By Lígia Carvalho Abreu (2015)

The Women of Stella Jean. Illustration  by Catarina Pinto and Lígia Carvalho Abreu. Source of Inspiration: Woman I is wearing: Skirt and T-shirt from the 2015 Spring/Summer RTW Collection and hat from the 2013 Spring/Summer RTW Collection designed by Stella Jean. Woman II is wearing: White Blouse from the 2015 Spring/Summer RTW Collection and Aqua Mikado Skirt with Hand Painted and sequined Zebras from the 2014 Spring/Summer RTW Collection designed by Stella Jean. Woman III is wearing: Skirt, blouse, belt and wool jacket from the 2014/2015 Fall RTW Collection designed by Stella Jean.   

 

Fashion collections and their presentation on a runway show obey a previous logical process of brand identity construction. It permits an emergent designer to conquer a place in the fashion sector or a worldwide known brand to consolidate or expand its position in the market. Those collections may have a narrative structure, a story to tell, but few, such as those of Stella Jean[i], surpass from one season to another, that logical process of representing fashion. Her collections are more than just structured narratives to satisfy visual and consumption needs. Her catwalk shows are not simple moments of entertainment. They are able to transmit the possibility of embracing cultural diversity, the creation of a universal language composed by different worlds and traditions of equal importance, standing side by side in a peaceful coexistence and not overlapping each other.

Stella Jean is spreading this cultural diversity with a battle cry, Rassemblé[ii], which means a call to reunion, in her case, a reunion of people with different cultures.

She began to integrate her commitment of cultural diversity into fashion by creating the Wax and Stripes Philosophy. This creative way of fashion design thinking combines striped shirts, symbolic of her European roots (her paternal Italian roots) and wax, a pattern which originated in Asia and was later developed in Europe before being adopted as a symbol for East African culture. The wax represents the African roots in Haiti, her mother’s homeland.

Those elements appear in all of her collections, perfectly interacting with each other within the same look, reminding us how important it is to know and understand different cultural backgrounds in order to coexist with them.

Chinotto Trench Coat and the Wax and Stripes from Stella Jean's 2014 Spring/Summer Collection Photo: Courtesy of Alta Roma and ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

For the 2014 Spring/Summer RTW Collection she also showed this fusion between Italy, Africa and Haiti by mixing striped shirts, skirts adorned with hand painted sequined zebras, coconuts and papayas or the Chinotto Trench Coat that represents Burkina Faso’s secular traditions. For the 2014 Fall RTW Collection, Stella Jean introduced another element to her plural dialogue of cultures, this being Japan. African wax prints, plumed rooster motifs, striped shirts infused with kimono shape jackets, coats or dresses and giant koi on woollen scarves and jerseys.

For the 2015 Spring/Summer Collection she returned to Haiti, to her African roots, with a brief stop in Europe. By uniting Haiti, Burkina Faso, Mali and Italy in the same aesthetic, she created sports shirts with references to Port-au-Prince, Ouagadougou and Bamako and a blazer with a giraffe style print.

Stella Jean's 2015 Spring/Summer Collection. Photos: Courtesy of Stella Jean and ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Skirts, dresses, coats and blouses were also printed or hand-painted with Haitian Art Naïf motifs, such as picturesque market scenes, Caribbean rural landscapes or donkeys (an animal that is always present in the African and Caribbean rural daily life). Both white and striped shirts were sometimes mixed with multi-coloured sugar canes.

This reconciliation of different worlds, here explained in fashion design language, is still a key issue in contemporary society towards the understanding of human dignity. Each person is free to express a particular culture, inherent to personal identity, without being discriminated. It goes as far as not to endanger other fundamental rights such as life or physical and psychological integrity.  In this context, UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states that: 

The defence of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative, inseparable from the respect for human dignity. It implies a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights of persons belonging to minorities and those of indigenous peoples. No one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope[iii].   

 

The acceptance of a human being implies the acceptance of their culture. The recognition of each cultural identity is essential to personal development, inherent to human dignity. In this sense, as indicated by Avishai Margalit and Moshe Halbertal, culture is constitutive of a human being’s personality identity[iv] and their right to culture. This right “stems from the fact that every person has an overriding interest in his/her personality identity”[v].    

This intercultural perception of human dignity is perceived by UNESCO (Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity) as a common patrimony of plural identities:

Culture takes diverse forms across time and space. This diversity is embodied in the uniqueness and plurality of the identities of exchange, innovation and creativity. Cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations[vi]

 

Stella Jean conveys this principle in fashion design by showing cultural uniqueness from some social groups living in different parts of the world. By means of identifying the aspects that differentiate them and those which are convergent, she is promoting human knowledge through a meeting of cultures in a multifaceted world.  It is not a perception of absolute unitary personal identity imposed by the society nor is it based on appearance. Like Luigi Pirandello, a novelist and dramatist who has inspired Stella’s life and work, she also constructs a narrative to show that there is no absolute identity but plural identities, similar to Pirandello’s novel One, No One and One Hundred Thousand (Uno, Nessuno e Centomila) or the play To Clothe the Naked (Vestire gli Ignudi). 

She is the designer of plural identities and she is also the partner of the Ethical Fashion Initiative project created by the International Trade Center (ITC)[vii]. Under the slogan Not Charity just Work, the Ethical Fashion Initiative aims to connect fashion designers with artisans or marginalized people, in particular women from developing countries, in order to empower them with the necessary skills to adapt their work to the needs of the international fashion business.

Stella Jean’s  2015-2016 Fall/Winter Men's Collection and Stella Jean's fabric production in Burkina Faso. Photos: Stella Jean, Anne Mimau and ITC

The training provided by this project transforms those people into qualified workers who are paid a fair wage, allowing them to live with dignity and gain recognition under law. Thus, these workers become relevant actors to the productive and creative fashion system. Consequently they promote sustainable economies whilst permitting fashion design to proceed with its demand for the unique.

In the context of this project, with the 2015 Spring/Summer Collection, Stella Jean was influenced by Haitian Art Naïf artists and has designed jewellery pieces directly with local Haitian artisans.

Jewellery Pieces designed by Stella Jean with the collaboration of local Haitian artisans Photo: Courtesy of Stella Jean and ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

In Africa, she discovered the Bologan fabric made from Malian cotton and other local handmade fabrics, some of which are secular traditions from the Burkina Faso.

Bologan Production in Mali. Photos: Courtesy of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

 The Fashion business always obliges designers to continuously explore new ways of creativity without compromising their identity. Stella Jean’s source of inspiration is extremely powerful and several cultures are waiting to be discovered. They can become part of this aesthetic of plural identities in an open dialogue and push fashion design onto a whole new level.

Detail of Stella Jean’s 2015-2016 Fall/Winter Collection. Clutch made with quilting Photo: Courtesy of Stella Jean and ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

 

 

[i] Stella Jean, http://www.stellajean.it/stella-jean.html

[ii] At the beginning of Stella Jean Shows we can hear a woman’s cry. It is a recording of a Haitian artist imitating a battle cry that says Rassemblé (coming together, reunion). 

[iii] Article 4 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity,  http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001271/127162e.pdf

[iv] Avisahi Margalit and Moshe Halbertal, Liberalism and the Right to Culture. Social Research, 61: 1994.   

[v] Ibid., 502.

[vi] Article 1 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity,  http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001271/127162e.pdf

[vii] ITC, http://www.intracen.org/itc/projects/ethical-fashion/