The Italian-Haitian designer Stella Jean is known for her vibrant prints, feminine shapes and crisp shirting.
Increasingly, she is also becoming known as an activist, calling for greater racial diversity and representation in Italian fashion. Her label’s mantra is “multiculturalism applied to ethical fashion”.
This season, Jean didn’t stage her own show at Milan Fashion Week. Instead, she participated in a video presentation featuring a group of black emerging designers: Gisèle Claudia Ntsama, Fabiola Manirakiza, Macodou Fall, Karim Daoudi and Joy Ijeoma Meribe. Her own collection featured vibrantly printed ruffled or 1950s-style skirts worn with crisp shirts and polka-dot polo shirts.
In July, Jean wrote a letter titled “Do Black Lives Matter in Italian Fashion?” It led to the creation of a “think-tank” within the Camera della Moda, Italian fashion’s governing body. She also asked the organisation, of which she is the only black member, to set up a public database to promote more diverse hiring.
“Some people feel threatened, others see it as a fuss. We’re just trying to open a discussion, table proposals,” she said when I met her last week.
The designer grew up in Rome and studied political science at Sapienza university. In the late 1990s she modelled for Egon von Fürstenberg, then started designing clothes, hiring a pair of highly skilled seamstresses — a mother and daughter from Umbria — to make them.
In 2011, after taking part in “Who’s on Next”, the Vogue Italia competition for young designers, Jean launched her own label.
One of the first people to spot and admire her playful approach to print was the late Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, one of the contest judges, who bumped her up to second place after seeing her ensembles on the models. “My garments make sense once you match them. If you see them hanging on racks, they look confusing,” says Jean.
For each collection, Jean travels to a developing or low-income country, where she works with artisans to blend local and Italian designs, reactivate traditional crafts and support communities. The designer has also partnered with the United Nations.
“My last mission before the Covid-19 pandemic was to Kyrgyzstan. When Italy went into lockdown in March, we got in touch with the women we were working with and they hadn’t even considered stopping their work, they just carried on,” Jean recalls.
“Production was limited, we couldn’t put together a proper marketing campaign, but we did what we could, and the initial response by the buyers [for SS21] has been good,” Jean says. While the brand has more than 200 stockists worldwide, the business, based in the Marche region, remains quite modest, with yearly revenues in the single-digit millions.
Speaking to Jean just a few days after Willy Monteiro Duarte, a 21-year-old African-Italian, was beaten to death following a petty argument near Rome, I suggest the problem of racism is much wider than fashion.
“Yes, but fashion should be a progressive and open-minded industry,” she replies. “If we had courageous interlocutors, not prone to marketing strategies, it would be easier.”
Jean says Italy hasn’t had much emerging talent recently because the industry tends to focus on household names. Yet she wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. “I guess I felt the need to communicate my personal story, multiculturalism, precisely because my country resists it,” she says. “The Italian fashion industry cannot be at the tail-end of this revolution.”