The New School News

Parsons Teams with Donna Karan to Bolster Haiti’s Artisan Community

At Parsons School of Design, Mochi Liu, MArch ’15; Amanda Evengaard, BFA Product Design ’15; Ekaterina Kulikova, MA Fashion Studies ’15; and Jennifer June, MFA Interior Design ’16 can access extensive studio facilities, including modeling, fabrication, and print shops.

In Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, Marithou Dupoux has to make do with what she has. To design her raku pottery, the Haitian artisan uses a makeshift kiln made of ceramic fiber and chicken wire; she heats the apparatus with a torch fed by a large propane tank.

“At Parsons, when you need to build something, you can get pretty much anything you want,” says Liu, who met Dupoux during a visit to Haiti this summer with famed fashion designer and Parsons alumna Donna Karan. “In Haiti, many resources are scarce. You have to be creative with what you have in hand.”

Haiti’s artisans boast a proud tradition fueled by ingenuity, resourcefulness, and raw talent. Now, with the help of Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation, Haitian designer Paula Coles and members of the Parsons community, including Liu, Evengaard, Kulikova, and June, Haitian artisans are getting the modern design training and access to state-of-the-art machinery needed to compete in the global marketplace.

The resources are being delivered through the Design, Organization, Training (DOT) Center. Occupying 5,000 square feet in an existing 20,000-square-foot T-shirt factory in Port-au-Prince, the DOT Center is an incubator for Haiti’s artisan community, fostering innovation, providing resources and materials, and enabling artisans to scale up production while preserving their unique cultural practices.

“Haiti is a country of artisans bursting with creativity, but without the vocational skills to bring that talent to the next level; vocational education, I believe, is the answer,” Karan, Fashion Design ’87, says. “This has been my dream ever since I first went to Haiti four years ago.”

Added Karan, “Why not bring educators and students from Parsons, my alma mater, to Haiti to work with artisans?”

Through a fellowship funded by the Urban Zen Foundation, a team from Parsons led by Alison Mears, the director of The New School’s Healthy Materials Lab, made two trips to the DOT Center this year. During their initial visit this summer, Liu, Evengaard, Kulikova, and June tagged along with Karan and Coles to meet Haitian artisans in makeshift workshops scattered across Port-au-Prince. The graduates and students were in awe of Dupoux and her peers, who made “the most of whatever materials they could find,” including metal, horn, recycled plastic, and broken glass, Evengaard recalls.

Although Haitian artisans have managed to use limited materials and tools to maximum effect, those resources can only take them so far: The machinery needed to perfect their products is scarce, as is the electricity required to operate certain tools and illuminate workspaces.

“That’s why we started DOT: to provide access to state-of-the-art equipment, to teach them how to use modern machinery, and put into effect safety precautions they didn’t follow before,” Liu says. “We want to help them refine their products and processes.”

At the DOT Center, June, Liu, Evengaard, and Kulikova, along with assistant professor of Strategic Design and Management Andrew Robinson and assistant professor of Alternative Fashion Systems Laura Sansone, led workshops for the artisans in laser cutting, fabric dyeing, wood bending, and block printing.

“We faced challenges, but also learned a lot from collaborating with the artisans,” Evengaard recalls. “It felt rewarding that we could bring what we learned at Parsons to Port-au-Prince in order to help the Haitian artisans take their crafts to the next level.”

That help extended to the design and manufacturing of market-ready products. Work on those products began in the summer and continued in the fall, when members of the Parsons team returned to the DOT Center, staggering their visits over the course of eight weeks. The products—statues made of reclaimed fabrics, geometric ornaments carved from soft obeche wood, and vases wrapped in dried tobacco leaves—were recently unveiled at Urban Zen Soulful Economy Marketplace, an annual sale of artisan-designed luxury goods held at Donna Karan’s West Village boutique.

Haiti, which was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, stands to benefit economically from the training and resources provided by the DOT Center.

“Artisans are getting orders, and as their products gain traction, there will be more jobs for them in the future,” Liu says. “This is why Donna and Paula started the DOT—to help them refine their products and processes.”

But the DOT isn’t merely a one-sided relationship, stresses Mears, who, with June, worked closely with Urban Zen Foundation to develop the design of the DOT Center itself.

“It’s a collaboration, an exchange,” she says. “Students who travel to Haiti gain experience working alongside Donna Karan, a fashion icon and Parsons alumna, and local artisans, whose resourcefulness and upcycling of materials is very much in line with Parsons’ commitment to sustainability.”

Dupoux, an expert in ceramics, made an enormous impression on Liu. He recalls that at first, the Haitian artisan was hesitant to communicate with him. However, after sharing some of his pottery work, “her face lit up; there was an instant connection between us, a mutual appreciation for each other’s craft.”

“Working with the artisans of Haiti—and with the support of Donna and Paula—has been an amazing experience,” Liu says. “At the beginning, I thought we were all going down there to teach. But soon, we found out that we were also there to learn.”

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