Championed by Mr Armani and Milan Fashion Week’s newest golden girl, Italo-Haitian designer Stella Jean’s fashion philosophy is as ethical as it is cool. Writing for Emirates Woman, she tells us how Europe/Africa, masculine/feminine and style/soul can live happily ever after.
“My goal is to make ‘ethical’ a way of thinking that comes before a way of acting. There’s an increasing awareness that a retrograde approach is proper, inevitable and necessary. People today are curious and, importantly, want to understand their clothing. There’s a balance that wasn’t there before – something I like to think comes across in both the aesthetic and philosophy of my work.
I’ve materialised my personal experience, mixing my Italian father’s striped shirt – representing my European heritage – with a wax design motif to symbolise my mother’s native Haiti. It’s my personal, authentic story and a manifestation of how my two worlds live together side by side – almost in an embrace. It wasn’t simple, nor painless to tread my professional path – growing up in a multi-racial family in Eighties Italy shaped me personally but it was hard to find an identity. Fashion enabled me to find a place where both of these cultures could co-exist. This weak point then became both a strength and a fresh start.
My African roots not only serve as inspiration, but Haiti is also a place I turn to for craft. It began when my mentor Simonetta Gianfelici introduced me to Simone Cipriani, the UN official in charge of the International Trade Centre Ethical Fashion Project. He helped me discover a treasure trove of craftsmanship and a part of the world still somewhat unknown to me. The project is all about creating luxury handiwork that is produced 100 per cent ethically by disadvantaged communities, generating work and an infrastructure where fashion business can develop. It’s an accountable way of acting – environmentally sound, promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that don’t need our charity – just our teamwork.
I design products directly with the local artisans and each time is a one-of-a-kind experience. I visited Croix-des-Bouquets where they specialised in metalwork, using discarded oil drums to hammer into sheets, cut, paint and shape into accessories like my Tap Tap bangles. We also met a group of old ladies making patchwork tapestries, as well as master papier-mâché artisans and a cow horn group. They work from a narrow workshop in downtown Port-au-Prince and shape, carve and polish horn (a by-product from local abattoirs) – we used their bangles for spring/summer 2015.
I think if we can mix elements of an outfit from different cultures, we can absolutely embrace this juxtaposition in real life. It might not be quick, or easy, but as Arancha Gonzalez, Executive Director of the ITC said in her speech at the UN, you cannot change what you do not know, but once you understand it, you cannot be exempt from changing it.”
Stella Jean available at Harvey Nichols-Dubai