CHANGE UNIVERSE: Magazine Jewels
Milan | DesignersFebruary 25, 2014

Stella Jean SS RTW 2014 / Burkina Faso

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The brand new Haitian/Italian designer and ex-model counts Armani and Suzy Menkes among her greatest fans. And this is only the beginning..

Stella Jean's spring/summer 2014 show at Armani/Teatro during Milan Fashion Week.

Who's On Next rewarded Stella Jean with €5,000, which gave her the chance to establish her label and produce her next collection, which she showed in Rome, with the help of a Milan-based showroom. 'It was pretty tough at the beginning. I didn't even know how to buy fabric, pay factories, how much fabric was needed, and so on. But I had constant support from Alta Roma and the editors at Italian Vogue.'

Jean's label was viable from the outset, with each collection financing the next, but it was her third collection, which she showed at the Armani/Teatro in Milan, that attracted international buyers. Natalie Kingham, the head of fashion at Matches, loved the collection as soon as she saw it in the lookbook that was sent to the office in late 2012. 'There is a playfulness but it also looks very fresh and grown up,' she says. The autumn/winter 2013 skirts and dresses sold out instantly. Jean adds, 'The showroom said it was the first time since the 1980s that a small label started from zero, then doubled after the first collection, and tripled after the second, and so on. I know it's not a good moment for international finance but our sales have been really surprising.'

Multiculturalism remains the crux of Jean's work. 'I want to communicate through clothes a concept of opposite worlds and traditions fusing together in a sophisticated way and standing side by side with equal importance, not covering the other up,' Jean says. She is not the first fashion designer to be inspired by Africa or the Caribbean but she represents a new school of designers that seek to use fashion in a smarter, more ethically sound way.

For her spring/summer 2014 collection, Jean travelled to Burkina Faso, west Africa, with the International Trade Centre's Ethical Fashion Initiative, a United Nations project, to source local fabrics in underprivileged areas. She met artisan weavers and embroiderers and, overwhelmed by the wealth of talent, returned home brimming with hand-woven striped fabrics and ideasStill based in Rome, where she lives with her children, Jean employs a producer for her biannual womenswear collections. She launched her first menswear collection for spring/summer 2014 and has more projects in the pipeline. She travels every week to her showroom in Milan and her factory in Cesena, while her children stay with her ex-husband, with whom she has a very good relationship.

Jean's heritage and family continue to inspire her. For womenswear she cites photographs of her mother and grandmother, hence the 1950s and 60s silhouettes of her clothes, with a cinched-in waist and exaggerated fullness at the hips. For her menswear line she draws on memories of her late father's classic Italian style. She calls it a 'wax and stripes philosophy': the wax fabrics from her mother's heritage combined with the stripes from her father's shirts from Turin. She describes her own personal style as 'mannish'. 'I do wear feminine circle skirts on occasion, but I'm usually dressed like a man, often in men's clothes. I was very close to my father so I wear some of his things. And I love Church's shoes.'

Jean plans to continue melding cultures together using fabrics from all over the world, including India, Mongolia and South America. For autumn/winter 2014 she has set her sights on Japan, adding its fabrics to her pot.

'It is so far from Africa. It will either work or be a disaster. I don't know.' (BY SOPHIE DE ROSEE | 27 JANUARY 2014 DT)

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