Photography: Danilo Scarpati for Yahoo Style
In the five years since Stella Jean won the Who Is On Next? contest sponsored by Vogue Italia, the designer has been quietly building a label known for mixing a Western silhouette with a flair for prints and colors culled from the designer’s heritage — Stella Jean is Haitian-Italian — as well as from other native cultures around the world.
At a time when topics such as identity and cultural appropriation are being constantly discussed in fashion, Stella Jean’s perspective is truly unique. While everyone else struggles with the themes, she is building a business around them.
“I was born and raised in Italy in the late ’80s, which was totally not prepared for a multiracial family like mine,” Stella tells me over the phone a day before her show in Milan, “My father is white, my mother is black, and people were staring at us like aliens. I struggled with my identity growing up.”
Like that other Italian powerhouse Miuccia Prada, Stella first pursued a political science degree at a university in Rome, and then a brief career as a model. It was during this time that she realized she wanted to work in fashion, just not on the side she was working on. She entered the Who Is On Next? contest twice, before finally winning the top prize on the third try.
“The first two times I entered the contest, I didn’t show an actual collection — I just showed some beautiful clothes,” she recalls. “After the second time, the talent scouts told me if you want to participate a third time, try to put your fingerprints on what you do.”
With that prompt, Stella realized that the very thing that had kept her “an alien” in her own country was a point of view sorely missing from the overwhelmingly white fashion industry. “I used to go with my father to his tailor, and that’s when I started to love and appreciate Italian tailoring,” Stella tells me about her first encounters with fashion. “That’s why [when it came down to figuring out what I wanted to say with my clothes] I put together an Italian shirt, with a skirt made out of a fabric that represented the African roots of Haiti.”
“Haitians are very proud of their blackness,” she adds. “I thought if I can make these looks work with opposing cultures like mine, then it could work in real life without being a caricature or a parody. I am using fashion as a tool to communicate the beauty of the multicultural.”
After winning the contest, Stella found herself unexpectedly being taken under the wing of the designer Giorgio Armani, who offered his space for her to show her Spring 2014 collection. “The most important thing [that Armani support] gave me was a sense of possibility. All the international press and buyers from all over the world started to contact us. That was the beginning of the story.”
Since then, Stella has explored the traditions and influences of other cultures, like Japan, India, and South American countries. “Of course, I’m not the first designer who uses African references in fashion, but my point of view is different,” she thoughtfully explains. “It’s not the white, safari point of view, but a different one, which talks about the contemporary [view] of those nations and continents.” To further show her commitment to a multicultural perspective, she’s part of the International Trade Center Ethical Fashion Initiative, which aims to bridge the gap between the Western luxury market and artisans in underdeveloped countries and their unique skills and products.
This season, her interest has led her to Burma, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. “Since I heard about her and the resistance she left in her country, I think about the strength she represents: She is as powerful as a new poem, a bomb without violence. I’m not about the red carpet star.”
While Stella Jean might not be courting the celebrity or social media likes, it’s only a matter of time before her name becomes ubiquitous. Because in a world where everyone is trying to outdo each other, trying to come up with the next viral hit, she is a woman who’s succeeded by being true to herself.
“Women like Aung San Suu Kyi show how fashion is a declaration of proudness,” Stella Jean revealed at the end of our conversation. Of course, the very same can be said about her.
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