Stella Jean and the Technicolor Dream

Designers drawing inspiration from different cultures is nothing new, but fledging couturier Stella Jean, whose Italian-Haitian heritage informs her unique aesthetic, weaves a fine—and refreshingly unadulterated—tale of two continents with her bold spring-summer 2014 collection.

But it could have gone terribly wrong. Since the dawn of fashion design, couturiers have been inspired by their travels to places far and wide. But time and time again, it has resulted in a flawed narrative as seen through the Western gaze, laden with ethnocentrism, cultural appropriation and colonial era clichés, then labeled with the vague, derogatory and all-too-general terms ‘ethnic’, ‘tribal’, and ‘African’. While some designers have successfully managed to fashion collections imbued with cultural references without falling into cringe worthy caricature territory—think Yves Saint Laurent’s seminal 1967 ‘African’ collection or, more recently, labels Proenza Schouler and Jason Wu—they are few and far between. Playing on old, racist tropes for mass consumption has also well served fast fashion retailers like American Apparel (remember those ‘Afrika’ monokinis? Yes, that’s Afrika with a k. Très chic!), Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, who have reduced the cultural insignias of entire peoples to mere stereotypical archetypes deemed sexy and du jour. Under this guise, advertisements for any animal print paint the African continent as a wild, ‘exotic’, unbridled place, while fringes, feathers and obscure prints labeled ‘Navajo’ dilute the cultural meaning behind traditional Aboriginal garb. And that’s just skimming the surface…

Granted, it’s not always this straightforward.  At times, the provenance and authenticity of a cultural tradition is unclear. But much like any other creative pursuit, a) thoroughly researching your subject and b) giving credit when credit is due is paramount, especially given that ethnicity is such a contentious issue, if only for all of the oppressive history it carries.

Looks from the Stella Jean SS14 collection shown at Milan Fashion Week.

The latter is why Jean’s aesthetic is so refreshing. This designer has done her homework. Born in Rome to a Haitian mother and an Italian father, the 34-year-old couturier chose early on in her career to pay tribute to her maternal roots firmly planted in Haiti, an island whose history traces back to West Africa.  Taking from her own upbringing and cultural background, she drew inspiration straight from the source rather than relying on archaic imperialist narrative constructs. And then she did one better, showcasing her Caribbean heritage alongside her Italian roots, right down to her moniker (she opted to use Jean, her mother’s maiden name instead of her given surname Novarino, making Stella Jean the perfect calling card for her brand). Not subjected to dominant Western aesthetics, the ‘ethnic’ influences in her collections are given equal room to shine.

The fusion of Italian craftsmanship and the rich, colourful style of the Caribbean is at the heart of Jean’s ‘Wax & Stripes’ philosophy. ‘Wax’ for the Caribbean/African influences from her mother’s homeland, and ‘stripes’ symbolizing her father’s classic Italian style. Nothing is left to chance, with both parts of her heritage forming a multicultural whole, which informs her aesthetic. What’s also interesting is how multilayered this métissage is, uniting not only Italian and Caribbean ancestries, but elements of womenswear and menswear as well, with cultural ‘trompe l’oeil’, further turning the Western narrative on its head. Case in point: her S/S 14 collection, in which the stripes adorning some of the garments call to mind striped British college blazers, are actually emblematic of the culture of Burkina Faso, doing away with typical cultural associations. Jean’s partnership with The International Trade Centre‘s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative—a United Nations’ project, which promotes the ethical and sustainable production of luxury textiles by artisans in Eastern and Western Africa, and Haiti, thus empowering them and their communities—seals the deal. By employing local artisans whose cultural traditions inform her work, Jean acknowledges the source of her inspiration by giving credit and paying proper respect to the artisans, and giving visibility to the originators of the work, instead of lazily ripping sample fabrics and commodifying other cultures through mass production.

What would perfectly complete this technicolor picture is an equally diverse catwalk, especially given the strong multicultural message behind the brand. But, alas, this other problematic issue within the industry warrants a discussion of its own…

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Fashion, art, architecture, design, TV, and film: Katia Jean Paul is a Montreal-based writer who casts a critical eye on her many idées fixes, unearthing the aesthetic and cultural dimensions within each and every subject. / Follow Katia on Twitter:@KatiaJeanPaul

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