At a time when how you choose to attire yourself from the waist up can be conversational catnip on Zoom, those lucky enough to get first dibs on one of the sublime limited-edition sweaters – created by Stella Jean, the Italian designer of Haitian descent, in collaboration with the Kenyan/British artist Michael Armitage – can prepare themselves for some truly profound dialogues, whether on video call or not.
A marriage of Jean’s painterly color and Armitage’s dream-like and expressionistic imagery, the wearable art pieces are woven through with ideas around sustainability, mutli-culturalism and the progressive power of fashion and art. They form the second capsule collection from ArtColLab, a visionary initiative from the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Turin-based hive of art and philanthropy dedicated to kindling collaborations with significant contemporary artists and designers across the creative industries. Profits from this latest capsule (which drops on YOOX, NET-A-PORTER’s sister site, today) will go to support young artists, split equally between the Turin foundation and the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute, founded by Armitage, which opened just this year.
Raising the profile of creatives who might otherwise struggle for a platform is also an objective close to Jean’s heart. The former model, who has grown her sustainably minded label in Rome since winning Vogue Italia’s Who Is On Next? contest in 2011, and who consciously creates her collections with women artisans from developing countries, was the catalyst behind this September’s Made In Italy digital showcase, the first Milan Fashion Week slot dedicated to emerging Black designers.
PORTER caught up with Jean by phone to talk about knitting her and Armitage’s artistry together, and the responsibility of fashion as “a powerful tool for change”.
We are trying to communicate a bigger message, beyond just an aesthetic, and that is a sense of multiculturalism. There is no place for any kind of discrimination because we belong to so many different cultures and colors”
The sweaters you have created with Michael Armitage are wonderful. Had you met before your collaboration?
“I’m really honored to work with Michael. I knew his name, I knew his work – and a lot of my friends in Italy are desperate for one of his artworks, so as soon as they discovered that I was doing a collaboration with him… they started calling me every day! I think he is really one of the greatest contemporary artists.
”We are both trying to communicate a bigger message, beyond just an aesthetic, and that is a sense of multiculturalism. Our work is a result of our mixture. I think we are the new generation now, which is mixed. There is no place for any kind of discrimination because we belong to so many different cultures and colors.”
How did you progress your ideas to develop your collection?
“We started from one of Michael’s artworks, which is the story behind the giraffe (‘Samburu’) sweater. Then he created a brand-new artwork for the second sweater (‘Kiziwani’). I really hope that people will take the time to discover the stories and the paintings behind them – and I really hope that people will take care of the sweaters. Not only because they are works of art – they are all numbered – but because they are the stories of two different artists with two different communities behind them. And, of course, I hope people do not think of them as a trend, something you change every six months; this approach to fashion is something that scares me a little.”
Fashion and art are powerful tools – and when you have that power, you should remember that responsibility comes with power and attention”
How has your daily life and routine as the designer of your label been affected by the crisis of recent months?
“We kept working! I was a bit scared at the beginning, but I’m not good at doing nothing and I’m not good at making bread and cakes! So I called up my artisans… and, in Italy, many artisans have studios just next to their houses, so even during the pandemic they were able to use their fabrics, their paints, their colors, the materials that they already had. And with what we had, we made a new collection. We did it with fewer fabrics and materials, but even though we did less and it was smaller, I think it was better.”
This has been such an extraordinary period for the world. What is the importance of art and fashion at this time?
“They are really important, and I don’t just mean from an aesthetic point of view. I consider art and fashion as tools to reach and capture the attention of an audience. And once you have the attention, you should keep it with some arguments. For me, it can’t just be aesthetics; it is not enough. Fashion and art are powerful tools – and when you have that power, you should remember that responsibility comes with power and attention.
“In Italy, it was my responsibility not to shut up, to break the silence around [racism]. It’s a long road, there is a lot of work to do. But now, in September, with the help of the president of the fashion council, we had five Black designers in the Made in Italy showcase. This is an important victory.
“We all know the problems and we know that only together will we overcome them. So I really think knowing everything that we do, we have no excuse not to act and do something.”
Stella Jean and Michael Armitage’s ArtColLab capsule of limited-edition sweaters is available at YOOX from October 22
The models featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown