Stella Jean was raised in Rome to a Haitian mother, Violette Jean, and an Italian father, Marcello Novarino, with one younger sister, Manuela. She admits it was hard growing up in a ‘black and white family’. No one believed she was Italian, but she didn’t feel Haitian either. As a teenager she vowed to leave Italy for France or the United States where multicultural families were more accepted.
With no formal training or drawing ability – she pins fabric on to a model to create her designs (as did Paco Rabanne and Coco Chanel) – it was hard to establish herself as a designer. In 2009, with the help of a seamstress friend, she entered Who’s On Next as Stella Jean (she uses her mother’s maiden name, rather than her given surname, Novarino, for the brand to express the two parts of her heritage, as Jean is one of the most common surnames in Haiti) with three looks aimed at emphasizing the locally sourced artisan crafts of hand-painted and hand-embroidered fabrics. But her application was rejected, two years running.
Third time was the charm. 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.
Jean’s heritage and family continue to inspire her. For women’s wear 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.’
Stella Jean collaborates with African and Haitian artisans, based on the principle of increase in value, economic impact and respect for the territory, resources and traditions of the local communities who must be supported, while at the same time preserving ancestral knowledge – at risk of extinction – and opposing the debasing effect of imperialist homogenisation. All of this is aimed at generating commercial enterprise and self-sustaining local communities, highlighting the women’s driving force by fostering awareness and pride in their resources, and triggering a mechanism of independence that dismantles the ruinous aid-dependent system.
Women who can support their children and make decisions that will bring them outside their planned path of subordination. The emphasis is placed on the fact that real sustainability is not sourced externally but, with the proper organisational support, is born within each village and a new sense of dignity is conferred globally. Social production, based on the application of collective knowledge and organised around a bottom-up approach in which each individual, each artisan, contributes according to their abilities, skills and means, is designed to eliminate the relegation of the third world workforce offshore.
These are the premises that allowed Stella Jean to discover unique treasures, for instance fabrics that have been hand-loomed in a century-old tradition by groups of local weavers in Burkina Faso, bogolan from Mali, a fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud, and materials such as papier-mâché, fer forgé metalwork and ox bone crafted by the most skilled artisans of Jacmel, Port-au-Prince and Croix-des-Bouquets, with whom the designer studies and designs these pieces directly during her research trips, implementing Italian know-how and local skills. Stella Jean is making big things happen in a big way in the fashion industry! For more information on Stella Jean click here http://www.stellajean.it/about-stellajean/