Interview with ethical fashion pioneer designer Stella Jean on being chosen for the Victoria and Albert exhibition in London and her new interior design collection shown during Salone de Mobile.
Nichelle Cole: Can you tell us about your experience with the Victoria and Albert exhibition in London. It isn’t simply acknowledging you as a designer, it is documenting you, historically, as someone who is changing and contributing to the future of Italian fashion. How did this come about?
STELLA JEAN: I can not explain well why, it has just happened and I have been selected to exhibit one of my looks on the occasion of The Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition and that’s really exciting for me. By being chosen amongst such an elite reinforces my international role as a representative of the new Italian creativity wave. The curators selected a look from my own first SS 2014 menswear collection which also includes a trench coat in striped canvas fabric that is hand woven made by female artisans from Burkina Faso as part of the UN Ethical Fashion project with ITC (International Trade Centre). My creations have to tell something about me and I think I have just been able to turn my familiar background with two cultures into a strength and so my personal assets have been understood and appreciated…that’s amazing! Being part of such an ambitious and prestigious project is one in a million occasion, I’m so excited and honored!
Nichelle Cole: Many designers are getting more and more involved in using their celebrity and long-standing fashion clout as a method to bring about change in impoverished lands or awareness about environmental issues but you’ve been sourcing fabrics with Burkina Faso for your collection almost from the beginning. How did the collaboration come about? What led you to the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative project?
STELLA JEAN: I arrived at the project thanks to my mentor Simonetta Gianfelici who guided me and made me know to this part of the world, which is still partly unknown to me. I had the opportunity to go to Burkina Faso and there I met extraordinary women who take care of everything in their villages and they have the unique ability to weave by hand. Thanks to these women I discovered the fabrics I now use in my creations. It was touching to feel astonished by such a great art and skill. I had the honor of being able to interpret, through my feelings and my particular vision, the unique centennial fabric of Burkina Faso. Simone Cipriani (the UN official in charge of the ITC Ethical Fashion Project) gave me the chance to discover a treasure trove of unparalleled craftsmanship.
Nichelle Cole: Stella Jean as a brand is covered in beauty and innovation and glamour and I suspect that as a designer there is an interesting origins story to Stella Jean as a designer. What was the final “click” to go from model to fashion designer? And was it difficult to offer such a unique take on Italian fashion as an Italo-Hatian designer? What was the reception like initially and how did you push through any adversity to see this through?
STELLA JEAN: I started in fashion as a model, and since the very first time I set foot in a fashion designer’s studio, I knew I was in my element. It was the right place to be, but the wrong way to be there. Eventually I made some changes and found my own style, which allowed me to express myself as a designer. My path into the industry was quite unorthodox and unconventional. For sure starting as a model allowed me to commit what I would call “sleight of hand“ – I was able to see and understand how designers approached and lived fashion. In the process, I learned how to approach the fashion industry.
And while being part of a multiracial family in Italy in the Eighties not only shaped me as a person, but also inspired my professional path, however, it has been neither simple nor painless. Actually, my cultural background made it harder for me to find an identity. As I am the result of a mix of different cultures and races that could appear completely opposed, but I want to promote a sophisticated and alternative multiculturalism through fashion. Blending traditions that are so distant. I want to create new and unexpected cultural messages. Fashion gives me ample space to maneuver and find a place where both of these cultures can coexist. This weak point has become both a strength and a fresh start.’ Stella Jean was born in Rome thirty-six years ago and still lives there.
At the beginning it was not easy. Getting to this point of equilibrium has been so difficult, in a country, for example, like Italy at the beginning of the 80s, was totally unprepared for this multicultural mix. And now I hope that all this can be figured out soon, under a deep respect and not just for pitiful tolerance.
Nichelle Cole: In reference to the limelight shining down on you right now, what has that been like? They always say it happens all of a sudden would you agree?
STELLA JEAN: I do not really think that everything happens by chance or suddenly, so unmotivated. Everything happens for a reason and in a precise moment cause it is the right time.
The beginning of my work coincides with an extraordinary work I did on myself when I decided to undress myself of every superstructure and tell who I was.
Being rejected twice at the “Who Is On Next?” contest had a motivation, I was doing something totally wrong. So I decided to make something more real, unique, and what is unique about me is my own personal story, my roots. And here was the final click, I mixed a shirt of my father, to symbolize the European roots, with wax fabrics representing the African roots of Haiti, the native island of my mother, the first independent black republic in the world. I combined these two elements together and I finally started on the right path with my “Wax & Stripes philosohpy” in which the African wax textiles refer to the Haitian roots of my mother and the masculine stripes to my Italian father. Telling a true story, totally authentic, for the first time, has been my strength.
Nichelle Cole: What scoops can you share with our readers about the upcoming Men’s Fashion Week?
STELLA JEAN: I’m sorry, but I can not share so much. I am very superstitious! A runway show calls for the impetus of many minds and an equal number of wills. Revealing its essence in advance would mean undermining a huge amount of teamwork. I will let the audience find out for themselves!
Nichelle Cole: At Salone del Mobile you revealed a capsule collection for interior design. Absolutely stunning work. Your design patterns, color scheme, specifically, are a natural for interior design. I feel like we should have seen this coming. Can we expect more from you in this area? What made you decide to make the collection?
STELLA JEAN: This collection is born from the desire to make the Wax & Stripes Philosophy a way of life that can infect all aspects of daily life. I am honored to have been able to take part in this Salone del Mobile edition and I decided to present a capsule collection comprising six armchairs that anticipate the project Home by Stella Jean to be launched in 2015.
The collection will include home accessories, fabrics, accessories and table linen. The inspiration comes from family tradition: wax fabrics of upholsteries are connected to my Caribbean maternal heritage, and at the same time they are evoking the Italian paternal style, expressed in the masculine stripes of men’s shirts. That’s my idea of a cross multiculturalism. What I wanted to propose, in particular, is the original style of my mother’s house in Rome, a mix between the Italian craftsmanship tradition and the spirit of the Caribbean vibrant colors, complemented by her French touch. And I added prints and elements from the southern hemisphere, seemingly so distant. With immediate effect, the result may appear an African tribal style, but in fact, the lines of Art Deco period of 80s are what most characterize the collection. A perfect harmony such as when the elements in an orchestra synchronize.
Nichelle Cole: Do you have any new charity projects or brand projects you can share with our readers? Would you ever consider doing a collaboration with other brands like H&M or Adidas? Or are you considering creating a bambini line for Stella Jean?
STELLA JEAN: Certainly I will carry on the work begun with The International Trade Centre, the joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, as parte of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, the project about creating beautiful luxury handwork produced 100% ethically by disadvantaged communities in Africa.
But on the other two questions, as I told you before, I’m very superstitious and I prefer not to reveal anything about future projects. I prefer to talk about something that I’ve already done…Facta, non verba! (It is time for deeds, not words!).