Trade Forum Features

Demystifying ethical fashion with Stella Jean

6 May 2015
ITC News

International Trade Forum talks fashion and development with Italian-Haitian designer Stella Jean on who she made the leap from catwalk to drawing board

Trade Forum: You started off as a model before deciding to design clothes and accessories yourself. What made you take this leap?
STELLA JEAN: At the beginning I worked on the other side of the fence as a model but I quickly realized that my real vocation was of in the creative side of the business, as a designer. I was in the right place but in the wrong way to be there. I do not regret the past as a model because this has helped to make me who I am today. My passion for fashion comes from the necessity of finding my own expressive language. Fashion is my most authentic communications medium, through which I have been able to express and resolve the sense of inadequacy that guided me through the first years of my life.

TF: How do you work with people and communities in developing countries?
SJ: It’s all about creating luxury handwork produced ethically by disadvantaged communities, generating work and creating an infrastructure where the fashion luxury business can develop and produce products. Thanks to my sourcing trips I found a rare treasure looking at the busy hands of extraordinary women who tell, with dignity and hard work, a creative and cultural mosaic without any kind of mystification. They are excellent handloom weavers, able to create fabrics of exquisite craftsmanship. People I met on my trips, in their villages, showed me that there is a sustainable future associated with fashion. 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. It can cover all phases: design, production, and consumption.

TF: How does you work make an impact on the lives of people who work with you through the International Trace Centre (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative?
SJ: ‘Not Charity, Just Work’ is the slogan o f ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), which I firmly support. It is about running a proper, accountable business that is environmentally sound. It is about promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that do not need our charity.

TF: How has your Haitian background influenced your work on fashion and the collaboration with EFI?
SJ: My personal background has always played a key role in my inspiration and, Haiti being my second home, it’s something that somehow is part of my DNA. When I first visited Haiti there was not yet a production hub but ITC already had a team of professionals in place who managed the community groups of artisans.

Thanks to the development of my SS2015 collection and to the support of ITC, we got in touch with the Haitian tradition of Art Naïf, discovering such a rare treasure of artisanal and skilled handcrafts and having 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 Port-au-Prince atelier of around 50 artisans specialized 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 jewellery 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.

TF: From where do you get your inspiration?
SJ: From the women of my family. I let my inspiration be influenced by my own story. My roots and background have always played a key role in my work. That is why I decided to materialize my personal experience mixing a shirt of my father, to symbolize the European roots, with wax design motif fabrics representing the African roots of Haiti, the native island of my mother and first independent black republic in the world.

When I combined these two elements together I finally had my ‘Wax & Stripes Philosophy,’ in which the wax design motif fabrics 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.

TF: How do you think fashion can change people’s lives?
SJ: While it will not be easy or quick, I think that every person is increasingly becoming aware that a change towards this approach is proper, inevitable and necessary. As [ITC Executive Director] Arancha González said on the occasion of the ‘The Power of Empowered Women 2014’ event at the United Nations in Geneva, ‘You can not change what you do not know, but once you get it you can not exempt from changing it.’ What I’d like to achieve is that people begin to understand that each person has [their] own dignity and deserves to be respected and not tolerated. You can tolerate a stomach ache, not a person! But the change must first take place within each of us, in our minds. It’s a matter of choice, information and diversity, and, at the same time, of cultural identity and it can cover all phases: design, production and consumption.

TF: Which EFI project/visit impressed you the most and why? How is the EFI influencing your fashion career and your designs?
SJ: Everything started thanks to my mentor Simonetta Gianfelici [the Ethical Fashion Initiative representative for fashion brand Altaroma] who introduced me to Simone Cipriani (who heads the ITC initiative). With Simone it was love at first sight. He is a charismatic man with great pathos and ideas. I’ve seen his ideas come to life right before my eyes. He’s as creative as he’s pragmatic. He gave me the tools to think beyond aesthetics.

TF: What are your hopes for the future? How do you envisage fashion continuing to change people lives?
SJ: If we can mix, in an outfit, elements coming from the most distant and different cultures of the world and the result is good, we can embrace this juxtaposition of cultures in real life. What I do with my work is to offer a point of view, which is mine, but I hope many others will share it in the coming years. If I were 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 would already be a great personal triumph.