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Stanning for Stella

I’ve been stanning for Stella, designer Stella Jean for a few years now.

When recently profiling her for TripAdvisor, I ended up feverishly writing my love story with the brand in a way that made my editor laugh. I submitted about 3 times more than was required and they worried it wasn’t “digestible” for the TripAdvisor audience! Fully understandable. I got carried away. TripAdvisor is not where people go for essays, word play etc. They go for quick, digestible info in graphically appealing formats, and great crowd sourced reviews.

Stella Jean walking down the street of an arch way of Via Giulia in Rome
Stella walking down the streets of Via Giulia

But that’s why I started ‘N A Perfect World. As a place where I can go into depth on subjects that I’m passionate about and my perfectionists appreciate it! So… as Stella Jean’s latest Laboratorio Delle Nazioni partnership was just released (it’s with Kyrgyzstan), let me tell you the origin story of my full on stanning for Stella Jean.

It’s been argued that the Italian fashion system is harder for new designers. Do a google search of “Italian fashion designers.” Nestled between greats like Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani, you’ll see the name Stella Jean in the first ten. Rihanna wore a Stella Jean Ankara print dress in a November 2014 visit to the White House while Beyoncé has worn the brand several times over the years and is a big fan as is young Hollywood heavy-hitter, Zendaya, dressed by her stylist, the fabulous Law Roach.

In the last decade, Roman fashion designer Stella Jean, considered to be Giorgio Armani’s protégé, has burst onto the fashion scene challenging what it means to be Italian — taking a very real current social conversation in Italy to the international fashion realm — and the business of fashion and sustainability.

I was thrilled to go to Stella Jean’s first official Milan Fashion Week show at Teatro Armani show space in Milan. I was covering Milan Fashion week for a few online publications and requested attendance for the Stella Jean show. Studio Re was the firm handling the show at the time. They told me “no, [they] couldn’t confirm [me,]” despite my writing for major publications and even telling them that I would be more than happy to accept a seatless position, standing. It seems like I hit a wall with the PR. Cliche, right? At the time of emailing, I was in London and discussing the brand with a colleague who was on Solange Knowles’ styling team. Receiving what seemed to be the final rejection from the PR time I expressed my disappointment and confusion. I wondered if they didn’t understand the wide readership of the places I was writing for and reputation that they had in the US or if it was because I was freelance. “That’s very disappointing to hear.  Especially as I was just praising the brand over a meeting with Solange Knowles’ stylist. What do you mean you can not “confirm my accreditations?” Best, Nneya” Suddenly, there was room! Following the show, I connected the PR team with my stylist colleague. While I’m sure it was the Knowles’ name and connections that I made good on, getting to know the brand and Stella over the years I’d like to think it could also have been Stella and her insistence of shaking up the old way of doing things: she made space for a young Black woman writer like myself. After all, this is exactly in line with what she’s doing seven years later.

Such fine tailoring, a flawless runway show. Jersey tee-shirts emblazoned with “Port Au-Prince,” pencil skirts with fine art graphics of Black island women and multi-colored drawings of sugar canes. A few of these looks would be worn by Beyoncé herself in the future. Just a year before, Giorgio Armani personally selected Stella Jean’s Spring / Summer 2014 collection to show at the Teatro Armani space in Milan as well as loaned his communications team — a first time for both. For this collection, Stella Jean also collaborated with the UN International Trade Center’s Ethical Fashion Initiative and featured fabrics that were sustainably sourced and hand crafted by trade workers in disadvantaged communities in Burkina Faso. Stella would continue this dedication to using her design platform to aid artisans, especially women, around the world.

two women in
courtesy of StellaJean.it

In a time when the fashion community frequently receives backlash for appropriation, Stella has built the business model of not only taking inspiration from these communities, but giving them a place on the global stage.

Stella Jean’s Laboratorio delle Nazioni is a business model and sustainable development platform that, through each collection, collaborates with female artisans in places like Peru, Kenya, and Pakistan and employs them in the construction of Stella Jean’s unique pieces. Stella Jean’s world is that of cooperation. From TedTalks to United Nations summits in Geneva or at the European Commission in Brussels, Stella Jean is a prolific mind on sustainable business developments in fashion.

