By Amélie BARON
Diameter, width, thickness — nothing is left to chance as Brazilian jewelry designer Ana Suassuna trains Haitian artisans how to shape cow horns into fashionable bracelets.
As sanders whir in the background, Suassuna surveys the work being done in a small studio in the heart of bustling Port-au-Prince.
“They know better than me how to work with horn,” she said.
“But I try to teach them how to be more precise with dimensions and finishing touches,” she added. “That process begins with teaching them how to read specifications in the outlines sent by foreign clients.”
She likened the process to how football star Lionel Messi must have mastered the beautiful game: “He took the time to learn how to control the ball in order to keep other people from scoring.”
Given that the Argentine star’s picture on the wall of the workshop, her argument is one that hits home.
Suassuna works for Osklen, an up-and-coming Brazilian label. The company — with stores in the United States, Italy and Japan — was founded on the idea of promoting responsible fashion.
It is one about 30 brands partnering with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a program created in 2009 with the backing of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
Its goal is to form a link between marginalized African and Haitian artisans — most of them women — and the fashion industry, while respecting the environment and workers’ rights.
“The world of fashion lost its soul in forgetting what was the basis for the market: partnerships between artisans,” said Simone Cipriani, who founded the organization.
“Today, fashion speaks the language of marketing. We have to recover our soul,” the Italian told AFP.
Work, not charity
Former model Stella Jean shares Cipriani’s vision.
She launched her first collection to great fanfare in 2012. That success prompted fashion legend Giorgio Armani to lend her his fabled show space in Milan for her show in the autumn of 2013.
It was only natural for the 36-year-old Haitian-Italian to join the initiative.
“We are not talking about charity here, but work,” she said.
“Charity is a foul thing. I learn from the artisans, I give them my point of view. We are growing together.”
Jean is also hoping to help out her mother’s homeland, which she said was put on the global radar as a result of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
“Since the 2010 quake, people have stopped confusing Haiti with Tahiti,” she said.
“But they know only that it is a country with extreme poverty. The Haiti that I know has given the world a large quantity of art and history. People need to see Haiti with a new eye.”
Like Cipriani, she is a bit fed up with the fashion industry in general.
“This bulimia of buying clothes every day, it’s not normal. We throw away clothes and say ‘oh well, it cost me two euros.’
“That’s not what fashion is, fashion is a means of expressing oneself: our choice of clothes says who we are in the world.”
The 2013 collapse of a garment factory complex in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers sent a jolt through the fashion industry.
Jean said it was well past time for change.
“We don’t live a world apart, where those in Bangladesh or Taiwan who work like slaves are somewhere else,” she said.
“It’s a boomerang: either we understand now and consume better, or the boomerang will hit us hard and we will be forced to change in pain,” she said.
Back in the workshop in Port-au-Prince, Andre Paul Lafrond — who has worked with cow horn for decades — said he was excited about the potential markets foreign designers were opening up to Haitians.
“This leads to work for me here,” he said.
“Some people only talk about getting out of Haiti, but look, we can work and live our lives well in our country.”