Haitian-American fashion designer Dayanne Danier was at the end of a 10-day trip to rural Central Haiti in late January checking on the production of her latest creations when one of the seamstresses turned to her as she prepared to leave.
“Don’t forget to send the fabric,” Danier, 43, recalled the woman saying. “Don’t take too long.”
Danier had been going back and forth between New York and Haiti since the country’s monstrous 2010 earthquake. She had watched as interest in Haiti’s handmade arts and crafts piqued soon after the disaster with well-known American designers buying and selling Haiti-made designs, only to quickly wane. She understood the meaning behind the woman’s plea.
“She was basically saying, ‘If you don’t send the fabric, we are going to have to go home,’” she recounted. “’Do whatever you’ve got to do for us to be consistently working.’“
Now as Haiti struggles to rectify a crippled economy, political turmoil and civil unrest during the pandemic, the artisans Danier collaborated with have emerged with a collection of colorful silk printed face masks, headbands and scrunchies that are being sold at select Nordstrom stores across the U.S.
Last month, the high-end retailer began featuring Danier’s Bien Abyé, Haitian Creole for Well Dressed, a line of handmade products by two artisan groups she has spent the past six years training and mentoring. The items retail between $39 and $57, and one in particular, a butterfly print face mask, is so popular that it has been selling out.
“The idea of having Haiti-made products be the basis of the Bien Abyé brand is something I had been working on for years,” said Danier, a former Miami resident who designed for Perry Ellis while living in the city and also used to design for Phillips-Van Heusen. “When I kept meeting with people they just kept saying to me, ‘No, it’s impossible. Your quality level doesn’t exist here.’ They just made it seem like so much of a pipe dream.”
To prove the naysayers wrong, she made designs the women could make and then flew to Haiti and trained them on the artistry. That in itself was no easy task. She recalled leaving one appointment at a Port-au-Prince factory as demonstrators filled the streets.
The day she received her first shipment of the finished accessories, she cried tears of joy.
“I couldn’t work with them long. I wanted to have three days with each but my schedule had to change because of the protests that were going on,” Danier said.
John Bailey, a spokesperson for Nordstrom, said the retailer is proud to feature the product line in 10 of its stores and could potentially expand to more based on customer response. The products are currently available in South Florida at the Village of Merrick Park location, at 4310 Ponce de Leon, in Coral Gables, and on Nordstrom.com in the Black-owned and Black-founded brand hub.
“We are always looking for new fashion-forward items to create a sense of discovery and newness for our customers. This collection is focused on beautiful silk masks and hair goods, including their signature printed headbands,” he said. “Hair accessories have been a strong category for us during the pandemic and Bien Abyé is a great addition to our assortment.”
Born in Boston, Danier visited Haiti often as a child with her family. But as the country became increasingly unstable, the trips stopped. After a 25-year hiatus, she returned in 2009 and immediately “fell in love” with the idea of channeling the country’s colorful imagery through her creative pieces.
The earthquake, which left more than 300,000 dead, an equal number injured and 1.5 million homeless, encouraged Danier to look for a way to help, incorporating her love of fashion and design. The opportunity came in 2015, when she was hired by the Artisans Business Network to help a sewing group improve the quality of its crafts.
“She gave it her all,” said Nathalie Tancrede, who hired Danier on behalf of the artisan advocacy group to work with the seamstresses, who mostly did embroidery by hand. “She bonded with the women and collaborated with them.
“She pushed for excellence and was always willing to train them how to do better,” Trancrede added. “Her persistence, her passion for her craft, her skills and her drive got her into Nordstrom.”
Delane Charles, who leads the group of embroidery artisans, said Danier’s orders for the hair accessories are helping.
“It’s allowing us to work,” she said. “She gives us the fabric, the thread and the explanation.”
Charles said things weren’t always so difficult. Her artisans workshop used to make embroidered table toppers, church accessories and clothing for sale. But soon business started to wane as people no longer were interested in buying original handmade goods, Haiti went on an opposition-led lockdown and the price of fabric and even thread became impossible to afford. Today, even if the artisans have the money, traveling to Port-au-Prince to visit fabric shops carries huge risks.
“We founded this workshop so that young people could find a way to make a living and feed their families,” Charles, 56, said. “But we’ve been having great difficulties. We can’t find work.”
A pandemic and Black Lives Matter
While being featured in Nordstrom was a goal of Danier, creating headbands and scarfs wasn’t originally in her plans.
Bien Abyé started as a women’s ready to wear collection inspired by French style with a Creole influence. She has also designed hand-beaded bags under the brand, as well as embroidered table runners and napkins, setting her sights on getting into Williams-Sonoma.
“That didn’t work out,” she said. “It was just a matter of, ‘We just don’t need this product right now.’”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, followed by the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer. Fashion retailers rushed to post supportive messages and announced donations. But designers challenged them to do more, namely by increasing spending on Black designers and brands.
Already in contact with someone from Nordstrom, Danier asked: ”Are you guys doing anything? What’s going on?”
Soon she was connected with a buyer.
Clients wanted essentials like masks, but demand for apparel at a time when many are staying home wasn’t high. But, she said, people were thinking about how they look on virtual meetings.
“Hair accessories have now become the new must have,” Danier said.
The push to get Haitian made products in U.S. retail outlets existed before the 2010 earthquake, but accelerated in the wake of the disaster. Former President Bill Clinton, long a champion of Haitian arts and crafts, brought style pioneer Donna Karan to Haiti and showed her what was happening in the country and used his Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative to showcase local artisans and the country’s potential.
Pro-business groups like the Clinton Bush Initiative, which Clinton founded with former President George W. Bush after the quake, and the Inter-American Development Bank invested millions in the sector to help artisans open workshops and improve product quality.
But despite some early success with companies like Macy’s, West Elm and Anthropologie, it has been a struggle, and many of the gains have been lost over the last year.
Though the country’s textile sector, which focuses more on making T-shirts than niche products, has managed to stay open, the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing political turmoil and rising insecurity have added to the preexisting challenges.
Haiti’s textile industry exports a little over $1 billion annually to the U.S. T-shirts account for most of it, with four companies producing 8 million T-shirts a week, mostly for Hanes and Gildan.
Georges Sassine, who served for 12 years as the president of the Association of Industries of Haiti, the country’s manufacturing association, was among the first people to meet Danier when she began traveling to Haiti. He took her around and introduced her to factory managers and owners in Port-au-Prince who, while liking her designs, passed on giving up their mass productions to make them.
So Danier turned to smaller seamstress and tailor workshops outside of the capital.
“Dayanne needs to receive a medal given that she is proving that all our people need is a chance,” Sassine said.