lundi 14 novembre 2011

Haiti’s artisans getting lots of attention and new buyers

BY Jacqueline Charles The country’s artisan community is attracting high-profile collaboration from well-known designers and retail stores
BY Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Sketch pad in hand and an oversized papier-mâché handbag hanging off her shoulder, fashion icon Donna Karan walked the workshop floor, checking on samples while giving creative feedback to workers on their handiwork.
Far from the couture runways of New York’s Fifth Avenue, Karan was in earthquake-battered Haiti in August, picking up the last samples for an exhibit in Berlin, Germany that was to showcase Haiti’s artisans. It is the craftspeoples’ skill and talent that’s helping to drive the country’s reconstruction after last year’s devastating earthquake.
“This place is amazingly creative,” said Karan, standing amid dozens of Caribbean Craft employees quietly at work making Christmas wall décor with paper, water and glue made from locally grown yucca. “It really is inspirational.”
After years of watching their once-thriving sector slowly die as U.S. buyers and others pulled out and turned their sights to China, Haiti’s artisans are enjoying a resurgence as high-profile supporters like Karan champion their creative talents while helping them develop new products and attract potential new buyers. The endeavor is part of a broader effort taking shape in post-quake Haiti to make foreign aid less about handouts and more about empowering Haitians by creating jobs.
“When I work as the co-chair with the prime minister of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, we have to focus on the problems to be solved,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton said during a recent visit, highlighting the sector’s economic possibilities. “But over the long run, the answer for Haiti is for each and every Haitian to be able to make a decent living doing something he or she is good at.”
Clinton, a supporter of Haiti’s artisans long before the quake brought greater attention to their plight, believes the sector has the potential to help Haiti build a modern economy.
That belief has led his foundation and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, formed after the quake at the request of President Barack Obama, to invest in the sector by providing grants and loans to small and medium-size businesses. The money is being used to expand and boost jobs to meet the growing demands for intricate metal works, papier-mâché ornaments and vibrant beading designs.
While some of the money have gone to help individual companies replace workshops destroyed in the quake, others have gone to help strengthen the sector as a whole.
For instance, a grant from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund is helping to set up several artisans’ networking depots throughout the country. Operated by Haitian entrepreneurs, the depots will offer artisans help with everything from product development to export forms to the packaging and shipment of orders.
Meanwhile, a new factory by philanthropist and Diesel Jeans Canada CEO Joey Adler in Croix des Bouquet will put profits back in the community. It will feature an intricately designed fence — a work of art itself — made by local metal workers in the area. The factory will also have a showroom where the artisans can exhibit their work for prospective buyers.
These are part of the effort to add value to the artisans’ work and ensure that investments have a lasting effect, say supporters.
“We’re hoping that Haiti as a brand will rise,” said Willa Shalit, chief executive and founder of Fairwinds Trading, a consultant on the depot project who has spent the last year connecting U.S. retailers and designers with Haitian artisans. “There is creativity in Haiti that is incredibly magic and very powerful. Yes, eventually it can be imitated in China but it won’t be the same, any more than if they try to imitate French wine.”
Aware of the ongoing challenges of Haitian artisans — from sub-par workshops to a reliance on mother nature to dry the paint on their handcrafts — Shalit and her team have been working on building up artisan’s ability to supply, and strengthening their relationships with buyers, “so that over time those relationships will endure and there will be a sustainable market.”

Last year, the Fairwinds Trading and Brandaid Project teamed up to collaborate with Haitian artisans on behalf of home décor handcrafts for Macy’s Heart of Haiti collection. The retailer remains the largest buyer of handcrafts from Haiti to date, and this summer its chairman and CEO, Terry Lundgren visited /the country along with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart and fashion designer Rachel Roy.
“[Macy’s is] committed for the long-term to work with the artisans and sell their product,’’ said Shalit, adding that, “Roy has been doing stunning jewelry out of Haiti and Martha is developing products.”
Karan first visited Haiti after the quake with Adler, a friend and fellow philanthropist who has been working in Haiti for several years. Karan now travels to the country frequently for several days at a time to collaborate with artists, and through her Urban Zen Foundation, she’s trying to help artisans add value to their work.
“Right now, what we are tying to do is get an opportunity for the people to scale-up to the level where they can work with other designers,” she said.
Said Adler of Karan’s efforts: “She has really opened my eyes to a Haiti I had never seen. I always saw the heartache. Now I see the artistry, the beauty.”
On this particular day, the Caribbean Craft workers were not only working on Karan’s commissioned samples but also finishing up a huge order from Anthropologie, the Philadelphia-based retail-store chain.The company requested 55,000 pieces that included papier-mâché Christmas ornaments and wall-hanging elephants. The company began featuring Caribbean Craft’s products even before the quake after seeing the wall décor line during a New York trade fair. Anthropologie made an an initial purchase of $60,000 at that trade fair and has continued its relationship since, even after Caribbean Craft owner Magalie Dresse was working out of her house because the quake had destroyed her workshop.
The commitment, subsequent market exposure and orders from other buyers has allowed Caribbean Craft to double its employees and add artisans groups from across the country. They’ve also added unskilled workers from a tent city across the street in Port-au-Prince.
“It’s not complicated. It comes to me very naturally,” Widlene Noze, 24, who lives in a tent, said as she covered an elephant’s head with paper.
And that, says Dresse, is the real power of the artisan sector — the ability to train workers within days and give them the opportunity to earn a living.
“Each and every Haitian is an artisan,” she said.
After 11 years of working to give Haiti’s vibrant and unique handcrafts an outlet beyond the country’s hidden workshops and few tourists shops, Dresse said she is, for the first time, hopeful and confident that “the artisans will know brighter days.”
“Not only do I think it’s possible I know it’s possible,” she said. “The sector is moving. We have new products, new designers are coming in and we have buyers committed to placing purchase orders. I won’t be surprised if similar companies like mine begin emerging.”

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