Looks from Ayiti Fashion Week
Looks from Ayiti Fashion Week. Haiti Fashion Week is seen as an opportunity for the country’s designers to leverage their talent to revitalize the nation’s fashion industry, attract distributers and retailers, and stimulate business growth. (Photo by Cleve Mesidor)

Haiti Fashion Week, or Ayiti Fashion Week (AFW), kicked off last night with a swanky VIP gala just two weeks after New York City’s premier style event ended on September 12.

This year kicks off the second annual sartorial display in Haiti, which will run from September 19-21.

The small island nation spared no expense and would not be outdone by more established global shows as it works to promote its tastemakers as important arbiters of fashion culture.

A fabulous fashion fête

On Wednesday evening, hundreds attended an exclusive sneak peak of what Haiti Fashion Week has in store in a beautiful exhibition of environmentally friendly garments unveiled on a 60-foot runway.

The scene at Tara’s, a large outdoor venue located in the mountains outside of Port-au-Prince, included a breath-taking set with dynamic visuals and lighting by Idzamyr Creations, music by Haitian entertainer Luck Mervil, and front row seating for VIP guests.

The latest collections showcased were presented by Haitian artisans, as well as international designers from Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Paris, and Miami.

An eco-friendly showcase

Expressing this year’s unique theme, “Mod’ifions Notre Environnement” — Let’s Address our Environment — models walked the runway at the Ayiti Fashion Week launch wearing  accessories, children’s clothing, men’s wear, and an array of women’s fashions that were created in an ecologically responsible manner.

Maguy Durce, who leads AFW, thrilled the crowd with a boisterous welcome and graced the runway with a unique silver dress made of recycled materials.

The event’s coordinator, Michel Châtaigne, used banana leaves and natural colors for his design.

“Fashion is an expression of nature’s beauty and this year we celebrate the abundant paint brush the earth provides and explore ways to repurpose products to enhance our creations, “ said Chataigne of his palette and methodology.

A veteran designer, and local trendsetter, Chataigne also noted that Haiti has a rich history in fashion and expressed how pleased he was with day one of AFW.

But, AFW is not just a fabulous party. Fashion Week is seen as an opportunity for the country’s designers to leverage their talent to revitalize the nation’s fashion industry, attract distributors and retailers, and stimulate business growth.

Branding Haiti as a fashion mecca

AFW organizer Maelle Figaro David presented an extravagant design that incorporated the use of straw and other natural fibers.  Yet, in addition to the deployment of beauty, her piece was a calling card for Haiti as a viable source of apparel ideas, as well as resources and labor.

She stressed to theGrio that in order for Haiti’s fashion sector to be profitable and sustainable, buyers and merchandisers from around the world will need to look to Haiti as an attractive partner in every facet of fashion.

David’s focus on strengthening business development is in line with those who point to Haiti’s textile sector as a possible driver of economic growth. Garment manufacturers looking to increase exports of locally produced apparel have an edge through the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (Hope) Act, which allows them to receive duty-free access to the U.S. market.

Giving designers tools of production

While this can foster job creation, factors like production capacity limitations have affected their ability to effectively tap this incentive.

Thus, there is still work to be done to position both Haiti’s textile and fashion industries to be competitive globally.

This December, the new Atelier Mod’Ayiti – an initiative by The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to provide access to production equipment for designers and strengthen their exporting capacity – will open its doors to meet this need. AFW organizers are leading this effort to help Haitian fashion leaders bring their designs to fruition on a massive scale.

Additionally, last month the AFW team led a delegation of Haitian designers to Suriname to highlight Haitian fashion and arts during the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA), pounding the pavement to expand Haiti’s global presence in fashion.

Since the first AFW in 2012, Durce, David, and Chataigne have received various invitations to showcase designs from groups and individuals in other countries who did not know Haiti had such a strong fashion community until last year.

This was an important result of the first AFW. It put a spotlight on Haiti’s design talent. This year, the goal is to cultivate relationships that can help spur distribution and sales.

Great expectations for Ayiti Fashion Week

Between 300-600 people are expected to attend the forums on merchandising and textiles, and purchase custom pieces at the expo market place each day. Haiti’s private sector is also paying attention and has rallied to sponsor the event. Multinational companies, like DSW and Clairol, are even providing complimentary products.

Mirroring the pace of New York Fashion Week’s aggressive schedule, there will be 10-12 shows daily at Hotel Karibe in Port-au-Prince.

Many opening night attendees shared that this year’s Ayiti Fashion Week was much-anticipated, and is the type of promotion the country needs as it rebuilds following the devastating 2010 earthquake. Based on the success of the preview show, the next three days will go a long way towards promulgating Haitian style and spurring business partnerships.

Supported by Haiti’s Ministry of Culture through the European Programme of Support to Strengthen Culture and Art for the Economic and Social Development of Haiti, AFW is an an initiative of the Haitian Centre for Business Support and Promotion, and the Haitian Network of Designers.

For more from Cleve Mesidor visit www.clevemesidor.com. Follow her via Facebook and Twitter at @cmesi.