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Haitian-Italian Designer Stella Jean Combats Racism and Promotes Sustainability in Fashion

Haitian-Italian fashion designer Stella Jean posting in a white blouse and a Haitian inspired print skirt.

Stella Jean Photo/Getty Images

In an industry with a long-standing history of racial exclusivism and harsh environmental impact, Stella Jean has dared to challenge the status quo.

This fearless designer's desire to represent her Haitian roots in a predominantly Eurocentric industry gave birth to the Stella Jean fashion brand. For Stella, otherwise known as Giorgio Armani’s protegee, fashion is not about appealing to high society and manipulating human beauty for financial gain. Rather, fashion is about showcasing the contributions and creativity of marginalized Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) based on ecological practices. As such, a major principle of Stella’s company is ‘sustainability.’

The company’s slogan, “Multiculturalism Applied to Ethical Fashion,’ perfectly embodies everything Stella stands for. Multiculturalism is invalid if, in the longshot, vulnerable BIPOC communities are still being harmed. The use of multiculturalism for aesthetics easily treads the line of cultural appropriation. Stella, in contrast, ensures that her designs are created in a way that shields BIPOC communities in developing countries from exploitation and evades environmental degradation.

2021 Fall Collection Cultural Influences

Stella Jean’s revolutionary 2021 Fall Collection is a testament to Stella’s doctrine. Through a collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and a partnership with Mountain Partnership Products, Stella gave women in Central Asia a voice, which they never imagined having.

The work of women from the Northeastern part of Kyrgyzstan, in particular, caught Stella’s interest. In an interview with Vogue, she stated, “When I saw all that beauty, the richness of the colors, the symbology, the history behind this culture, I was blown away…These women are custodians of a naturally circular economy, totally equitable and with the lowest environmental impact.”

She collaborated with the Topchu Art Group, an association of women artisans, to create a capsule collection of five pieces with Kyrgyz embroidery at the forefront. The capsule comprises five looks which consist of bird, flower, and mountain embroideries, trapeze shapes, and Shyrdak motifs. Such patterns are symbols of prosperity and good luck but more than the ancient meaning behind these beautiful embroideries, Stella prides herself on paying tribute to Central Asian fashion rather than the conventional trench coat and heeled-boots look of the fall season. More than that, Stella has enabled the Topchu designers to retain their Kyrgyz identity without restriction, which includes using the same embroidery patterns used in Stella’s collection for their own profit.

She said, “The patterns are not mine; I don’t own them. And the beautiful felted decorations have only been loaned to us - they’re theirs…We’re not their saviors. We just have to accompany them, and then let them go find their own path. I think this is a healthy, participatory way to look at globalization.”

Combating Racism in the Fashion Industry

Stella Jean’s revolutionary 2021 Fall Collection was preceded by her equally as revolutionary 2021 Spring Collection which set the tone for a year filled with diversity and multicultural representation. Italy’s fashion industry has been plagued with endemic racism and xenophobia for countless years and a first step towards dispelling such prejudice has only just been made. Alongside the launch of her Spring 2021 Collection was ‘We Are Made in Italy’, a Milan Fashion Week Showcase that celebrated the work of five Black designers.

A first step is better than no steps at all. And thanks to the Afro Fashion Association, Stella was able to team up with big names such as Michelle Ngonmo and Edward Buchanan to mentor and guide these five upcoming Black designers who were able to showcase their works at Milan Fashion Week. Stella reiterated that ‘We Are Made in Italy’ aimed to “counter the misconception that to be Italian and a representative of Made in Italy is to be white.”

Most notable about the ‘We Are Made in Italy’ project was the inclusion of not only black models but women wearing hijabs in the collection “Abaya Businesswoman - Spring Summer 2022,” proudly promoted on Stella Jean’s Instagram page. Much like Central Asian cultures are often neglected, ‘brown’ cultures are often thrown to the side whenever racial and ethnic discourse emerges in popular spaces such as music and fashion. Stella has kickstarted the conversation, however, and Carlo Capasa, president of the Italian Fashion Chamber who previously described Stella’s initiatives as ‘not in the sphere of responsibility,’ professed a change of heart to Womenswear Daily. About the ‘We Are Made in Italy’ showcase he said, “We were thrilled to be able to include this content, to offer an opportunity and be increasingly more inclusive.”

Stella Jean's Early Years

The self-taught designer was not always behind the runway. Stella Jean’s career began on the runway when she dropped out of the Sapienza University of Rome to model for Egon von Furstenberg. Soon after she realized that her calling was to create beautiful clothes rather than wearing them. Stella then entered Vogue Italia’s “Who Is On Next” in 2011 where she won second place after having her applications be denied two years in a row.

Despite winning second place, her early years as a designer was not easy. Fashion designer Giorgio Armani was in fact one of the first people to acknowledge her skill in 2013. She was given the opportunity to showcase her designs in the Armani/Teatro space during Milano Moda Donna for Fashion Week Spring Summer 2014. This opportunity also saw the birth of Stella’s passion for ethical fashion as she collaborated with the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative in the sourcing and merging of fabrics.

Stella Jean is undoubtedly an immense source of Caribbean pride. Though she may be Italian by nationality, her Haitian roots by way of her mother, are stronger than any trace of European genetics built into her cells. Her decision to use her mother’s maiden name for her brand in place of her surname ‘Novarino’ was done to represent her Caribbean heritage.

The model turned fashion designer is carving her own path in the Italian fashion industry and if you don’t think she’s unstoppable now, you will have no qualms about it when you hear headlines of her being ‘The first black woman to…’ or ‘The first woman of Haitian heritage to…’

Just wait for it.


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