The LB/Cornell Dream Team

Last year we were fortunate enough to commence a partnership with Cornell University (funded by the EPA) and the ‘dream team’ of professors and students to help us work on creating zero waste pattern design at our design lab in Port-au-Prince. Our team consists of fashion and design officiandos, fibre scientists, fashion historians and a whole lot of creativity.  After a few months of product development we welcomed  Dr Tasha Lewis, the chef of our  Cornell team, to visit us in PAP to see the progress. With her arrival we began to manufacture 4 new beautiful pieces designed by yours truly with patterns and technicals made by the Cornell dream team.

We are working to minimize our waste through the design process with the ultimate goal of zero waste pattern design. In the meantime we are looking for creative and innovative ways to use our scraps created from our design process. We are inspired to collaborate with other artists, designers and professionals in Haiti to create a network that allows us to share our resources and to find innovative ways to create sustainable business models in Haiti. This is merely the tip of the iceberg of where the dream team will go!

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An Inside View at the Manufacturing Sector

Creating goods is a complicated beast.

Over delicious eats last night I found myself explaining the LB business model to a new group of friends here in Port-au-Prince. As I started I realized how deep the manufacturing sector runs in Haiti and how closely it is tied to the economy. In order to properly explain what we do, I had to give a brief history of the economic and political strife in Haiti and how it relates to the garment industry. It wasn’t just about explaining pepe (second hand clothing) in Haiti, but its international origins and how the once large manufacturing sector has since dwindled, only to be slowly rekindled these days. Haiti was once the main manufacturer of Levi’s, produced for the GAP and Banana Republic and stitched 90% of the Major League Baseballs. At one point fibre production even took place here. As the industry has declined, Haiti now imports all of its fabric resulting in less value stays for the country.

Since starting LB designs (formerly Local Buttons) we have been fortunate enough to become privy to the way the manufacturing sector works. Over the past 3 years we have met people from all aspects of the sector who have helped form our opinion of how we can best shape and gently nudge the garment industry towards a new path forward.

When we first started we had no idea how complicated manufacturing clothing really was. Thankfully. I am not sure we would have had the gusto to take on the challenge were we aware of all the hurdles. The garment industry is intrinsically linked with many other sectors that when you seek to shift one area you open a flood gate. It’s not just about how you pay the people or the conditions at your workplace. It is also where you import your fabrics from, what fabrics you use and their impact, where you export to, what taxes you pay, what international trade agreements you are aligned with and how much money is staying in the country you produce in. That’s before you even begin to think about design, aesthetic, quality, consistency & sizing. It’s an ongoing challenge, but an interesting one. We get to fuse our academic backgrounds with our creativity to find the most exciting ways to address issues.

Here is a look at our Design Lab in Port-au-Prince, where the theory and the practice meet.

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Your Haitian Checklist

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We have landed once more in Port-au-Prince. As this is our 8th time visiting Haiti, we have developed a sort of routine. It mostly involves a few runs up the EPIC  drive way passing the UN apartments, a few lunges back at the bottom to make the fruit and coffee that follows extra tasty, and us in high spirits as we are driven to the factory to work on our garments!

We were going to take a moment to write about the importance of building relationships with those you work with in order to create an efficient and pleasant work space. However, we have decided to create a sort of Haitian checklist. A list of things you can check off while you’re spending SO MUCH TIME in Port-au-Prince traffic. It’s CLEARLY a game you can’t miss out on, so come visit us on this beautiful, magnificent and crazy island.

1) Seen the most beautifully decorated Tap Taps (public transport) rolling through the streets: The artwork painted on the sides are beautiful vignettes of daily life, they look the kind of party bus you want to take despite the fact that they are often overcrowded.

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2) The most colourful artwork lining the streets

3) Full pharmacies wrapped around a basket and resting atop someone’s head

4) An entire family on a motorcycle expertly making their way through crazy traffic

5) Spent 2 hours in traffic to get somewhere that should only take 10 minutes

6) Everything you could imagine (and even what you cannot imagine) piled in the back of pick up truck.

