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Originally published October 12, 2010 at 6:56 PM | Page modified October 13, 2010 at 8:37 AM

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Macy's gives Haiti's artists helping hand

When Macy's came calling with the biggest order they have seen in years, Haiti's artisans designed the Heart of Haiti home-decor collection in three weeks and produced it in less than three months. There was no time to spare in order to get the products to Macy's for the holiday gift season. Shoppers will be able to see the results at two dozen Macy's stores around the country, including downtown Seattle.

The Miami Herald

Turning out 20,000 pieces of handmade art and handicrafts in two months is difficult under even the best of conditions. But try doing it in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where artisans have no electricity and many are still living in tents.

When Macy's comes calling with the biggest order these artisans have seen in years, you find a way. And shoppers will see the results at two dozen Macy's stores around the country, including downtown Seattle.

Getting to this point wasn't easy.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund kicked in a $50,000 grant to help the artists rebuild their studios so they could go back to work.

In the seaside town of Jacmel, considered Haiti's art capital, papier-mâché trays and bowls with brightly colored flowers lined the streets and rooftops this summer. The goal: catch enough sunlight to dry the paint in between the rain showers.

In Croix-des-Bouquets and Cite Soleil, artists scrambled to find enough recycled materials to make metal picture frames from oil drums, and patchwork-quilt pot holders.

And that doesn't include problems of transporting goods across Haiti, getting raw materials shipped in or meeting the quality-control standards of a national retailer.

Despite the conditions, the Heart of Haiti home-decor collection was designed in three weeks and produced in less than three months. Normally the process could take two years.

There was no time to spare to get the products to Macy's for the holiday season. The full collection is available at macys.com.

Macy's efforts, in partnership with Fairwinds Trading and the Brandaid Project, are aimed at helping Haiti create self-sustaining communities so that people are not depending on relief aid.

The project was born after a May meeting convened by the William J. Clinton Foundation to spur ideas for reviving the Haitian art sector, which slipped as business shifted to Asia.

"If we can create jobs for someone that's very meaningful," said Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren. "This is never going to be a financial game changer for a company like ours. But it can be a game changer for those artists in Haiti."

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Lundgren hopes the project will break even or make a small profit for Macy's.

Meanwhile, it's already led to employment of 350 artists and believed to have provided some financial benefits for an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people in the country.

"After the earthquake, we didn't have much work, we didn't have much happening," said Serge Jolimeau, 51, an artisan for 38 years. "But the Macy's project gave us great support — it's helping the Haitian artisans and their families."

Jolimeau has 10 workers to help him design the metal sculptures made out of recycled oil drums, and those employees have some 50 dependents. The Macy's project, he said, has a ripplelike effect in which the income spreads throughout Croix-des-Bouquets, his home.

"A lot of people are working," he said. "A lot of people are living."

For every piece bought in Macy's Haiti collection, an average 35 percent goes back to the Haitian artists.

Cameron Brohman, co-founder and CEO of the Brandaid Project, estimates most artists at least quadrupled their annual income with the Macy's project.

"This is absolutely more money than these artisans have ever seen," Brohman said. "It's rebuilding homes; it's paying school fees; it's buying food and medicine. It's putting people back on their feet."

Brandaid hopes to build on this success by launching programs with other retailers. Already in the works are orders with other national retailers including Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and Anthropologie.

The 40 different items in the Macy's collection range in price from $10 for a metal pendant to $275 for an oil painting, but most items fall in the $25-$60 range. The assortment includes a vase, candle holders, clutch purse, napkin rings, serving trays, fruit sculptures, mirrors, coasters and more.

"There are a lot of people in the U.S. that want to help Haiti but don't know how," said Willa Shalit, CEO and founder of Fairwinds Trading. "We wanted to keep the prices as low as possible so anybody can afford to help. We want to be able to sell a lot of volume so we can go back and order more."

Most of the items feature the vibrant colors for which Haiti's artwork is known and a sign of the spirit that still lives even after the devastation.

Rony Jacques, who has hammered away as a metal artisan for the past 20 of his 30 years, believes the Macy's project is an important "way to promote Haitian culture."

The project is not the first time Macy's has done this type of outreach in a struggling country with the assistance of Fairwinds.

In 2005, Macy's started selling hand-woven Rwandan baskets. The Path to Peace collection has sold 85,000 baskets and put thousands of women to work.

Like Rwanda, Lundgren expects the Haiti project to continue beyond the one order. Designs are already in the works for a Haiti spring collection.

"We're going into this with a clear objective of making it a long-term program," Lundgren said. "Ultimately, that will be up to the consumers. We have to create the consumer demand."

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