who hand-made all of the men’s clothes and my mother, in fact my grandmother, too, liked all of the French designers of the time but with a Caribbean twist. Chic with something a little extra… GF: More colour? Yes…so I started making clothes using the wax fabric, which looks African but is not, it is in fact from Java… GF: In Indonesia? Yes but now most of the wax fabrics are produced in Holland. So that was the first lesson for me that you don’t need to trust appearances so easily. The first thing people say when they see my clothes is: “Ah that is so African,” but, maybe it can be so Holland! (laughs). Really the only truly African fabrics we have are the ones from Burkina Faso. For example in this latest collection there is the Bogolan, a fabric and print created using a mud technique, it is all hand-made. If we can put Haiti, Italy, Mali, Burkina Faso, Japan into an outfit it can all work so easily and I see that mix of fabrics as like real life, the same kind of communication between people can work in real life if we just begin to be less scared. I think people here at least get scared of different textiles, prints and colours. We have always had a lot of African influences in European fashion, in the 60s and 70s there were designers like Yves Saint Laurent, particularly in spring/ summer collections so it is nothing new. It is the approach and the point of view that has to change now. It can be a caricature and a parodyandhasbeenforalongtimetoalmost look at African culture and say, “Oh, nice, oh cute…” but we don’t have the right to do that or say that but if you just take a few minutes to understand those techniques like Bogolan are very sophisticated. It is not easy at all or simple, these are sophisticated techniques, just like the Italian ones, like lace or embroidery that we respect a lot. We
should also start to respect these African fabrics, because in the fabrics you find the culture of a country. So, I think it is the approach and point of view that needs to change. Rachael Churchward: Absolutely, these artisans are good! GF: Yes, it is just a perception really… Yes. It’s not just the aesthetic. The world is full of beautiful things, beautiful clothes. There are all those high street stores producing a beautiful collection each week! Butitcan’tbejustthatanymore,justbeautiful clothes, we need something more, something different. RC: There is definitely a story in your clothing Stella. Your show yesterday was a complete styling story. I loved it. The way you mixed your textures and patterns, the girls wearing brogues with that, you were telling a story all the way through it. I loved that fabric, the one made with mud? Yes, the Bogolan…it’s incredible you can find out more about a country than you can if you go on Wikipedia if you just take time to understand their fabrics and the culture behind them. That print is a like a giraffe skin, each single line is made by hand… RC: By painting? No, not painting. They use a kind of sand, which is the white lines and then fill it in between with a layer of mud, just mud. GF: And it just soaks in? Yes. And with that outfit, the fabric was produced in Burkina Faso so it is African but the bag with that outfit was produced in Kenya, with Simone and the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative. I think, though, it doesn’t help to try and look ethnic anymore. Some labels use this concept a lot. Ethnic - the idea that because it is African, you are helping people by buying this, even if you don’t really like it! No, you have to buy it because you like it. Fashion works like that, it can’t be a charity purchase. There is no point in buying fashion for your conscience. RC: I can think of many people back in New Zealand who would love your clothes and buy them because they are great, not because they represent Africa or anything. Grant, I am thinking of Jessica for a start. GF: Absolutely. And Thistle… Africa is a lot more advanced than people think, they are not kids - they are a centre of culture. Iamalwaysimpressedwithhowsophisticated they are, the people we work with and meet. People have the impression that everything happens in villages and yes the techniques come from century-old knowledge but it is not mud huts, there are big buildings and factories and cities. RC: I think for us as New Zealanders, this resonates with us too as there is a strong Polynesian culture there. We are Maori and Pacific Island, there is a strong Asian culture – it is very multi-cultural so there are fabrics which are part of the wider society, like Tapa cloth from the islands… What is it called? GF: Tapa, it is made from bark, a type of cloth and it is used traditionally in most of the islands: Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands, Niue… Tapa? RC: Yes, T-A-P-A… I am always looking for new things like this, I will have to research it! GF: There are many things I think you would find interesting in our Polynesian cultures; weaving, weaving is an art form used by almost all Polynesian cultures, there are many different types of dyes and techniques used,
