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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Hectic Haitian Highways

It never ceases to amaze us how crazy the streets of Port-au-Prince can get. Yet within all the chaos exists a gentle sort of beauty. Traffic seems to know when to pulse forward and when to hold back, despite the severe lack of street lights, traffic signs, and street names. Colours are vibrant and there is a life on the street we don’t get to experience too often in Toronto. Our Haitian life finds us spending many hours in cars tethered behind a sheet of glass watching the scene go by. Yet somehow we don’t seem to mind the vast stretches of traffic laden streets. Moving forward, if only behind the wheel, brings with it the sense of change and excitement. What we arrive to on the other end has as much potential as we can imagine.

The vibrancy of the streets can be inspiring, yet the stark contradictions of livelihoods – those with and those without – can be overwhelming and disheartening. We have learned to see our drives as ways to inform how we see not only Haiti, but ourselves, and inform our daily interactions. The gently beauty of the chaos is a strong reminder that of the craziness of life and you just never know what to expect as you round the corner.


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.

Hans overseeing a LB design

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!

Local Buttons Supermodels

Something about the bright sun and the salty sea inspired us to become Local Buttons supermodels! Or did we sleep walk? At 7:30am a couple of mornings ago, we made our way down to a fisherman beach nearby the villa in Jakmel. The potential of a great photo shoot amidst the weathered structures where paint was pealing in such an artistically pleasing way could not be missed! The fishermaneven let us snap among their beautiful boats.

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Dirty Beats, Classy Sights

The port-side road that leads out ofPort-au-Princewas tightly packed with eager people on route to carnival weekend. Motos, tap taps “taxis”, cars, and trucks, filled with people were a sight to marvel at. Everything was busy and beeping, literally, with excitement. Somehow it didn’t matter that it was going to take us 5 hours to arrive in Jakmel-a trip that would normally take just 2 hours. Geoffrey, our delightful friend at the wheel, filled the car with phatt hip hop that had us singing our way through the striking chaos into the country side mountains.

As we pulled up to our ‘weekend villa’ the door was kicked open by an army pant leg and an armed man emerged to pull the gate completely open. Where were we?! It was breathtaking. The villa stood spectacularly at the tip of a cliff over looking theCaribbean Sea. It was lit to showcase its golden structure complimented with an enormous furnished veranda that hugged its walls and a terrace that wrapped around its pool. The place was so magical the stars actually twinkled at night. It was so majestic we found ourselves pulled from our slumbers at 4:30am just to marvel at the beauty of nature.

Jakmel is an artisan town, filled with rich history-it was heavily influenced by the French prior to the 1804 independence and many of the buildings echo French architecture with aCaribbeanflare. The sidewalks are paved with local artisan works while the buildings resemble brightly coloured ginger bread houses. We were fortunate enough to be given an in depth Jakmel tour by the mother of Geoffrey who was born and raised in Jakmel. Our first stop was an old school house that was damaged during the 2010 earthquake, now being reinvented for future economic enterprises. The red bricks that lined the rebuilt archways seemed to pulse with history. We were rendered nearly speechless.

The rooftop of the building showcased a panoramic view of Jakmel-a contrast of brightly coloured buildings, artwork and rubble. Our minds reeled with the possibilities for a Local Buttons-Jakmel soiree. We envisioned runways, artwork and music filling the space. Girls can dream right?

Our desire for music and people was fulfilled at night as we hit up the Jakmel carnival festivities and danced along the streets (small in comparison to the giant party happening in Les Cayes where over 300,000 Haitians celebrated). Carnival weekend is 4 days of festivities leading up to the final party on ‘Fat Tuesday’ before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of lent. Carnival is a major part of Haitian culture. No matter what political upheaval is in place- from dictatorship, to foreign intervention or incompetent governments all is put to the side for the four days of celebration. This year Carnival was of special importance as the 2010 earthquake forced the festivities to be put on hold for the past two years.

Jakmel is a town of contrasting wonders. The beaches are majestic yet dangerous with strong undercurrents and the shores lined with discarded remnants as there are no garbage of recycling containers anywhere in sight. The streets are lined with art, yet when you look closely you see the majority of art represents the artists struggle with the earthquake and both the ongoing emotional and physical rebuilding that continues to take place. The city is rich in culture and history-many of the most prominent Haitian artists are from Jakmel and its economic history was based on the export of deliciously rich coffee and fine oils. There were no coffee plantations, but rather an abundance of independent growers that grew as much as they needed to sustain their livelihood and the wealth of the local coffee industry. The coffee is noted to be some of the best in the world, and our “experienced” taste buds agreed! It is rich black and is the most alkaline.

It was the most wonderful weekend where in marvelous company we enjoyed sun, sea, fresh fruits, and fresh seafood.

The Cigarette of 1958

Not just another cigarettePapa Doc

I am really enjoying the car rides with Hans Garoute! He is like an oral history book of Haiti telling us tales since Columbus sailed up to its shores. His stories of history create an image of Haiti’s changes over time. Today my imagination was recreating the image of a vibrant denim industry that existed in the 60s.

He described the commoner as wearing jeans and jean shirts with four pockets (I smiled as this is the ”Canadian tuxido” ). The garment industry was one of the main sources of employment and a source of affordable style for Haitians. The denim demanded the growth of cotton and fields were plentiful in Haiti. Where buildings stand now there were forests and fields.

Tourists in the 60s would sale into the ports on ships and be picked up by guides at the port and driven in to experience the tropical oasis of lush vegetation, music, food, art, and dance. It was a popular destination for its friendly and safe environment.

I have oversimplified the socio-economic and environmental condition of Haiti, which during the 60s faced large challenges. However I wanted to describe some beautiful truths  about Haiti that Hans illustrated enthusiastically for us. In addition to beautiful images Hans did tell us the story of a near coup d’etat that would have entirely changed the course of Haitian history.

Mine will be a rough recount of an incredible story. I wish you could witness the story telling of Hans, he has experienced so much and gives such a lively account! Here is a story-cap for you!

Eight men made up of Americans and past Haitian military men, sailed from Miami in 1958 toHaiti with the intention to overthrow Duvalier.

Around 3am, dressed in military attire, these men had no difficulty being saluted through the entrance by the Haitian guard and had access to the military quarters behind the palace of Duvalier. The Miami group took the military guards hostage and had the palace under siege.

They let Duvalier know his life was in danger.  He was demanded to flee immediately. Duvalier was lead to believe he was under siege by a large armed opposition and prepared to escape with his life.

Papa Doc

There was one request that changed the course of the planned coup d’etat.

One member of the Miami group requested that a hostage go and get him a cigarette.  That hostage chose to inform Duvalier that there were only eight men that threatened him.

It left me wide eyed to imagine how the history of Haiti could have been completely different had it not been for the man from Miami’s request for a single cigarette.

With the guard’s information Duvalier summoned his men and the small opposition was wiped out, left as dead men. He did not stop there, and sent his men on to kill the families of his opponents.

From this point the violence of Duvalier increased as he closed Haitian ports and recruited the Ton Tons Macoutes, another terrifying story…