Aged nine, I had a pair of lime coloured velvet trousers from Benetton that I practically lived in. I teamed them with a purple sweatshirt, also from Benetton which I thought worked particularly well for emulating the Spice Girls who had just realeased Wannabe. Flick back through any of my childhood school photos and you'll see me and most of my classmates clad in t-shirts or polo necks all emblazoned with the multicoloured embroidered 'United Colors Of Benetton' logo. Bearing in mind we had to travel two and half hours to our nearest store (hey it was rural Ireland and also pre-Internet) this was some pretty strong Benetton repping. But these are lengths we were willing to go to get our fashionable Benetton fix. But then we hit the teen years, discovered Topshop and suddenly suggestions of popping into Benetton were met with a moody teen eye-roll. And to be honest, in my mind and a lot of my mates' minds, this perception of the Italian brand of being a little bit stale has pretty much remained, opting instead for Cos, Zara and the occssional Topshop Boutique splurge whilst leaving Benetton to the exchange students with a love of a brightly coloured padded jacket.
But recently they unveiled their very first designer collaboration and I suddenly found myself pausing outside their flagship store on London's Regent Street. Now, designer collaborations with high-street brands aren't anything new, but Benetton's savvy choice of designer - the Italian-Haitian Stella Jean really caught my attention. While her name might not be as well known as say H&M's Balmain collab with Oliver Rousteing that sold out in a couple of hours, in the fashion industry the self-taught designer is very well respected and also loved amongst the streetstyle set for her bold and bright prints on full skirts and box shaped shirts. But apart from her love of colour, what really makes her the perfect fit for Benetton is her design ethos and global outlook. Born and based in Rome, the 35 year old mother of two is known for merging her own mother's Haitian heritage with her father's Italian roots. Like Benetton, Stella sees fashion as a tool of communication. 'Growing up as part of a multi-racial family, I often struggled with my identity,' she says, on the phone to me en route to her studio in Milan. 'So when I realised that through designing a look I could show elements from different cultures and from both of my roots and merge them and that this could work in real life I knew that was the industry for me.' And her collaboration with Benetton pretty much sums up this mindset with a focus on knitwear featuring different nuances and motifs and many of the accessories produced by communities in Haiti and Ethiopia. Here Stella talks through her inspo, design process and why fashion isn't futile...
What's your first fashion memory?
'I remember going to the tailor with my father who used to buy tailor made coats. I loved everything about those meetings. It was like magic. I was fascinated by the whole process.'
But you chose not to go down the fashion education path?
'Yes, I originally studied political science. At the beginning my goal was to have a diplomatic career, like my mother's family. While studying I started modeling but after a couple of years I realized it wasn’t the right work for but fashion was definitely the right industry for me. So I started to create my very first collection with a tailor from a region next to mine.'
And then you won the Vogue Italia talent contest Who Is On Next?
'I was rejected twice but that made me completely change my work. Instead of just creating clothes I tried to put a concept on it and communicate something. I finally won the contest in 2011.'
Giorgio Armani sponsored your first fashion show in 2012. What was the best piece of advice he has given you?
'To keep going on, and not to be afraid to keep my DNA. He said that's what makes me uniquen and different.'
Beyonce and Rihanna have both worn your designs. Is 'celebrity' important to you?
'It’s not my most important goal. When Beyonce wore one of my dresses it got me a lot of attention in the media. But nowadays the customer has to be really convinced to buy your clothes and that doesn't just come from an images of a celebrity wearing something.'
You are the first designer to collaborate with Benetton. What was the appeal? an
'Like me, they use fashion as a tool of communication. Their beauty is in their diversity, from models to campaigns. They're all about taking action with an ethical approach.'
You're not classically trained so what's your design process like?
'I do a lot of pinning and I talk a lot. I explain with images and pictures and also take fabric and drape it around my body or a model’s body to show what I want to create.'
Talk me through the Benetton collab?
'Part of my ethos is working with different communities. So for me it was really important that this was part of my Benetton collaboration too. So we worked with Haitian and Ethiopian craftsmen using recycled metal from petrol drums and recycled paper for papier mache. I think it's really important to promote their craft techniques. For example the new generation in Haiti are forgetting a lot of the traditional techniques so doing things like this helps promote them while still being mainstream.'
Do you have a woman in mind when you are designing?
'For my last collection I was thinking of the Aung San Suu Kyi (the state counsellor of Myanmar and winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace) She has been a woman I have admired since I was a teenager. To me she is a fashion icon as she uses fashion to promote her country. No matter where she is, even when she was under house arrest for 15 years she always wore her own clothes, which are traditional to her country. Fashion isn't just to look thinner or taller, it can go much deeper than the facade.'