7) Goats and pigs roaming freely between people and traffic

8) Scoured the pepe markets for hidden gems

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9) Sampled delicious lambi (conch) with breadfruit and twice fried plantains (it’s worth taking a rest break from traffic!)

10) Gun-laden security guards standing guard in front of every grocery store (even the corner stores)

11) A marching street band winding their way through the streets on sunny afternoons

12) Tasted the sweetest coffee from a street vendor. It tastes more like coffee flavoured sugar

13) A procession of school children in their perfectly pressed uniforms making their way down the street to school

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14) Potholes so large you fear the car might tumble down and never get out

15) Entire home furnishings crafted from wood made on the side of the streets

16) Mountainous hills which ascend right to the picture perfect beaches

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The Fashion Preacher (part one)

Mr. Hans Garoute

Local Buttons produces solely in Port-au-Prince, Haiti with the NGO INDEPCO taking care of our manufacturing needs. We chose, and continue to choose, to work with INDEPCO and it’s President, Hans Garoute, due to the quality of work, high labour standards and because Hans is a man of integrity with a wealth of knowledge. His warmth and charisma is splendidly contagious. We are fortunate enough to be able to spend early morning and early afternoon car rides with Hans as he takes us to and from the factory and they are some of our most treasured times while we visit Port-au-Prince.

Hans has been deeply embedded in the fashion industry for over 4 decades now, working in America, China, Brazil and of course, Haiti. With his breadth of knowledge and vast experience Hans could be the subject of an incredible novel! Earlier this week we sat down and took part in an interview with Hans where he shared his main insights on the fashion market and how Haiti can become a valuable economic player in the global market once more.

At one point, Haiti grew vast amounts of cotton and produced jeans for the likes of Levi Strauss. Next to agriculture, the apparel industry is the largest industry in Haiti. However, Haiti currently mainly produces utility garments for national use, with all large export operations of designer wear owned by foreign investment.

Let us take you on a three part journey of the life of Hans as it intertwines with the rise an fall of Haiti’s garment sector.

Hans was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, where he stayed until fleeing the country at the age of 16 after his father, a colonel in the Haitian army, was kidnapped and by the Duvalier regime. His father, wildly popular with the Haitian people, was never seen again. Hans moved to refuge in Miami where he went to school. In 1967, Hans took part in a thwarted effort to overthrow the Duvalier regime. Along with 120 other Cuban and Haitian exiles set to board the boat on route to Port-au-Prince, Hans was arrested in Miami. (read more about this story here).

Shortly here after, Hans began to work for May’s department store as a stock boy. Before long he was offered a scholarship (by May’s) to attend FIT where he became a merchandise buyer.

As a buyer Hans witnessed the movement of the industry from the Eastern US to the South. When he began buying, most manufacturing took place in the Eastern US in New York and Boston. As the East began to unionize, the industry moved to the Southern states; Mississippi and Georgia in the 1970s. Once these states too became unionized the garment industry moved once more, this time Puerto Rico and then eventually to Haiti.

Once in Haiti, the sub-assembly garment sector took off. During the 1980s (for roughly 15 years), over 150 factories assembled brassieres in Haiti. However, the move to Haiti was a financial one for companies as Haiti was not producing  the entire garment but rather assembling the product allowing companies to save on production costs. Buying was done in China where the organized ‘cuttage’ took place before being sent to Haiti.

Here we see that the Haitian industry is being built solely on assembly, and the industry lacks sufficient training in its manufacturing and lack of training and development in project management at the local level. These issues continue to thwart the industry today. We will pick up next time with Hans and his plan to revolutionize and organize the small, local tailors as he works as the Fashion Preacher spreading his word throughout the country.

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Landed and Planted

We are back in Port-au-Prince for our fourth visit. There is something so wonderful about coming back to visit the same place.  We have learned so much each time and continue to meet amazing people.

Many LB plans are in the works this trip including a photo shoot here in P-A-P, new fall designs and re-branding/re-imaging the LB. We are so excited to be working on all of it and cannot wait to reveal them all come the fall!

In the meantime, we will share photos of Furcy, where we visited for the weekend. Just an hour outside of Port-au-Prince, up the mountain, Furcy is a breathtaking weekend getaway. The colours are unbelievable. While much of Haiti has been deforested for the purpose of coal making and agriculture, we were happy to see reforestation projects in place.

