The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010
By Jessica Leeder
The mask is finally off – and making its way onto shelves.
Macy’s, the largest department store chain in the United States, has unveiled itself as the commercial knight in shining armour responsible for giving more than 200 Haitian artisans their first full-time contracts since an earthquake rocked Haiti last January.
In June, the retail giant quietly began investigating the purchase of a handmade line of home-decor products as a means of aiding Haitian communities affected by the quake, including the world famous metal artists of Croix-des-Bouquets and the papier-mâché masters of Jacmel.
Within weeks of seeing custom prototypes, Macy’s buyers had reopened their fall buying season to order 20,000 products in 40 categories – the maximum number the country’s still-struggling artisans could produce. Their custom Heart of Haiti line, featuring vases, quilts, ceramics, wood carvings, paintings and jewellery, is now set to roll out in 25 select U.S. stores in October and will then also be available for purchase online.
One metal artist in Croix-des-Bouquets, Jacques Rony, called the chance to sell his work at Macy’s and work with U.S.-based product designers “a huge advantage.” He and his apprentices are looking forward to the stability the Macy's relationship will bring, as well as the opportunity to work with U.S. designers who have exposure to seasonal trends. That's hard information to come by from isolated Haiti.
Although in-store sales have yet to begin, the positive impact of the relationship with Macy’s has been increasingly evident across several artisan communities in Haiti, where 235 handicraft experts have been working for months on the product order – and getting paid. Now, the mere mention of the word “Macy’s” generates smiles in several artisan communities, including Jacmel, where the city’s papier-mâché artists now equate the name with the concept of sustained work.
“Even in a short time, we’ve heard that parents who were incredibly stressed now have their children’s school fees. Now they can buy shoes. They have money in their pocket. Maybe they’re still living in a tent. But they know they can have some bit of security to craft a life. They know we’re not going away,” said Willa Shalit, the head of Fairwinds Trading, a New York-based company that specializes in connecting gifted artisans in “post-trauma” communities with American corporations to build sustainable economic relationships.
Fairwinds, in partnership with the Canadian non-profit Brandaid Project
was the force responsible for expeditiously opening a channel between Macy’s and artisan communities across Haiti after connecting at a May meeting in New York during which the William J. Clinton Foundation urged American businesses to pitch in on the rebuilding of Haiti’s shattered economy.
Ms. Shalit’s company has a history of dealing with Macy’s – Fairwinds brokered a contract with the company five years ago on behalf of Rwandan basket weavers, whose Path to Peace products have been sold in Macy’s stores ever since.
“The relationship with Macy’s has changed the face of rural Rwanda,” said Ms. Shalit, who recently returned from a visit there. “What you see in the rural villages is homes and communities where [people] have been making a living for five years now. It’s that steady income that makes a change,” she said.
“Now they are known as the greatest weavers in the world. That’s what will happen here. They [Haitians] will be known as the greatest metal workers, the greatest papier-mâché artists in the world. They’ll be perceived as valued instead of useless and disrespected.”
Already, signs are positive that the relationship will last. Designs for the spring 2011 lineup are already under way. And Macy’s has been impressed early on by the work ethic among their artists in Haiti – in spite of their austere working conditions, they were able to produce prototypes for the company in just three weeks. (The process can take up to one year.)
“As a company, Macy’s believes very strongly in supporting communities in need – and in developing programs where we can do something together with our customer that is powerful and rewarding for the greater global good,” Terry J. Lundgren, chairman and CEO of Macy’s, Inc., said in a statement. “An effort like this provides great satisfaction to Macy's customers and associates, who care deeply about giving back,” he said.
In Haiti, artists are grateful that the company did more than simply pass through.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come through and do a lot of talking,” said Onel Bazelais, a master papier-mâché artisan who has been working at the craft for about 26 years. To supplement his income he maintains a small art shop in Jacmel’s historic district. Since the earthquake, his family has been living in a series of tents in a yard behind the shop, which doubles as a work space.
“My government has no plan for us,” he said during a recent interview. “I want to put my kid through university – I have to do something for my kids.”
Working on the Macy’s order has provided him and others much-needed stability.
“In Haiti, a lot of people have heard of Macy’s. That makes them feel really proud,” Ms. Shalit said. “That sense of cultural pride, you can’t say enough about what that does for culture and community,” she said.