PORT-AU-PRINCE — Martha Stewart, Macy’s top executive and a high-end fashion designer landed in the Haitian capital July 27 to do a little shopping. The aim of the day trip was to explore business opportunities, promote foreign investment and even renew purchase orders for the metal and papier-mache handicraft for which the Caribbean nation has long been known.
“It’s a commercial visit,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “We’re talking business.”
Stewart and fashion designer Rachel Roy came at the invitation of Macy’s Chairman and CEO Terry Lundgren to meet with Haitian artisans and see the craft works they have been making and selling in 25 of his stores in the United States since October.
“I wanted them to see, like I’m seeing firsthand, the beautiful products that are being made here,” Lundgren said as workers clanked away on metal sculpture in the courtyard of a studio on the northeastern edge of Port-au-Prince.
On July 27, Macy’s placed a new order for 2,500 items. Stewart, who visited Haiti in the 1970s and in the ’80s, and Roy bought beaded and sequined bags, cushion covers, bracelets, earrings and quilts.
The genesis of the artisan project goes back to May last year when the Clinton Foundation gathered investors, aid workers and artisans in New York to figure out ways to connect Haiti with international retailers.
Macy’s, Fairwinds Trading and the BrandAid Foundation developed a plan for Macy’s to commission Haitian handicraft, which the retailer began selling in its stores and online in time for last year’s Christmas season.
On macys.com, prices for the Haitian items range from a vase that costs $54 to a large bowl that sells for $120. Paintings of Haiti’s marketplaces are also on sale at $109.
“We sold out and sold well,” Lundgren told journalists as he paused among tables topped with salad bowls, jewelry, patchwork quilts and chairs made of recycled metal.
Working from that campaign, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund gave more than $600,000 in grants and loans to Fairwinds Trading, Aid to Artisans and the BrandAid Foundation to help develop Haiti’s artisan sector.
The project aims to create jobs and build artisan communities so Haitians are not entirely dependent upon handouts from overseas – an idea touted as “trade not aid.”
Macy’s has participated in similar projects before. In 2005, the retailer began selling hand-woven baskets from the African nation of Rwanda.
The project in Haiti now employs 450 artisans and their earnings range from 25 percent to 38 percent of the retail price for each item sold in the Macy’s collection. The profits help pay for meals, school tuition and even repairs to their homes damaged in the January 2010 earthquake. The organizers also believe that income will spill into the neighborhoods of Croix-des-Bouquets and Jacmel, two cities long famous for their artistic communities.
Artisan Brutus Jean-Carlo, a native of Croix-des-Bouquets, said Macy’s orders are giving him $250 extra a month.
“It’s helping me a little but I’d like a larger contract,” the 35-year-old said.
The number of artisans employed is expected to grow as interest grows, Lundgren said.
The shopping visit came at an uncertain time for potential investors and Haitians themselves.
Haiti is still recovering from the January 2010 earthquake and the new administration of President Michel Martelly has yet to install a prime minister and Cabinet after almost three months in office.
Haitian business leaders have expressed concern that the absence of a prime minister could prove a barrier for economic development and foreign investment.
Still, one artisan has hopes the trip by Stewart and the others could encourage other international companies to invest in Haiti despite the challenges.
“If Haiti has a label, handicraft should be one of them,” said Einstein Albert, the 41-year-old owner of a family artisan business. “If Fairwinds and Macy’s come, I think other companies will come.”