Stella Jean is the pioneer of ethical fashion, long before it became the new standard in the fashion industry. Moreover, Jean doesn’t shy away from controversy or important causes. She has been a fierce spokesperson bringing awareness of racial inequalities in the Italian fashion system to the fore, pushing the industry to answer tough questions and to bring about effective change. In her practice as a fashion designer, her commitment to celebrating multiculturalism and the creative contribution of minorities and marginalized communities in her collections goes back a long way. Her label was actually born out of her desire to pay homage to her Haitian-Italian roots. For autumn-winter 2021, she partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Through its Women’s Committee, she teamed up with the Mountain Partnership Products initiative (MPP), which provides technical and financial support to small communities of producers and artisans in remote rural and mountain areas around the world. Jean was introduced to the work of Kyrgyz women from Barskoon, a settlement at 1,750 meters elevation in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. The area is known for inlaid felt carpets and wall hangings traditionally handcrafted by women, using techniques passed down from generations. “When I saw all that beauty, the richness of the colors, the symbology, the history behind this culture, I was blown away,” Jean told Vogue on a Zoom call from her home in Rome. “These women are custodians of a naturally circular economy, totally equitable, and with the lowest environmental impact.” Jean connected remotely with the Topchu artisanal collective there with MPP’s support. Working with a local designer based in Bishkek, she came up with a capsule collection of five pieces featuring Kyrgyz embroidery in felt work. Jean chose simple shapes that can be easily replicated; artisans in Italy cut the patterns and sent them to Kyrgyzstan, where they were embroidered by the Topchu women. Once embroidered, the pieces were sent back to Italy to be assembled. “From next season, the collective can work on the patterns as they wish, creating new items that can be sold and bear profit,” she explained. “The patterns are not mine; I don’t own them. And the beautiful felted decorations have only been loaned to us – they’re theirs. The Kyrgyz women can source textiles locally, producing independently from outside partnerships. We’re not their saviors. We just have to accompany them, and then let them go find their own path. I think this a healthy, participatory way to look at globalization.” Jean integrated the Topchu collaboration into her collection beautifully, while also continuing to support a network of women artisans in the Umbria region, who made specially commissioned pieces, like a fabulous fringed wool poncho handcrafted with imaginative 3D ornamentations. For their part, the Kyrgyz artisans worked on simple wardrobe staples, energizing them with their vibrant decorations in saturated colors. The capsule comprises five looks: A sweeping hooded cape and a slim city coat in Prince of Wales checks were both embroidered with colorful motifs of birds and flowers in a mountainous landscape, and an oversized striped cotton shirt was decorated with long-legged herons. The pièces de résistance were two gorgeous skirts – one fitted, the other cut in a trapeze shape- both embroidered all over with the Shyrdak motifs traditionally handcrafted on felt carpets. “Their symbology is ancient,” said Jean. “It brings prosperity and good luck. Those skirts, they’re almost like walking amulets.”
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.