It’s about 6pm on the 12th of June 2014. I’m at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, a characteristically grandiose European institutional building made all the more incredible by its waterfront view and bright, modern yet noble style. It is the type of space that – bewilderingly – makes you think of both justice and injustice.
Today it is a space evoking the former. Marking the 50th anniversary of the International Trade Centre (ITC), the Italian-Haitian fashion designer Stella Jean is about to showcase her collection, partly produced through her collaboration with ITC’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. From Cotton to Catwalk, as the show is titled, is about to start and the atrium of the WTO is abuzz with excited chatter.
It’s 7pm and the show has still not started. I go upstairs to the dressing room to get an update from Stella Jean. I’ve spent the day in her company, first at a high level panel discussion at the UN, “The power of empowered women”, where she was a panelist and later here. For a woman whose models are not yet on set (in fact they are not yet in the country as their bus broke down in Italy!), Stella is very composed. But of course she is anxious. She need not be, however, I assure her. Guests are busy making new friends and having a great time.
The Ethical Fashion Initiative connects fashion designers around the world with women artisans in African countries (Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso) as well as Haiti. They are not only responsible for the Stella Jean collaborations that we are about to see, but also for connecting artisans in Africa with Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Karen Walker, and sass & bide to name a few.They are not a charity, however, as they are quick to point out. Rather they facilitate creative, cultural exchanges for trade within the fashion industry. It’s a complicated task I think to myself; writhing in the paradoxes of being too development-y and not being development-y enough, but they are doing a careful and rigorous job. Fashion is an exceptional tool for addressing serious issues such as poverty, gender inequality and racial stereotyping. But fashion is also an art and a language with which we articulate ourselves. The Ethical Fashion initiative gets the balance between these right.
This is when fashion is both beautiful and meaningful.
The show starts. It’s electrifying. It’s got soul. Man, the clothes look like something out of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” if it were cast and set in modern-day, let’s say, Accra. The outfits are retro, warm and tropical. Earthy tones like saffron, mustard and coral mixed with bold reds, aqua blue and yellows evoke a terrestrial but juicy aesthetic. The highlight Burkinabe and Malian fabrics are sophisticated and quintessentially tailored. The models – belted, young, boyish, feminine, well groomed and laid-back stride across one corner of the bright lobby to the other like they were themselves delivering summer. Maybe they are.
At least everyone is smiling. It’s about 8pm. Waves of applauds. Well-deserved applauds. It’s time to take a picture with the designer.
Laura Volpintesta says
I’d love to look into this more… to recognize what aspects of the collection are African -artisan created. Is it the fabric itself, accessories, hand work? I can’t tell. But as a Connecticut girl who wen to Parsons to study fashion design in Paris in 1992 who was at least as influenced if not more by the African fashion and fabric, beauty in that city , as I was by the couture (so much so that it’s still my greatest love in fashion), I am happy to see these designs. I would LOVE to know more about how artisans and communities were involved. I’m going to do some research tomorrow :0)
Hi Laura. Thanks for your comment. The artisans are hired to take part in a business model where they use their existing skills but are also trained to meet the quality standards of the brand they’re producing goods for. For example, in Stella’s collection there are hand-woven textiles from Burkina Faso. The ethical fashion initiative employs over a 1000 women full time… Just some of the things that come to mind but there’s a lot more on their website.
Laura Volpintesta says
ps Stella Jean, you are awesome!!! And Minna Salami, you too! I’m so happy I stumbled onto these pages this evening !!
Thanks so much Laura! Nice to see you here.