The video that preceded Stella Jean’s show at Fashion Pakistan Week W/F 2019 this week explained how this unbelievable collaboration between Italian fashion and Pakistani craft had developed and unraveled on the catwalks of Milan Fashion Week last month. It was a story that made global headlines, putting the region’s indigenous craft in the spotlight. And it was quite a coup to bring the designer to Karachi, to showcase and give people a firsthand experience of the work that had been done over two years.
As models walked out to ‘Lovers Eyes (Mohe Pi Ki Najariya)’, an electronic rendition of Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram’s qawaali, it was evident that this collection was all about fusion. It was multiculturalism at its best, unveiling with the music, the Kailashi craft on classic Italian pinstripes, the paranda and truck-art accessories; she even incorporated knee pads and cricket gear as a nod to PM Imran Khan. The collection had tremendous impact.
One day before the show, I was lucky enough to sit down with Jean and admire the clothes up close; we also spoke about the reason behind her interest in Pakistan, a country that was mostly making international headlines for all the wrong seasons. This past one month had been monumental in putting Pakistan on the map for its fashion, first with Stella Jean’s collection at Milan Fashion Week and then with the Royal Visit and Kate Middleton’s sartorial choices, which were termed as fashion diplomacy at its best.
"I’ve always been fascinated by Pakistani culture because it’s so multicultural," the designer explained as we settled down. She had been on GEO TV with Huma Amir Shah and Abdullah Sultan that morning and wore a full white skirt and blouse embroidered with vibrant motifs on the sleeves. "This fascination for multiculturalism comes from my mixed origins because I am multicultural. My father is Italian, I was born in Rome, and my mother is from Haiti. So, I was born challenging this identity. At one point, when I was struggling, I decided to show people how positive and useful it can be to draw inspiration and learn from opposite cultures. There’s always something new to teach and people have to understand not to be afraid.
"We are in a border country and are facing huge immigration issues and people aren’t reacting too well," she furthered. "They see this as a scary situation without remembering that we were the first to migrate; Italians are everywhere in the world. It’s not about negotiating your own identity but about the encounters of culture, which always give birth to something stronger and new. If the new generation doesn’t understand this, it’ll be a dangerous situation."
She spoke about fashion as a powerful tool of communication and why it was important to use it with meaning and purpose. This was not the time when you could get away with just making beautiful clothes. But what about cultural misappropriation? I asked her what differentiated her multiculturalism from cultural misappropriation, since there was a very thin line between the two.
"Maybe I’m lucky to already belong to different cultures so I’m used to respecting them both," she said. "This is my 9th mission and I’ve been to South America, Central America, Africa and now Pakistan. Wherever I go, the first thing is to meet people and work with them and explain what we do and then take their permission. If we don’t work together, I can’t do it. Karishma Ali introduced me to these women (in Kailash) and initially they took time to understand me. It’s not about liking something and using it in my collections - that would be misappropriation - that would be like going to a candy shop and picking up what you liked. No, here the people explain their culture, what colours to use; maybe a certain motif means negative things and can’t be used. Some animals yes, some no; human shapes maybe no; you have to respect what they are telling you. That’s when they accept you. We’re building bridges between people; you can call it a multicultural, interracial wedding."
What makes Stella’s collaborations so dynamic is, of course, the incorporation of indigenous craft but also the designer’s Italian aesthetic, which is undisputed for its finesse. Style is in Stella’s DNA and she knows how to turn everything into fashion. Taken as is, this may be too folkloristic for the world but she turns the craft into wearable clothing that is neither costume nor a caricature of a culture. Treated with sensitivity, she turns it into something more wearable, for everyday life in any city of the world.
It’s no wonder that this collection was immediately accepted on Italian online retailer, Yoox Net a Porter and it completely sold out. That is the way fast fashion works. Collections don’t necessarily have the 6-month gestation period and clothes are uploaded online and retailed quicker than ever. At times like this, how did Stella find the time for research, development and the commitment needed to see these projects through?
"Fast fashion is not my idea of fashion," Stella was very clear. "What I do comes naturally to me because I have no other option. If I didn’t give it the time and attention then it would be cultural misappropriation. I would never accept it if someone tried to make a Haiti inspired collection without going there and understanding the culture and meeting the people. This is a way to change lives. It can’t be done in a superficial way."
"I’m a David amongst all these Goliaths," she continued. "So, you can’t compete with high end, fast fashion which will always be bigger and faster than you. If you want a seat at the table, you have to bring something new and something personal to it."
These projects definitely were personal; the amount of work put into understanding the Kailashi culture, creating the craft according to international standards and then merging it into an Italian aesthetic couldn’t have been easy.
What were the stories she was taking back with her? I was curious to know.
"I met so many women in Kailash and they were all so strong," Stella relived her experience. "I didn’t meet a single weak woman and they all had stories to tell. They saw a chance in this collaboration. And I wanted them to see the catwalk in Milan and see where their work would be shown. I wanted them to see how people of the world were appreciating their work; they were my virtual front row."
It couldn’t have been simple to pull off the paperwork and access these areas in Northern Pakistan. What role do governments and cooperatives play in facilitating her missions, I asked.
"Each trip is different but in this case the help of the Secretary of Commerce was very important as we couldn’t make it to these very difficult places," she answered. "The United Nations team organized the trip. We had to reach some really hard places and they facilitated a lot. I have to say I always felt safe. Another very important thing was to go back and change the wrong news that goes out about a country so I was searching for unique stories. This is a population at the risk of extinction but their culture is too rich; it would appeal to anyone."
Was this a one-off collection or would there be continuation to this collaboration?
"I always try to build a business model in every collaboration," she replied. "Our pattern makers in Italy developed several simple patterns and I gave it to them (the women) and showed them how they could replicate them and make them themselves and sell to tourists. I also talk to e-commerce platforms where they can sell on their own. So, I start with the first collection and then push them to continue independently."
Ethical is a big flag everyone is waving, Stella spoke about her work in further detail, explaining how one never knows what was real and what went down as marketing. "I know the work I’ve put in and it’s transparent," she said with pride. "This (in Kailash) is just one village; how many more do you have in your country?" she asked. "My second dream is to work in Sindh because the Sindh culture is so rich too. You guys are looking at these things and not doing anything; you can change the lives of so many people."
"When I went to the Wagah Border, I was very impressed by the Rangers and their body language," Stella shared an extremely interesting story about the Milan Fashion Week show. "They make this very powerful movement when the borders open and we wanted to replicate that when we opened the show. That’s why we chose Mushk (Kaleem) to wear this certain black outfit, we repeated the Ranger’s belt and it was a significant opening. The first impression was so important because it’s the first image that goes on Vogue Magazine and it’s the first thing people see. I explained it all to her and she started to cry. ‘I will do it, I will do it well,’ she said. She worked so hard and kept improving her walk; she started working like a soldier. She felt the responsibility and I was very happy that she understood it. Mushk was so passionate about it. She carried a flag from Pakistan and was so proud when she held it up at the Duomo; everyone started taking pictures of her. It gave me goosebumps."
All photographs from FPWF’19 credited to Faisal Farooqui @ Dragonfly