by Ivory King
A traditional textile industry with local craftspeople
Haiti used to have a vibrant local industry of dressmakers, tailors and shoemakers. But locals hardly wear traditional costume these days, and most buy their clothes very cheaply at the central markets. The import of US used clothing, as well as the emergence of low-wage garment production, have each taken their toll on this unique country. But a counter-movement is slowly taking shape in the country, by those displaced craftspeople as well as new entrepreneurs, to make local items again.
From Kennedy to pepe, a secondhand industry
In the name of charity, the JFK administration began shipping used clothing to Haiti, where the locals called it “Kennedy.” The practice began to speed up in the 1980s, when thrift stores became overwhelmed with the more disposable fashion that was becoming popular. They sifted out the items that they could sell, and rejected the rest. These rejects became concentrated at certain textile waste hubs, where it was purchased extremely cheaply and transported in bulk. Much of it was bought by Haitian Americans and thousands of tons were shipped to Port-au-Prince.
These huge bales of clothes, now known as “pepe,” completely changed the local garment industry. Up to then, much of the garments worn by locals was made also by locals - a whole workforce of traditional craftspeople, tailors, and seamstresses. With the flood of cheap clothes, their business was decimated.
Though some call to ban the importation of pepe, it has created a secondary lucrative economy. There are many shop owners in the central markets that sell pepe, after picking through the huge piles of what’s available. Besides, it’s hard to concentrate on that problem when there are so many others in Haiti’s crippled economy - recovery from the 2010 earthquake is still taking place, and there are thousands of people homeless. The unemployment rate is between 40 and 80 percent, depending on who you ask.
Also, many Haitians rather like pepe, as it is seen as pretty fashionable. They get access to brands that they otherwise would never be able to afford - the average Haitian made about $780 in 2016. So because of pepe, people who live in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere can participate in the label-heavy fashion system we are so familiar with in the US - for better or worse.
Rise of Fast Fashion, cheap garment industry to competitors in Asia
The shift to cheaper clothing that gets worn for less time had another impact on Haiti: the factory garment industry. With its cheap labor and minimal governmental enforcement, Haiti began to win industrial textile contracts. Trade between the US and Haiti is also lubricated by preferential trade deals (the HOPE Acts 1 and 2 from 2006 and 2008). Haitian apparel imports are brought to the US duty-free, which made it easy and very inexpensive to import these items.
While these trade deals were also meant to improve labor conditions as a condition for duty-free imports, there is a conundrum. If standards improve, costs will go up, and brands may move manufacture elsewhere. Competition is fierce, and pennies may make the difference between a company working with a Haitian factory and going to Guatemala or another low wage country.
Post earthquake recovery, garment factory
Even before the earthquake, living conditions have been poor and infrastructure frail in Haiti. The US government was attempting to stimulate the economy with an industrial park. Then the earthquake struck in January of 2010, and cut through a lot of the red tape. The park was built in controversial circumstances: farmers were displaced from fertile land in Caracol, some distance away from the main devastation. The main employer, Sae-A, is a South Korean garment factory that has some trouble with labor relations in its other countries of operations. The company is a supplier for American retailers Walmart, the Gap family of brands, and more.
Upcycling industry, reviving local clothes making industry
Those same shop owners that pick through pepe and resell the best items have also started altering and personalizing them. People don’t really wear traditional clothes anymore, the ones the local tailors make, except for special occasions. So they’ve begun customizing pepe and giving it some local creativity.
This movement differs from the high-volume garment industry quite a bit - it’s much more sustainable since artisans are sourcing used clothing. While the lion’s share of apparel exported from Haiti is made currently in these high-volume garment factories, socially-conscious brands and Haitian designers are making more empowering choices.
Canadian brand Local Buttons was a 4-year project that employed full-time tailors and created accessories and jewelry in Port-au-Prince, paying over the minimum wage. The brand advocated for Fair Trade conditions as its mission.
Azéde Jean-Pierre was born in Haiti and now runs a fashion label based in New York City. Beginning in 2016, Jean-Pierre began manufacturing in developing countries, specifically creating all her embroidered styles in Haiti. The brand received widespread American attention when she dressed Michelle Obama.
Hope for Haiti
While there have been many attempts to provide aid to Haiti, many of these have not had the intended beneficial effect. But recent programs to bolster production from within seem to offer opportunities for more systemic improvement. As with so many kinds of aid, it’s often best for local people to make these choices - as we can see with designers of Haitian descent giving back to their community and bringing fair labor to the country.
(cover image courtesy of G Adventures)