How Haiti designers get creative amid gang-fueled crisis to promote products, hope

Mall patrons and art lovers walk through the colorful display at the edge of Aventura Mall, stopping to peruse the oversized display of handcrafted papier-mâché wall hangings, wearable art and one-of-a-kind handbags.

Lured by the vibrancy and craftsmanship, they walk around, examining the pieces, curious to know more while peppering the designers with questions as they decide whether to make a purchase.

For Magalie Noel Dresse, the founder of Haiti-based Caribbean Craft and the visionary behind “Window of Hope,” this isn’t just an arts and craft showcase. It’s a window, she hopes, that will help revive a once-thriving Haiti sector that in just over a dozen years has been slammed by earthquakes, political and government paralysis, misfortune and, now, armed gang violence.

Take 2019, for example when major U.S. airlines canceled flights to Haiti, the port was shut down for three months and American companies withdrew from Haiti, giving up on those who once supplied them with Christmas ornaments, wall decors and more.

Dresse had spent nine years rebuilding her business and brand after the devastating 2010 earthquake. She once welcomed figures such as former President Bill Clinton and American designer Donna Karan to her factory near the Port-au-Prince international airport. As they walked the floor, they touted Haiti’s rebuilding and resiliency, showcasing the mostly female workers making hand-made papier-mâché elephant heads that once graced the aisles of Anthropologie.

But the nearly three-month lockdown of the country, followed by a fire during an anti-government protest, nearly destroyed it all.

“My company lost all of the accounts that we had opened and built for years,” she said. “I had the choice to either shut down or invent a new way to have a presence in the market.”

That reinvention is “Window of Hope,” an ongoing showcase of Haitian art and designs currently at Aventura Mall near Bloomingdale’s. The exhibit and shop will be up until Sunday and then it will be back at Green Space Miami, for its fifth edition on Sept. 16-24.

The concept kicked off earlier this year at the Miami art gallery, which promotes Haitian artists and works. At Green Space Miami, visitors will not only get to enjoy the arts and crafts, which are for sale, but participate in roundtable conversations about Haiti, and how the country’s ongoing gang crisis is affecting artisans, designers and the country as a whole.

“The whole idea is to build an alliance of people who are in the same sector and who are facing the same problems, who can just build trust with each other and have a collective message, which is if we support the sector, we can go back in and keep this alive” said Dresse.

In addition to Green Space Miami and Aventura Mall, the designers have exhibited in North Miami. Dresse says her vision is to take the concept to other major U.S. cities and other countries in the region where there is a growing Haitian population and interest in what is happening in the Caribbean nation.

Though sales have slow at Aventura Mall, where people are used to sellers setting up in kiosks and at tables, Dresse said the feedback has been positive.

“People are just very happy. They’re pleased and they’re blown away by the quality of the items,” she said. “People are not only curious, but from the Haitian community, people are also very proud that they are seeing such an alliance coming to life.”

Claudia Apaid, one of the 14 exhibitors who with one exception are all women, said it has been encouraging to see people, even if they are not purchasing, feel so proud to see Haiti represented in such a beautiful way.

“There is just so much negative right now with Haiti,” said the Haitian-American artist, whose creations include mixed media work of arts, precious stones and metals and hand-stitched embroidery bags. “This has everything: passion, purpose; it’s putting something positive out there on Haiti because… where there is darkness, it’s so important to shed light.”

The alliance is an opportunity, Apaid said, to not only be part of a space of artists, but to lean on one another as they seek out new avenues for their expression and promotion of Haitian culture.

“We artists, we are the dreamers, we are the ones who pass the stories, the culture so we have to stay in the light,” she said. “We have to project ourselves, so we can share that. This is a positive initiative and I hope we can take it global.”

Another designer whose creations are on display and for sale is Phelicia Dell. A well-known handbag designer, Dell has been promoting her one-of-a-kind VÈVÈ Collections handbags in the Miami market for the last two years now. On Sunday, she took delight in telling the story about her inspiration and the female workers in Haiti who rely on her sales to put food on their table.

“It‘s a great opportunity to be here in Aventura Mall, considered to be one of the best destination to shop in Miami,” said Dell, whose boutique in Port-au-Prince has been closed for the past two years. “We are heavily relying on our sales to keep our artisans at work back in Haiti.”

Dresse said while every sector in Haiti is suffering, the artisans have been hit especially hard. Even before the 2010 earthquake turned factories into rubble and killed many workers, the sector was already seeing funding cuts from donors who preferred to promote large T-shirt factories over workshops that promoted handicraft.

“The reason why we call it the “Window of Hope’ is because …if we don’t find this new way of approaching the market, we will just have to shut down and that’s what we don’t want to do,” she said. “We want to fight differently, we want to do things differently and we want to step out into the world because nobody is coming down to us anymore.”

Following the earthquake, donors promised billions to help Haiti rebuild, and while designers like Donna Karan took an interest in the sector, placing Haitian products in major department stores like Macy’s, the interest was short-lived, leaving Haitian artists to go at it alone.

In the wake of the political paralysis and now the gang violence, designers have had to get more creative, moving out of the capital and further to the center, designing via Zoom with workers in country and relying on various ways to export their products.

Apaid said the slowdown in production has meant focusing more on the selling aspect than the designing. Her products range in price from a newly launched gift collection with items under $20 to a high-end art piece selling for $21,000.

Her pieces, she said, are an opportunity to discuss Haiti’s culture, intertwined between its rich Taino Indian and African heritage and the goddesses of its Vodou realm. She uses a lot of crystals, for example, and promotes healing properties, Apaid said, noting that all of her bags are one-of-a-kind hand-beaded and embroidered pieces.

“It’s a labor of love,” she said.

Dresse added that in addition to showcasing Haiti’s culture, Window of Hope showcases Haiti’s inclusion.

“We are all shape, size, colors and we are all Haitian women,” she said. “I want people to look at us and say, ‘They’re all women but they’re from blonde to dark skin. But we’re all Haitian from all social categories.”’