Designer Stella Jean On Empowering Female Artisans

5 min read

Doing the right thing for the global economy and your wardrobe? MOJEH meets Stella Jean, the Italian-Haitian designer empowering a near-extinct community of Pakistan’s female artisans through cross-cultural collaboration

Stella Jean

Italian-Haitian designer Stella Jean

Her global-inspired designs have been travel companions of the world’s most stylish women since her eponymous label launched in 2013. Packed into suitcases and emerging in myriad glamorous destinations as part of the essential holiday wardrobe, the feel-good factor of a Stella Jean piece is the fashion equivalent of that first sundowner on day one of a longed-for vacay – the very thing so many of us are dreaming about right now. 

And while the realities of the global pandemic continue to affect our world, highlighting massive changes that must be made in every industry on the planet, choices about the clothes we buy are also subject to further questioning over their socio-economic and environmental impact – factors now as equal in importance to their sartorial appeal. 

With sustainability, ethical sourcing and responsible supply chains a focal point in an industry undergoing seismic change, and subsequently heightening awareness amongst the conscious consumer, luxury labels like Stella Jean, who have consistently championed co-operative international development in the fashion business, have become even more desirable.

Stella Jean

Stella Jean SS20

Highlighting her multicultural roots, each collection by the self-taught Italian-Haitian designer fuses traditional crafts created by artisans in developing countries with the exquisite tailoring and contemporary construction techniques of her maison. 

With the aim of promoting cultural heritage as an enabler and driver of sustainable development, alongside the launch of her label, Stella simultaneously created business-bridging platform Laboratorio delle Nazioni, or Laboratory of Nations, focusing on what occurs when fashion becomes a tool for co-operative international development. 

Central to her design vision and a pillar of her signature aesthetic, previous LDN collaborations between artisans in Peru, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali amongst others as well as expeditions to South America, Africa and Asia have seen the hands of countless female creatives in different countries working together on Stella Jean collections, with the common goal of caring and preserving an endangered global cultural heritage. In so doing, these women are building their own economic autonomy, preserving their own traditions, and at the same time, gaining a seat at the global market table. 

Stella Jean SS20

Stella Jean SS20

“For SS20, we worked with minority communities in Pakistan, including the ancient people of the Kalash,” explains Stella. Located at an altitude of 2000 meters in a remote valley in the north-eastern province of Chitral, near the border of Afghanistan, the Kalash are a tiny community comprising less than 3,000 people. 

“They have their own native language, and a unique set of traditions and heritage which have not yet been completely lost – but this exceptional community is close to extinction,” revealed the designer, who lived in the Kalash community for two weeks to learn about their unique embroidery techniques. 

“Because of this, the Kalash have been provided with an extraordinary amount of safety and protection by the Pakistani government to preserve their existence.” As part of the Emerging Pakistan Project, a mission supported by the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, the Embassy of Pakistan in Italy and United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Stella worked with artisans from Chitral Women’s Handicraft Centre, an NGO founded by 22-year-old national women’s football champion Karishma Ali, who was born in the village of Karimabad, and Karigar, a women’s empowerment initiative run by the Aga Khan Development Network in Gilgit-Baltistan. 

Stella Jean SS20

Stella Jean SS20

“Over a number of weeks, 46 incredible women created over 400 meters of traditional, hand-embroidered oral motifs for the collection,” says Stella. “It’s a hugely important project, because this collaboration marks the first time in history that the Kalash women have embroidered their traditional motifs for an international audience, and their handicraft has left the Kalash valleys.”

Imagined in an array of natural fibres including cotton, linen and silk “another way of honouring Pakistan – it’s a significant destination along the silk road,” smiles Stella, the collection sees the colourful chainstitch embroideries of the Kalash artisans wrapped around dresses, adorning belts, and decorating the hemlines of the designer’s signature summer dresses.

“Fashion is a powerful international megaphone, and a collection is more than the sum of it’s garments,” says Stella. “Clothes can speak louder and in a more incisive manner than words, somehow igniting cultural fabric. I believe that metissage is the gateway to social development, and the meeting of cultures, and its relative inclusiveness, is an irreversible choice.” 

Stella Jean SS20

And while many fashion partnerships of this kind often create a singular opportunity for it’s collaborators, Stella believes the talents of the Kalash community should be showcased for many years to come.

As with every other collaboration she undertakes, her label aims to keep these tiny communities and their traditions alive, by creating something that offers a long-term, beneficial impact to their economies,

In this case, the designer created an exclusive pattern that was donated to the artisans of Chitral and Karigar, which merges the Pakistani aesthetic with the Italian one. A model of simple manufacture, embroidered with patterns typical of Kalash, the artisans are able to continue to produce and sell the garment globally themselves through an international e-commerce platform.

Stella Jean SS20

Remaining their exclusive property, the donated sample has been designed respecting the materials of local, traditional clothes to facilitate it’s production, with the option of changing colours and patterns every season.

One of fashion’s true good guys, Stella’s activism goes far beyond slogan tees and hashtags, and actually incites economic and social change.“The maison and the LDN have maintained the same mission since they were founded: an unshakeable principle of multi- culturalism applied to fashion, which becomes a tool and a cultural expression for positive, proactive growth and awareness, says Stella.

“Using my roots and my wings, I will keep promoting cultural crossover without ever negotiating or compromising one’s own identity.”

Find Stella Jean’s collections at Etoile La Boutique.

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  • Words by Lucy Wildman