The pictures below don’t serve it justice-you will have to come here and experience it first hand!

Yard Trunk show and clothing SWAP

Join us this long weekend for our first ever Yard trunk show and clothing SWAP. You will find beautiful clothing, good tunes, sangria and chocolate.

We leave for Haiti on the 7th and would love to see you before we leave.

Bring your gently loved clothing and swap for some new finds, and browse the LB vests.

We would love to see you there this sunny long weekend!

We will be spending some time working at an orphanage run by a friend of ours while in Port-au-Prince. If you have any travel toiletries and no use for them, we ask that you bring them along to the event. We will bring the toiletries/school supplies etc to the orphanage. 

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LB Addresses Fashion Focused Voluntary Initiatives

Dressing is such an international affair. Our garments often travel throughout the world before finding home (if only for a short while) in our closets and draping our backs. The cotton may have been grown in Texas before being shipped off to Shanghai where it is dyed, then sent to Hong Kong where the garment was brought to life. The finished product may then be sent to a central hub in Miami before it makes its way across North America to a retail outlet where it is sold at a price much lower than the international treatment it received should allow. So how do we understand this international phenomenon that is our clothing? How do we know how our clothing is made? By whom and under what socio-economic conditions? Did children make the clothing?  What chemicals are used in both the production and processing phases? What are the conditions of the country where the garment is made?

Alternatively, do we each have time to ask these questions each time we buy something? How do you even go about retrieving the answers to these questions? In a perfect world the answers would be simple; garments are made using high quality, sustainable fabrics, by fairly paid, well trained tailors working under ethical conditions. If this is not yet the case, how does one navigate the retail scene? We believe a voluntary initiative that addresses all these issues is the answer. A label or certification that clearly states to the consumer that they are buying something both sustainable and ethical-a label that is trusted and well understood.

In order to address these issues, I have been doing my master’s at Ryerson University for a year now in the Environmental Applied Science and Management Program. And while the program has reaffirmed the more you learn the less you know, I do feel as though some progress has been made-at least in my personal understanding of the textiles industry.

In order to convince myself that going back to school for two years was a worthwhile endeavor I have linked what we are doing at LB with my studies; Sustainable Fashion. I am researching current voluntary initiatives (or voluntary codes of conduct) for the fashion industry to assess strengths and weaknesses to determine the best areas for reform. There exist many voluntary initiatives for the fashion industry, yet none seem to tackle the issues from all aspects. Basically a voluntary initiative is an industry standard or code that companies adhere to on a voluntary basis-FSC certification, Fair Trade, Responsible Care-these are all voluntary codes.

Through research with Ryerson and ongoing engagement with LB we are attempting to decipher a new and innovative way to address the problem of voluntary initiatives in a

holistic and comprehensive way. We have found that current initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Greenpeace Detox Challenge, Responsible Care, Fair Trade (etc) address only one or two aspects of the garment industry rather than looking at the entire process. Each of these voluntary initiatives is important as they have helped inform the larger population and the garment industry of areas that need readdressing in the textile industry. They are great starting points-a place to launch forward.

So, what do we propose? We aim to develop an initiative with input from designers, retailers, manufacturers, fiber producers and NGOs. This way we address the entire chain. There needs to be communication all along the supply chain. Designers can have huge input, after all, it doesn’t matter how much tensel or sustainable bamboo is being produced if designers are not using it in their designs. Beyond this, a campaign to increase consumer awareness in order to generate a greater understanding of voluntary initiatives is needed-one that clearly and matter of factly shows how a garment was made-a label/certification that consumers can trust. In this respect we see retailers acting as the proxies for consumers, doing the research on behalf of the consumers.

We leave for Haiti in just over a month for the better part of August. While there we will work again with INDEPCO on new LB designs as well as engage with manufacturers and designers in Haiti to get their input on changes needed for the industry. We are excited to place LB in a broader aspect-to critically look at our production to see where we can improve. We are cognizant of the fact that our garments are part of the international garment sector-our vests would have quite the decorated passport were they people.