The first time I went to Haiti was as a teenager. My sister is Haitian (she was adopted from Haiti when she was 2 and a half) and we went to Haiti together to volunteer in the orphanage where she had been. It was an intense experience. I continued to go down every few years with an organization called Consider Haiti (including my dad) that does medical clinics in rural mountain villages in Haiti.
I started to read more and more about Haiti and its history, and about globalization and the global economic policies that have led to the state that Haiti’s economy and people are in. I became interested in Indigenous Politics and the way that the modern world + economy has marginalized those communities.
Yo Debouche Boutey La. Yo Pa Kapab Bouche I Anko
They uncorked the bottle. They can’t put the cork back in now.
Yvette Ettiene, a Haitian woman, on what globalization is – quoted in Beverly Bell’s book on Haiti – Walking on Fire
As an accessories designer I became interested in production and how it relates to politics and the third world. The “race to the bottom” that continues to drive down the price of clothing while creating what can only be described as modern day indentured servitude, or worse, in many parts of the world.
I wanted to do a line that would allow me to work with artisans using traditional techniques and I wanted to find a way to create jobs in Haiti, a place that was often on my mind. I wondered if higher end bags and accessories could be produced there and what resources were already in place.
In my research I found a leather tanning company in Port au Prince. The owner was kind and guided me through all that they were doing in Haiti, and how we could potentially work together. The next time he was in New York I met with him and he took me to an event that was created to foster entrepreneurship in Haiti.
It was there that I met a woman named Rebecca McDonald who was working on starting an incredible project- a digital library for children in the third world. (Library for All) We became friends and she told me about a friend of her’s who was running a small workshop sewing bags for a non-profit in Port au Prince.
That girl was Chandler Hamilton. She had been working with a non-profit that was creating simple fabric bags to create work for women that had graduated from their sewing programs. Chandler had been volunteering with them while she was in school, and was in her first year of managing the program. I emailed with Chandler for months, and by September of that year I booked a ticket to go and work with her. I went with a good friend of mine named Sam Rezk, who came and worked with the women in the jewelry program to create new designs. I taught a class on pattern-making to some people who worked in the workshop and from the local community.
As Chandler and I talked more and more, we realized we had many shared ideas about work that could be done in Haiti. Chandler had been doing incredible work to train Haitian managers and staff in the workshop and she showed me some baskets and hammock samples that she had been collecting to bring to the US and sell to support artisans in Haiti. It was clear we should work together in some way.
Chandler and I had meetings all week with artisans she had scouted out, and we talked about new ideas and different products we could make together.
In an odd twist of fate, during the week that I was there the owner of the non-profit that owned the workshop Chandler was working with confided in Chandler that they were going to have to close the workshop – their sewing and jewelry programs were not able to support themselves. Close to 60 people would lose their jobs. The non-profit simply wasn’t equipped to do this sort of enterprise- they weren’t business people or fashion people, they were a non-profit working primarily in a medical and educational capacity in that community. They didn’t have the funds to continue the workshop. The non-profit asked Chandler if she would consider taking over the workshop.
Of course, Chandler didn't really have any funds either, but in order to keep as many people in the workshop working as possible, Chandler and her husband Josh took over the workshop in Haiti entirely, and worked tirelessly to do production for brands in the US to keep everyone employed.
We talked almost daily. Chandler and I decided to move forward with a partnership to create products that would be more marketable to support the workshop and to continue to work with artisans. I began to plan out a line that could be made using the resources that we had in Haiti – using hand-sewing and hand-finishing techniques where we lacked the machinery to do it any other way.
Chandler sought out artisans in the local community who were working with horn and bone, basket-weaving, rug-weaving, ceramics, etc., and created working relationships with these artisans one by one. We would have a sample made, refine it and continue to work with the artisans to keep quality consistent.
I did design and pattern-making in New York then would travel back and forth to Haiti training our small group of leather workers to create the first bags for Fait La Force. We all worked together for close to a year before we had a line that could be a start to the project in Haiti.
Today Chandler is doing an amazing job growing the workshop and our companies partner to create the products that we make in Haiti. Fait La Force comes from a phrase on the Haitian flag, “strength in unity” or “L’Union Fait La Force.” Chandler's husband Josh had suggested it as the name for the brand. One day I asked our leather workers what it meant to them and one of them smiled and said “tet ansanm” as he brought the head of the guy next to him to touch his own. “Heads together.”
We don’t have funding and everything is run on a shoestring. Through the free business consulting services at Pace University Small Business Development Center, I worked with Rawle Brown and Volunteers of Legal Services (VOLS) who helped get us into a pro-bono program at an incredible law firm called Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft that ever so graciously helped create the business structure for Fait La Force and served as mentors during the shaky beginning period. I am so grateful to our lawyers Ari Silverman, David Miller and Carrie Slaton for being so unbelievably helpful. An incredible consulting group called ByHand Consulting brought us on board in the first season and helped us through Fait La Force’s first tradeshow at NyNow.
I’m so grateful for everything and everyone that has come together to make Fait La Force a reality this first year. Sam, who came with me to Haiti to meet and work with Chandler is currently living in Haiti for a few months and working with Fait La Force. Hannah Nichols, who worked with me at another company has come to Haiti to help with our Indigo-dying program and will go again with me in March. My mom is Fait La Force's shipping extraordinaire and puts together every shipment with love.
The brand is not about patting ourselves on the back for working in Haiti, or with artisans in third world countries. We don't seek to commodify the poverty or hardships of Haiti or the people we work with. Its just about creating something good, making things the right way, trying to move forward in this messy world doing something we love and creating something that is authentic and makes positive connections. Its about making really beautiful product, using natural materials, respecting the process and people. Elevating the slow, beautiful, traditional work of this world.
I want the brand to feel as collaborative as possible, and to create connections between artisans in marginalized communities and the larger world of designers, artists and consumers. We have done some exciting collaborations with Bekah Stewart of the blog A Well Traveled Woman and Emily Katz, an amazing macrame guru. We have some exciting upcoming collaborations with artists and designers who will bring their talent and energy to Fait La Force in Haiti this year.
As we go into 2015 I would love to hear from anyone that would like to work with us. As they say in Haiti – “yon sel dwet pa manje kalalou” (You can’t eat okra with only one finger).