Visiting Haiti is an experience measured as much in magic as it is sadness. On a recent trip back I had the opportunity to retrace the footsteps of a fashion icon who’s left a part of his heart where an earthquake left the already struggling nation in physical and economic ruin.
In an industry seemingly disinterested in the trappings of the world’s afflicted, Kenneth Cole has made humanitarianism an emblem woven into the core fabric of his brand. The man did it decades before it was cool, and he continues to do it because sincerity in its truest form doesn’t fatigue with time.
What follows is an essay recounting of a few days I spent with Mr. Cole in this place of remarkable contrasts, where I witnessed the emergence of a pioneering style of humanitarianism and development work that puts the fate of Haiti in its own hands.
The dream of Haiti is not easily reclaimed from its greatest nightmare. Five years removed from seismic upheaval, the poorest nation in the Americas region continues to see its impulse for beauty and progress wrestled into stagnation by demons both natural and self-made.
But for the mountainous range of challenges Haiti faces, its young crave a chance to lift their restless hands in defense of the idea that their country is better than the poverty and corruption that bind it.
Like a fine tapestry, the delicacy of this task requires it be done with careful finesse . Thread by thread, fabric by fabric, Haiti finds itself stitching a future from an exciting moment of genesis. Craftsmanship has deep roots here in Haiti, and it is the kind made by hand that best define this country’s rare magic.
From the iconic papier-mâché that populates Carnival to the intricate metalwork made from repurposed materials, Haitians have the spirit of imaginative creation imbued in their cultural DNA.
With the shock of fast charity subdued by time and disinterest, a hardheaded few still remain to see Haiti’s potential birthed. They’re helping it along with a kind of philanthropy the world is unaccustomed to. As Mr. Cole puts it, “we’re in a love/Haiti relationship.” It’s a fitting motto; sometimes love must come tough.
At Rebuild Globally, where his company has partnered with an initiative to turn old tires into high-end footwear, charitable interest in the line is just not enough to move product in a way that guarantees survival. They have only the barest of tools after all.
Bluntly, Mr. Cole remarks “we’ve gotta make better shoes, damnit.” The sentiment, delivered with a reassuring laugh, is a rare breed of honesty that comes not just innately from perfectionism, but as a means of protecting this fragile moment of possibility from going undeveloped.
His plan? Connect them to the global supply chain, giving them a small but vital component that’ll give the shoes the uniform look they need to be taken as seriously as they deserve.
As Haiti begins to grow an identity in manufacturing, altruism must match the elevated standards of the modern day, if only to be the jewel its nickname implies: The Pearl of the Antilles. Haiti must be measured against other pearls, and its most valuable allies in this will be those who don’t treat foreign aid as something to be tossed from the back of a pickup truck.
With the institutions of self-sufficiency seeded, eager Haitians know their time has come.