When thinking about fashion, places like Paris, London, and New York and fancy buzzwords like “couture” or “glamour” come to mind. So it was interesting for me to discover that a growing fashion industry exists in Haiti, despite being labeled as the poorest country in the world. After researching the subject, I realize it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me, since I have been entranced by the beautiful artwork, colorful surroundings, and creativity I saw when I visited Milot in 2012. It only makes sense that instinctive artistic talent would be included in Haitian fashion as well.
In Haiti, you can see a variety of different fashions depending on the time of day or even the day of the week. Children wear tidy uniforms to school, complete with accessories in their hair and polished shoes on their feet. On Sundays, Haitian women put on their best dresses and men wear their finest suits to attend church services.
But for everyday wear, most Haitians wear second-hand clothing and shoes, known as “pepe,” sold by street vendors. These apparel items are sent to Haiti and usually consist of unwanted or unusable items from donation centers in the United States. The practice of sending pepe to Haiti began in the 1960’s and since then, people have claimed this practice has ruined the Haitian textile industry. However, pepe can also be seen as a good thing, because it is so readily available and affordable for Haitians, allowing them to express their creativity through wearing designer clothing that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.In addition to wearing pepe, Haitians are also known to make their own clothing, either by sewing up pieces of lightweight cotton, linen, or denim or constructing shoes out of old tires and other found materials. Embroidered apparel is also very popular for women, and men often wear loose-fitting shirts called guayabera.1
The most interesting thing I learned when I was conducting research for this article, was discovering Haitian Fashion Week. It’s only 3 days long, and only 2 years old, but has caused quite a buzz in the fashion industry all around the world. There are no official fashion education programs in Haiti, so the concepts coming from these self-taught Haitian fashion designers are inspired purely by Haitian culture and imagination.Haiti’s first Fashion Week was held November 8-11, 2012 at the Karibe Convention Center in Port-au-Prince. The showcase was free to the public and featured collections by 30 up-and-coming Haitian designers worn by 20 male and female Haitian models and 10 international models who strutted down a decorated runway.
From swimsuits, casual wear, formal gowns, and polished suits, to handbags and accessories – Haitian Fashion week contains all the same features you would expect in other countries, but with a Haitian flare. The celebration of Haitian culture was very evident during the first Haitian Fashion Week, which included opening and closing ceremony performances of Haitian folklore dance.
Haitian culture was also very apparent in the designs presented during the show, which some industry leaders criticized for being “too safe,” wanting the Haitian designers to take a few more steps out of the box with their designs. However, it is obvious that the clothing represented the Haitian designers’ enthusiasm for this fashion opportunity that was happening in their own country.
Haiti’s second Fashion Week was held September 19-21 2013, at the Karibe Convention Center in Port-au-Prince, but this time patrons were charged $25.00 for entry per night. The 2013 Fashion Week differed from the last year’s spectacle in that the designers took a different approach to
their creations. Haitian culture was still evident in the clothing that came down the runway, but in addition viewers were treated to many eco-friendly designs showcasing clothing made from recycled textiles and unconventional materials, such as food, flowers, and animal skins.
Giovanna loved fashion since a very young age, though she grew up to become a lawyer in Port-au-Prince. After traveling to New York to take some jewelry making classes, she fell in love with the craft and upon returning home to Haiti, began creating jewelry in her spare time. Recently, Giovanna opened her own boutique featuring her original jewelry and handbags, made of stones, bone, gold, silver, and fabrics like burlap, cotton, silk and straw. You can see her collections on her website: http://www.artisansdusoleilhaiti.com/.
As mentioned earlier, there are no real institutions for fashion and design education in Haiti, but in 2009, a non-profit organization called Haitian Network of Designers (HAND) was started to help aspiring Haitian designers gain more knowledge of their craft, and to help rebuild the fashion industry in Haiti.2 This program, along with Haiti’s recent investment in programs to support small and medium-sized Haitian business enterprises3, gives hope that maybe one day when someone talks about fashion, Haiti will be one of the countries that comes to mind, giving recognition to all the talented designers and models Haiti has been silently cultivating all these years.
Amanda MacFarland works at Andrew Associates (www.andrewdm.com) and is a critical member of the CRUDEM Creative Team. Amanda and her husband Nate live in Connecticut with their troupe of exceptional cats.