We have to understand that we must think different. There’s no African, Italian, they can’t work if they don’t start a dialogue together, to communicate. As they can communicate in the styling, the same people can communicate in real life, so no more borders.

Stella Jean, 2013

Jean’s bicultural upbringing — raised in Rome to a Haitian mother and Italian father — defines her brand. She chose her mother’s maiden name for the label to emphasis this. Design wise, Roman striped shirts, often pair effortlessly with colorful African printed fabrics and create an unexpected and beautiful look. This was Stella, and she wanted to take that duality that she grew up with into the design world, not exotifying the Creole elements of her background but placing them right alongside the widely accepted art that is Italian design.

But self-taught designer Stella Jean wasn’t an overnight success. Jean studied political science at Rome’s Sapienza university before leaving to model for Prince and designer Egon Von Fürstenberg (ex-husband of designer Diane Von Fürstenberg); tall, lithe and graceful, Jean still cuts a striking figure.

In the last year, Stella Jean became a vocal force in the Black Lives Matter movement in Italy calling on Italy’s fashion chamber, Camera della Moda to diversify and reflect the multicultural Italy in what is arguably the country’s most known export, its fashion system.

But this wasn’t a scramble now that she had the world’s attention. In February 2020, pre-pandemic I emailed Stella Jean’s PR team to ask about her place in the Milan Fashion Week calendar. Living in Italy, I excitedly pull from the brand for fashion shoots every opportunity I get. To my surprise, Stella, herself wrote back to me!

Stella Jean email to Nneya Richards

Stella was activated. She had drawn parallels of multiculturalism and globalization with her designs and now she was demanding advocacy from age old fashion systems. I have never been as honored to wear a designer’s creations. I marveled at the craftsmanship of the Kalash women in the Chitral region of Pakistan highlighted in Stella Jeans Spring / Summer 2020 collection. Removing herself from the fashion calendar and creating protest art with her collection she raised awareness of the full picture of what it means to be Italian.

The Black Lives Matters global protests over the summer only increased her fervor. Giving a rousing speech at a demonstration in Rome opposing the murder of George Floyd, Stella announced herself as a force to be reckoned with for Italy’s race purists.

She’s Italian. Italian society is multicultural. Different ethnicities are guaranteed rights afforded to them by the Italian constitution and those who disagree need to get with it.

In a letter co-signed by Edward Buchanan, a designer based in Milan and Michelle Ngonmo, creator of Afro Fashion Week, Stella Jean asked Italian Fashion Chamber “Do Black Lives Matter in Italian Fashion?” They cited the fashion council’s failures to meet sweeping reforms and benchmarks for diversity. Offering a suggestion that she has practiced for years, Jean said, “For companies wishing to continue to draw free inspiration from Black culture,” an organization called Made in Africa will provide a list of African artisans who can “train and collaborate with Italian companies.” A think tank took place on September 22nd during Milan Fashion Week. Five BIPOC talents made their debut on the Milan Fashion Week calendar supported by CNMI.* Two days after this think tank, I met Stella Jean in person in Rome. I was producing, styling and writing a package that included her for Travel + Leisure.

Jean had us meet at her friend’s apartment on Rome’s famously beautiful Via Giulia as we planned to shoot nearby. The friend was Black American author, Dr. Tamara Pizzoli. Like us, she wasn’t quite sure of Stella’s plan. Arriving on Italian — or was it Haitian — time, Stella breezed in warmly and excitedly greeting everyone. She lamented that she didn’t have a chance to pick up the delicious appetizers she wanted to bring us. That Roman charm. As we prepped for the shoot, Stella animated spoke about the think tank. The victories, the TBDs, the funny guffaws. She also made plans for us to all go out to lunch afterwards at her favorite restaurant. That Roman hospitality, her talented friends, constantly creating and her humble yet powerful spirit. That’s at the heart of Stella Jean.

*As of writing this, this Autumn/Winter 2021 show season, Milan’s Fashion Week calendar opened with The Fab Five, a capsule collection of 5 BIPOC designers.

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