MIAMI — The handbag Donna Karan was showing off lacked her signature logo or any designer’s logo. It was made of papier mache and, the fashion designer said, represented Haiti’s handmade carnival masks in wearable form.
She said the tote bag and other similar fashion and decorative items made by Haitian artisans are part of her “dressing and addressing people” campaign: taking art to where the most people will buy it.
“A painting can say anything, but let’s get it out there in the world where people buy T-shirts,” Karan said at the opening of a Little Haiti Cultural Center exhibition of art, accessories and furnishings produced by artisans in Haiti and sold through Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation.
It’s no charity craft fair. The items artfully displayed in the Miami gallery would sell in any mainstream home furnishings store. What sets them apart is their origin: handmade in Haiti from stone, wood, metals and textiles sourced or repurposed in the Caribbean country.
Tobacco leaves are molded into neutrally colored vases. Strings of crystals dangle from wrought-iron chandeliers. Naughty, charming, seahorse-shaped figures cut from tires strut in lines across a wall.
Discarded cartons and wrappers have been coiled into beads for multistrand, statement necklaces. Fully functional tote bags are made from recycled cotton T-shirts or paper mache (“It’s so durable, it’s scary,” Karan said).
The exhibition also includes oversize metal work by contemporary Haitian artist Philippe Dodard. He also is the director of Haiti’s national arts school and is working with Karan to train Haitian artisans with techniques that will help them bring their traditional skills to a global marketplace.
“What we have to do is give them the tools to produce a product that is equal to their competition. That doesn’t mean factory. That means artisanal,” Karan said.
Karan started her Urban Zen Foundation after the death of her husband in 2001. A Haitian employee at the foundation urged her to turn her focus to the Caribbean country after Haiti was devastated by an earthquake three years ago.
The exhibition will run at the Little Haiti Cultural Center for two months.