ASM: We understand you went to school to study political science before you became a model. However, you preferred being behind the scene as a fashion designer. What made you choose to become the designer and not the wearer?
SJ: I did not start from an aesthetic standpoint. My DNA consists of two backgrounds – I am Haitian and Italian, and as a result, it was difficult to find an identity. I started using fashion as a tool to try to find a solution to balancing both sides of me. Being the only black kid in school, I was always asked questions about my identity – and this still goes on now occasionally. When I say I am Haitian and Italian, there is a look of disbelief from the inquirer and I am questioned further about my parents’ background, which I do not think is polite. I do not feel free to randomly ask a stranger about his or her background because they do not fit the norm of what a country’s citizen should look like. When ones’ identity is constantly questioned – an identity that you are sure of with documents to back you up, you begin to feel inferior. The people asking may not have had the intent of questioning my truth, and did not see a problem, but it did affect me - they did not know what I was going through. What I tried to do with fashion is put together a look that people can try to understand without having to explain a lot. Within a collection, I made sure there are two opposite looks to capture parts of both of my identities. Afterwards, I learned to use the right fabrics to emphasize and represent my proud Haitian roots and mix it with the fine Italian tailoring, which is another part of me. Creating these pieces by myself and presenting them brought about positive responses. A former fashion editor of a magazine told me my collections were different and unique because they speak to my truth and not fashion trends — my collections have a soul she said. It was the same thing that Mr. Giorgio Armani said to me.
ASM: That is interesting. There is a universality and multi-culturalism in your collections that still seem to connect back to Haiti and Italy. At what point did you decide to cross boundaries in your pieces? Was it immediate?
SJ: It was something I always wanted to do the moment I found my footing in the industry and laid out the balance between both of my roots. I started traveling a lot to find and include the balance between new cultures and countries within my collections. From Japan, Mali to India and Burkina Fasso, my idea is to treat all cultures and countries equally in the presentations; and in doing so, I celebrate multi-culturalism. This is very important to me, and it comes first before an aesthetic is brought into the mix.
ASM: Do you ever get creatively stagnant? If that moment does arise, how do you get past that?
SJ: As mentioned, my travels give the ability to find inspirations in different cultures and create collections that I feel connected to and hope, others feel a connection as well. One thing I will not do is negotiate my identity to tell a story in a collection. With my travels, I explore diversity, which is what your magazine celebrates. I like that because through diversity, I appreciate and celebrate other cultures outside of mine by interpreting them in each collection the way I understand them through teachings by the people I meet and the stories I learn. It is not about ‘mixing and matching’ of fabrics, it is about creating a meaningful dialogue.
ASM: You are involved with the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Starting with Haiti and having expanded to other countries in different continents, can you tell us the lessons you learned working with such creative people in the program?
SJ: I think people underestimate the craftmanship that these amazing artists. The appreciation for what they do is less than the appreciation for works in known countries and cities. Their handcrafts are not looked at with the same prestige; nor are their products considered to be as sophisticated as brands made in Europe or North America because they are created in villages; and I do not understand why. During my first trip to Bamako in Mali, I got to see how the ‘Bogolan’ fabric is created. They use a nice and sophisticated technique – even if it is different from what one would expect. Despite how sophisticated it is, the technique is not taken seriously. These artists need to be looked at because they have a lot to offer and they work hard to produce such timeless pieces - we need to cooperate and collaborate with them. By working together, we learn from each other regardless of our cultural differences and expertise. Teaching and learning from each other pushes the needle in productivity and enables these artists take care of themselves and their families. Finally, their communities benefit because it can help create opportunities for others. They are not looking for handouts, they just want to be given a chance; and we should set our egos aside and work with them. In turn, we also get to know more about them as they teach us therefore stimulating a dialogue.
ASM: You are one of the few designers who has attained success incorporating multi-cultural stories into your collections. However, there are designers who are trying to bring their work to the forefront but have not gotten the attention. What are your thoughts on bringing more attention to them? What advice would you give other upcoming designers?
SJ: There are talented designers I have met through my travels; and they have beautiful collections. Before I finally got into the ‘Who’s Next’ competition, I got rejected a few times; but one thing my mom taught me was to keep going and not play victim when I did not get picked. I took this to heart and kept reapplying until I got picked. They are fantastic designers who have similar stories and I am proud because I feel like I am a part of a movement – even if we may not know each other personally. The more we continuously tell our stories, the more attention will be given. It is happening now; the doors are opening – but we must keep creating and telling our stories no matter how long it takes. I believe that it is important that one looks in the mirror and be true to oneself. You cannot pretend to be something else. This is something I learned when I began and as I traveled around. We all have unique stories and we should not compromise them – be proud of them.