Fashion forward Haiti

December 3, 2012

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

By Swoan Parker

For anyone who loves fashion, an announcement of Fashion Week brings to mind runways in New York, Paris, and Milan, but never Haiti.  So when my editor requested that I cover Haiti’s first Fashion Week, I was pretty intrigued.

I immediately began researching Haitian designers who live and produce their creations on the island.  I first contacted Michel Chataigne, who I learned was very accomplished in his own right, having shown internationally and with his ready-to-wear lines already selling in major U.S. stores.

Michel is a charismatic person and we clicked immediately. I first visited his atelier, which is home to his beauty school. Michel’s career first began in hair, and he is one of Haiti’s best known hair designers. Michel then put me in contact with fellow designers David André and Giovanna Menard.

I met David in his studio, which is a small space in a section of his family’s home. David, like Michel, has shown his creations internationally, but expressed frustration with he lack of support for the craft in his native country. He believes that the arts are seen as a hobby by the majority, instead of a legitimate profession.

Because Haitian designers don’t receive the same brand recognition as their international counterparts, it seems difficult to get a strong foothold here. The segment of the population that has the purchasing power to afford designer brands will most often travel out of the country to purchase them, even if at a higher price.

I was immediately drawn to Giovanna because she, like myself, had followed another career path before making the decision to follow her dream. For several years she was a practicing lawyer at a successful firm in the U.S., and still takes on a few clients to supplement her income. She explained that her love for fashion started at a young age when she would sketch designs for her friends and her mother, who was a talented dressmaker and would sew them.

Each designer’s collection I saw relied on natural fabrics like cotton and silk, while taking inspiration from places and objects in their native Haiti. Giovanna uses stones, pearls, bone, gold, silver, wood, and horn to make stunning jewelry.

I wanted to photograph each designer going from concept to runway. Some of the designers were also on the board responsible for the actual production of Haiti’s first Fashion Week, but soon it became apparent that this might not go as smoothly as I had hoped.  I made appointments to visit specific designers, and many of them simply fell through. But in spite of that, what struck me was their eagerness to show the world that they can be creative too, and that there is a pool of talent here too.

It was finally showtime and I must admit when I walked backstage and saw the finished creations by the designers, especially those of Michel Chataigne, I was very impressed.  It was with Michel that I first saw an empty white canvas carefully hand-painted with animal print designs.

Suddenly, all that was now transformed into such lovely creations.


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