“I have always been drawn to something that is handmade. It has a soul behind it. Someone has put his or her own heart into it,” said Donna Karan. And it was a desire to support artisans and help preserve their local cultures that was a key driving force behind her Urban Zen Foundation. The New York–based non-profit was set up by the fashion designer in 2007, and after Haiti’s earthquake three year’s later, and following an introduction by former US President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative, Karan set up DOT, a vocational education center in Port-au-Prince.
Working with Parsons School of Design and Haitian designer and businesswoman Paula Coles, Karan established DOT (Design, Organization and Training) to build a community of local artisans, and since its opening the center has worked to help bridge the gap between Haiti’s numerous traditional craft techniques and the modern designs and innovation necessary to succeed in today’s global marketplace. As well as design direction, DOT provides access to tools and gives artisans the opportunity to hone their techniques, elevate their design sense, and connect with one another.
Since 2016, DOT has partnered with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a flagship program of the International Trade Center, a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization. Unlike other similar initiatives, the EFI’s business model facilitates a direct link between local artisans and the fashion industry, enabling international brands to manufacture ethically produced fashion items while simultaneously creating much needed employment for some of the poorest people in the world, who in turn become an integral and valuable part of the supply chain.
Given its vibrant artistic scene and rich creative heritage, with large communities of artisans skilled in a wide array of traditional techniques, the EFI identified Haiti as a responsible fashion development opportunity. And now in collaboration with DOT, it provides fashion brands including Urban Zen, Osklen, Stella Jean and Marina Rinaldi with access to local craftsmen and women whose talents extend across a wide range of disciplines, from textile and leather bag-making and millinery, to beadwork, horn and bone carving, metalwork, pottery and jewelry-making.
Collaboration is at the heart of DOT, with partnerships encouraged between artisans, brands, non-profit organizations and academia. And while there is demand for the artisans' work, there is much untapped potential. “The capacity is huge,” said EFI founder Simone Cipriani, “We need more brands to produce here.”