Stella Jean: Benin, Brazil and the ancient cotton route of Africa
In an Italy where one black former minister has been the subject of much racist abuse by her fellow politicians, it was instructive to attend the latest Stella Jean collection on Saturday morning, a tribute to our collective memory of the ugliness of slavery. And, as it turned out, an excellent show and collection which incorporated all the cultures that slaves would have encountered on the route across the Atlantic.
Entitled "Benin – Brazil", the collection followed the cotton route of the 19th century, incorporating the tradition of Atcho Oké, broderie anglaise – much loved in Bahia, Brazil, and some tremendous blue azulejo prints depicting the Portuguese ships that used to transport Africans to Latin America.
The result was an effervescent show, which managed to be a respectful testament to an ugly part of history, while also channelling a stylish joie de vivre. It was also good to see a collection created for a hot summer day after endless Milan collections of trench coats, pea coats and even fur.
What worked best were the charming azulejo plissé dresses and cargo culottes finished with images of parrots, exotic birds and other fauna, cut either as silk dresses or cotton picnic frocks. For a cool look around the pool, African fruit-print sarongs with matching sports bras. Plus Jean’s finale featuring red swing jackets, full skirts and multi-peplum dresses finely embroidered with images of Bahian ladies with turbans and wooden necklaces was something else.
Benin’s Minister of Culture also sat front row. His department had helped sponsor a short film on Stella Jean’s visit to Benin projected pre-show. Here she is greeted by a local high priestess, who introduces her to the goddess Yemanjá, whose saint’s day visitors to Rio will know is celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Cariocas each year.
Jean also visits Ouidah, the capital of the slave trade in Benin, and the Tree of Memory where prisoners were forced to make seven turns with the inhuman mission to strip away all memory of their past. Later she crossed the Door of No Return, a huge arch that commemorates the squalid commerce of slavery, finishing by walking in the waters of the Atlantic, as her collection had finished on the beach.
Seven minutes, Jean suggested was the usual length of many shows. In the end, her own lasted 10; but we will forgive her that after this fine collection and timely commentary in today’s Italy.
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