We all know Donna Karan is a fantastic designer, but what most don’t know: she is also a gracious, humble, energetic woman who cares for what’s going on the world, trying to make our planet a bit better, a bit more peaceful, and a bit fairer. Following the motto ‘less talk, more action’ the New Yorker founded a vocational training center named D.O.T. (Design, Organization, Training Center for Haitian Artisans) in Haiti in 2015 – simply because she saw the possibility for a soulful economy there, a just economy where what is bought and sold directly benefits the community that creates it.
After Haiti was hit by the disastrous earthquake in 2010 that killed 230.000 people, left 300.000 injured and 1.5 million displaced, Donna went to see Haiti for herself, and “fell in love with its beauty, its spirit and most of all, its people”, as she recalls in her article for the Huffington Post. As she traveled around the country, she stumbled upon various artisan communities and wondered: “Why doesn’t anyone know about this jewel of a country? The answers were soon apparent: they didn’t have any infrastructure or vocational training. Moreover, the products, soulful as they were, weren’t of the quality and desirability the consumer market would want. As a woman who has spent her career designing and creating products, I can tell you one thing for sure: people don’t shop for good causes. They shop because they want the product. It has to seduce them. Now that was something I could help with.”
Donna started working with Haitian artisans and promoted their products wherever she could: Urban Zen in New York hosted many exhibits, and at Donna Karan New York, they put accessories and Haitian-inspired designs on the runway. “But I knew for future artisans to take it to the next level, we had to create a place and a space in Haiti for artisans to meet, collaborate and learn – a true vocational center.” That’s how D.O.T. came to live – less than a year later, D.O.T. has five full time employees, and is a destination/home to approximately 300 artisans, designers and visitors per year.
“The success is in the sophistication of the work. The handcrafted pieces are breathtaking – be it the leather and horn jewelry, the woven accessories, the stone or iron sculptures or the dramatic crystal and wrought iron lamps. Not only do I personally wear and live with these pieces – I never go out without my leather necklaces or woven handbags – but I continue to show them with our luxe UZ designs, and my daughter Gabby has furnished her Tutto il Giorno restaurants with so many of the décor elements. Urban Zen sells the Haitian pieces in our stores, online, and we also wholesale them under the label “Naturally Haiti.” Each piece is unique and handmade – you feel the soul that created it.”
The creation of this wonderful project sounds like a walk in the park, but it has been everything but easy. “There have been endless challenges and hurdles to pass, with many still on the road ahead. Fundraising is the most frustrating part of all, believe me. Yet we’re all dedicated to making this work.” Donna sums up: “There’s that old expression “If you give someone a fish, they eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they eat for a lifetime.” Helping artisans in places like Haiti to create products people love and want to buy is the first step to advancing a soulful economy. Conscious consumerism may be the future, but a sympathetic backstory only gets you so far. First, you have to fall in love with it. So “Why Haiti?” Simple: I fell in love.“