Stella Jean: fashion’s latest rising star
The Haitian/Italian designer and ex-model counts Armani and Suzy Menkes among her greatest fans. And this is only the beginning..
BY SOPHIE DE ROSEE | 27 JANUARY 2014
Stella Jean Photo: Jonathan Frantini
Last summer Stella Jean, the 34-year-old half-Italian, half-Haitian fashion designer, was driving her car along a motorway in Italy when her phone rang. It was Sara Maino, the senior fashion editor at Italian Vogue whom she had come to know after winning 2011’s Who’s On Next, the fashion talent competition set up in 2005 by Italian Vogue and Alta Roma, an organisation that supports young talent.
Sitting in a cafe in Rome, just after her spring/summer 2014 show, Jean explained how the conversation went. Maino asked, ‘Stella, are you sitting down?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘What’s your plan for September fashion week?’
‘I’m not sure. It’s not easy for a young designer to put on a fashion show so we’re still not sure.’
‘Well, Giorgio Armani just called and he’s chosen you to show at the Armani/Teatro.’
‘I started to scream so loudly. I had to stop the car, get out and start jumping up and down. Then I called her back and had to ask if it was a joke.’
It wasn’t. Armani chose to support her spring/summer 2014 collection in September by lending her his 550-seat show space in Milan and his communications team – the first time he has ever shared both with another designer. They had never met, but this was Armani’s opportunity to promote new talent in Milan. ‘The new generation of Italian designers needs our support,’ Armani said. ‘It is for this reason that I continue to make my theatre on via Bergognone available to them. Stella Jean will be the next designer to organise a fashion show at the Armani/Teatro, and I hope this experience brings her luck.’
Armani’s gesture proved to be a cornerstone moment in her career. The collection that Jean sent down the runway was full of bold colours and mismatched patterns in ladylike 1950s and 60s silhouettes. The models wore knotted fabric headbands and coloured flowers in their hair, shirts were knotted over colourful bras, waists were nipped in and the oversized accessories were as riotous as the clothes. Jean took her final bow wearing a T-shirt that read grazie mr armani. They had met two days previously at an event organised by Italian Vogue and Jean was so overwhelmed that she cried in front of him. ‘I felt so small talking to such a giant,’ she told me. During the show he wasn’t sitting in the front row, but appeared backstage to congratulate her. He had watched from behind the scenes and loved it.
‘He was very complimentary,’ Jean said. ‘He gave me great feedback: to have faith in what I am doing, not to follow the mainstream, and not to be afraid to follow my own vision. It was good advice for me because sometimes I doubt myself. I think maybe I should be more commercial, but his advice gave me the strength to go on with my unique ideas.’
Stella Jean on the catwalk after her s/s 14 show in Milan
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.
Jean didn’t finish her political science degree at La Sapienza university in Rome because her interest was drawn to fashion while modelling for Egon von Fürstenberg, the Swiss-born aristocratic fashion designer and ex-husband of Diane von Fürstenberg. He was a friend of Jean’s mother and introduced her to other well-known Italian designers from the 1990s, such as Valextra and Gattinoni. In 2003 Jean had the first of her two children, Grande Marcello Maria, with her then-husband, the art gallery owner Filippo Brando Sproviero (their daughter, Mirella Gaia, is six). But while Jean felt the fashion studio was the right place for her, the role of model was wrong.
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 emphasising the locally sourced artisan crafts of hand-painted and hand-embroidered fabrics. But her application was rejected, two years running.
‘They were beautiful, colourful clothes but they didn’t need beautiful clothes,’ Jean said. ‘There are plenty of those already in the world. They needed clothes with a story.’ The talent scout at Alta Roma, Simonetta Gianfelici, the Italian model from the 1980s, advised her that if she was going to enter for a third time she should try to be more sincere and true to herself. ‘That was the first time I applied my own story to my fashion,’ Jean said of her winning collection of 12 looks. Jean’s mix of Italian and Haitian was a unique one.
‘Stella’s unusual ethnicity and her desire to make ethically sound clothes, helping the poorest women in the world, makes her bold and colourful clothes as beautiful inside as out,’ Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, a firm supporter of Jean’s, said after the show in September.
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 ideas.
Above yellow and grey coat, £558, gingham skirt, £325, at Matches Fashion .
Still 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.
Above blue jacket, £445, green dress, £498, atMatches Fashion .
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.’
Stella Jean is stocked at Matches Fashion (matchesfashion.com )