“I launched Jacmel & Co at the beginning of April. The idea started in January when I was down in Jacmel which is a small town in Haiti. It’s a very artistic town. There are so many artists doing great things in the street and I figured there was so much talent there, but they had no access to a bigger market. The story of the bag started with a man who was wearing calabash (a Haitian fruit) as a bag. He put a chord over the fruit. So I asked him to make a bag for me but with leather and I started carrying it around. For two months he was making bags and I was paying him then reselling them, really like a merchant.
But I moved to Haiti full time because I was part of this Jewish organization’s fellowship program and decided when it ended that I wanted to open a little workshop and hire people to make bags.
I’m originally from Brussels. I went to school at Columbia University in New York and worked for a year in the city. I was working in finance and felt very depressed with my job, it really wasn’t a good fit for me, and so I got this opportunity to be part of this six-month Jewish fellowship program where I would teach English to kids or set up an arts and crafts program in Haiti, and because my visa was expiring and I had to leave the states by September anyway, I went.
That was October 2013, almost a year ago. I spent six months in the program teaching in Port-au-Prince, which is the main town. It’s so polluted, so many people, there’s trash everywhere and you’re either part of the very wealthy or living in the slums. I was working in the slums on a landfill with the kids, and then at night, I was going back to a big house with security and a pool and I couldn’t really deal with that. I mean you have that in New York as well, but not as extreme.
I didn’t want to live there anymore so I moved to a beach town called Kabic. It’s maybe fifteen minutes away from Jacmel — where I set up a little bamboo atelier — and you know there are a lot of pretty renowned artists living there.
Right now I have eight people who are making the bags. Four of the women are very good artisans who have mastered assembling it, and then I have three younger kids. They are seventeen and eighteen, and they come after school and they help me with the braiding and to prepare the leather. In Haiti the monthly average salary is 40 dollars but they get paid per piece and higher than that.
The teenagers also help prepare the calabash before assembling them. One of them is the only one who can support his family because his dad died in the earthquake.
I speak French to them, they don’t speak English. They speak Creole. Creole is a mixture of African dialect and French. There is no grammar or structure. It’s as if you were saying “me hungry” instead of “I’m hungry,” but we communicate nicely.
The first step to making the bag is getting the fruit — which is not edible — the calabash. Nobody eats it in Haiti, so they use it mainly to make bowls, so they eat out of it. You can find them in a lot of places in Haiti, the problem is that they come in all sizes and shapes. But it’s also fun because all the bags are unique. I knew a farmer who had a calabash field with a lot of trees — they grow on trees and sometimes you can find twenty of them on a tree. But you just have to make sure that they are ripe. If it’s too early, they’re going to be soft and it can break so its going to be tricky.
So you take the fruit and you cut it. We have to cut it in a very specific way, so this round one we’d cut like this [motions cutting directly across]. And this one is long, so we’re going to cut it like this [motions cutting on a slant].
Then we take out the meat, which looks like…I don’t know what it is. It’s yellow/greenish and smells really bad. In Creole they call it kaka.
Then we let it dry for maybe a day. And then mainly it’s leather preparation. We prime it, braid it and then it’s glued on. Ideally I would want to sew it because I think it would be more chic. But I want to make sure it doesn’t crack.
I’ve been selling a lot, mostly through Instagram, and the bags cost between $120 and $140. They’re all handmade and employ Haitians — the artisans have been great.
There isn’t a pure buy-buy-buy goal behind this. Yeah I want people to buy it, but I want to tell them the story, I want to show them that I think with this product, I’m helping to change the image of Haiti that most people have. You know, even through social media, people see that it’s a beautiful place and that the people are talented.
Hopefully I’ll be still working with artisans for a while. Haiti is very special. It’s tragic and magic at the same time. Its very raw. In New York, I got so disenchanted with charity work, and you know you really want to try and create sustainability, and I think the only way to do that is job creation. Sure, you can just give money, but the money is going to be spent and one day you’re going to stop giving and they’re not going to get anything. It’s the difference between giving someone fish and teaching them how to fish.”
-Lucie Cincinatis as told to Leandra Medine
Photos by Krista Anna Lewis and Charlotte Fassler, feature shot by Mitch Waxman. Learn more about Jacmel & Co. here