In Review

Designer Stella Jean on her latest collaboration

The sustainable and ethical fashion pioneer reveals the process behind her new project with artist Michael Armitage

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“Multiculturalism applied to ethical fashion” - so goes the mantra of Stella Jean’s label, and the Italian fashion designer’s latest collaboration adds a painterly twist too.

Jean has teamed up with Kenyan-British artist Michael Armitage to create two limited-edition jumper designs available exclusively at Yoox.com as part of a project called ArtColLab, a non-profit initiative created by Turin-based arts institution Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo that aims to foster collaborations between leading international contemporary artists and designers. Spun from eco-friendly merino wool, the glorious knits - the ‘Samburu’ and ‘Kiziwani’ - are inspired by the landscapes and mythologies of Kenya and Tanzania as interpreted by Armitage, whose abstract and colourful paintings raise questions about identity.

The ArtColLab ‘Samburu’ sweater

The wearable works of art are intended to convey a message of inclusion, sustainability and equality, starting with a generous show of financial support: all sale proceeds will go to the Nairobi Contemporary Arts Institute - a non-profit exhibition space for East African artists - and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, to support rising stars in the art world.

The ‘Kiziwani’ sweater

Both Jean and Armitage share a deep interest in socio-economic development, cultural diversity and environmental sustainability. Armitage - due to kick off a solo show at London’s Royal Academy next March - is a figurative painter who uses soft and dreamy forms of abstraction to challenge colonial assumptions about East Africa and to bring into focus both the positive and negative aspects of modern Kenyan society. 

Artist Michael Armitage (photography by Anna Kucera)

Jean, meanwhile, draws on her own Italian-Haitian heritage in her mission to bring the essence of different cultures together, combining the lightness of Italian tailoring with the bright graphic motifs and meticulous craftsmanship of African, Asian and Caribbean communities. Each SJ collection is made in collaboration with female artisans from developing countries - an approach that helps to preserve artistic traditions and encourage greater economic autonomy for women.

Designer Stella Jean

To find out more, I spoke to Jean about this special knitwear project and her various experiences as a leader in sustainable and ethical luxury fashion.

How did you and Michael come to work together?

When Olga Donskova Re Rebaudengo [daughter-in-law of the founder of the Italian arts centre] spoke to me about the ArtColLab project, I couldn’t hold back my enthusiasm, because I consider Michael Armitage a refined and responsible witness of his time. I hope that these wearable works of art will convey the profound message of multiculturalism with which they are imbued. It is [a sentiment that stands for] a substantial part of my DNA, as I think it does for Michael.

What is the message of this project and how does it underpin the spirit of your work?

The sweaters we designed are a demonstration of how multiculturalism applied to fashion and art can become a practical example of open dialogue and intimate, everyday confrontation.

This is a project born out of resistance - a resistance to the temporary but historical ‘closure’ of our countries. We wanted to creatively respond to a suspension and to show that we had not surrendered from our history and heritage. We want to rebuild a healthy fashion industry by safeguarding our cultural heritage and the historical memory of our artisans, with whom we started and through whom each mission enriches our multicultural families.

You work with female artisans in developing countries - which stories have impacted you the most?

During my last visit to Pakistan, I met Karishma Ali, a 22-year-old ‘warrior woman’ whose passion is football. She began [playing] in her village, Karimabad. Despite many challenges, she persisted and has become a national women’s football champion. She now coaches girls and trains mothers in Karimabad, where she founded the Chitral Women’s Handicraft Centre, which produced embroidery for one of [my] collections.

Karishma Ali and I travelled up and down the Hindu Kush mountains, crossing thousands of kilometres, exchanging traditional meals and exchanding stories. Karishma began teaching me her language. We have been roommates and have become friends. This girl is a game changer. She is even on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list!

We’ve also collaborated on the ground with some exceptional minority communities, at risk of extinction. These includes the Kalash people, located in one of the most remote areas of the world: an isolated valley at an altitude of 3,000 metres in the Chitral region, to the northeast of Pakistan, next to the Afghan border.

For the first time in history, the traditional embroideries of the Kalash women were presented to an international audience. This will enable the world to partake in the empowering path that these women will follow.

[The emboideries were presented at the tenth instalment of Jean’s Laboratorio delle Nazioni, or Laboratory of Nations, project, an ongoing scheme supported by the United Nations that promotes the work of skilled artisans from low-income countries around the world.]

What is the biggest misconception about ethical fashion, in your view?

Too often ethical fashion transforms into an unacceptable and inhumane marketing strategy which [feeds into a damaging] ’saviour mentality’ - defined as the paradoxical exploitation of the weakest and most vulnerable. It all adds insult to injury. If we really want true ethical change, this is the first truth that we must face.

In order: Images courtesy of  Stella Jean 

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