different textiles…rc: I think there are a lot of New Zealanders who would love Stella Jean, your style is quite suited to us! GF: So how did your connection with Simone and ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative happen? Simonetta Gianfelici, I think you met her, yes? She is the talent scout for Altaroma (Rome Fashion Week). Twice I entered into ‘Who Is On Next’, which is the new designer contest and twice I was rejected (laughs) and the third time I got in and won! Afterward I developed a special relationship with Simonetta and she introduced me to Simone. Before we met she said, “You have to meet this man because he is just about what you do. I was always doing research about other cultures, which is why I am now interested in Tapa, and then I met Simone and it was love at first sight. It was incredible, he started talking about Burkina and then he showed me some fabrics from Burkina. If someone else had shown me those fabrics I would never have imagined that it was from Africa. From that moment on we started this journey and together we have been through Burkina Faso, Mali and the last one was to Haiti so I was able to come back to my own roots (because ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative have a hub there). Yesterday was just a little sample of the whole collection we will be showingatmilanfashionweekinseptember. In that collection you will see another point of view of Haiti, which is an island that many people know just for the earthquake or being a really poor island. But, it has its own artistic wave, a style of painting called Naïve. In the show yesterday you would have seen some of those paintings in the last dress. GF: Yes! That was a beautiful dress…and it absolutely reminded me of the Caribbean. We also made those bracelets there in Haiti, the metal ones and there were other Naïve elements, like the market and then also the Papier-mâché…you see people will talk about Haiti but never talk about this, like the Naïve paintings and yet it is all typical of Haiti. We think about everything in the design and styling, it is so linked to so many cultural aspects. GF: When you show in Milan in September is that the first time you have shown on schedule? No, it is the third time. The first time was with Armani, when Giorgio Armani invited me to show… RC: That’s a big honour, to have been invited by him. Of course, and being invited into his temple, the Teatro Armani! GF: Where do you retail Stella, is it worldwide? YES…RC: Except in New Zealand as far as I know. How about Australia? Yes, in Australia we definitely do , in fact we have had a lot of requests from Australian magazines for samples just in the last month, Vogue Australia, Elle Australia… GF: Great, hopefully we will see you in New Zealand soon! So the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative is it more of a mentoring, guidance thing or are they more like a partner, a business partner? I hope…that they consider me as a business partner because it is not a…trend, for me. It is part of the DNA of the collection, together we are always looking for new surprises, new culture. We are on a constant search together. We can’t stop! It is really interesting working with Simone, you wonder what will be the next country for us to work with, you never know. Maybe New Zealand! (laughs) GF: Hell yeah! At this point the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative’s Chloe Mukai joins the conversationandsummarisesthepartnership. Chloe Mukai: I think Stella Jean perfectly encapsulates what the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative is trying to do. When we met her she was already doing this, she was doing this anyway. It was not like we approached another brand and said, “Do you want to produce a collection in Africa,” she was already designing with that level of aesthetic. In so many ways, she is the perfect match for us. Stella Jean: I think this is something that could happen in New Zealand. Why can’t you take a designer from New Zealand and mix them with a Russian designer or fabric, or Greece? I think the world will change in that direction, we are travelling so much and so easily now, races are melding together much more. I am Haitian-italian but in a few years there will be many, many more racial mixes, much more than mine…but it doesn’t have to be patchwork as I like to say. I don’t mix my own cultures; Italian, Haitian or even African as a patchwork, one over the other, they have to communicate in an equal way. Like my fabrics, I treat all of my fabrics in an equal way. That is the change… GF: Fantastic, the fashion world can do with this sort of change… RC: Thanks Stella, see you next time!
Stella Jean Australian stockists: Brisbane - Carmargue Melbourne - Christine Barro
Opposite: Stella in Haiti This page: Clockwise from top left: Stella’s Bogolan print for SS15 (photo: Luca Sorrentino), Stella Jean SS14 look book, working in Burkina Faso, warping of yarn for SS14 fabric, Stella & Simonetta Gianfeleci working in Burkina Faso
This page: Stella Jean SS15 and SS14 (both photos: Luca Sorrentino) Opposite page: Left-right: duaba serwa, Mina Evans and Lisa Folawiyo aal photos: Luca Sorrentino