Galore Darling: Jacmel & Co Designer Lucie Cincinatis On Wall St. To Haitian Life
Lucie Cincinatis did what we all dream of doing: quitting our boring jobs and exploring the world. She talks to us about how she moved to Haiti and created her beautiful bag company Jacmel & Co.
Pictures by Mitchell Waxman
Why the move to Haiti?
After graduating from Columbia University, I got a job with a prestigious financial firm on wall street. While everybody was telling me I was lucky to have such a high paying salary, the work did not feed my soul. After a few months, I quit, and looked for some work education in New York City. At the same time, I was eager to travel, teach and explore, and had heard about a fellowship programme with an amazing Jewish American Humanitarian organization. They had selected 25 young graduates that they would send all over the world for one year to work with at-risk communities. I applied and was told that they were looking to place a fellow in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I had seen the devastation caused by the earthquake and years of civil unrest and I wanted to help, so I jumped on the opportunity. One week later, I started a new journey: I was in Haiti, working in the slums as an English and Art teacher.
How did this idea come about?
The idea of starting Jacmel & Co, a social enterprise empowering local artisans, came after a few months of living in Haiti. I was enjoying my work in the schools, but also became desilusioned with by the work of the NGO’s and other humanitarian organizations. While everybody always say they want to help, I saw that charity was creating a bad cycle of dependency and unsustainability in Haiti. At the same time, I became very inspired and fascinated by the artisan population of Haiti: those people are so talented, and can do anything creative with their hands. The combination of those two factors encouraged me to start Jacmel & Co, a social business aiming to create jobs and empower Haitian artisans in a sustainable way.
Tell us about the bag, how did you come up with this design?
Jacmel & Co first handmade product is made of an indigenous fruit called calabash. The calabash is a member of the gourd family. It is a small evergreen tropical tree with simple leaves and a rough bark. Its fruits are green, with white flesh and smooth skin. The calabash was one of the first cultivated plants in the world, not grown primarily for food, but for use as a water container. The bottle gourd has been used by traditional cultures in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas for thousands of years. In Haiti, more specifically, the calabash is thought to be a “spiritual fruit” and its shell is often used as a bowl during voodoo sacred rituals.
The design process was an interesting one and, looking back, everything evolved. A few months ago, during a trip in the Southern town of Jacmel, I met a local Haitian rastaman who had been working with calabash all his life. I saw that he was wearing the calabash fruit shell hanging on a cord, and I immediately fell in love with the idea: transforming a fruit into a bag. Together, we discussed the various ways for improving the bag, and using leather was the first step. The designing process has involved with time as I’m now working with a great group of women who enjoy creating new designs for the calabash. What is unique about this product is that each bag is truly unique. While some of the designs may look alike, the color of the shell, and the size and shape of each calabash differ. It makes it a truly one-of-a-kind product.
What are some of the most striking cultural differences betwween New york and Haiti
I would not know how to start (laughs). Haiti is often known as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. There is no infrastructure, sanitation, urban planning… Port-au-Prince where I lived for a few months is really complete chaos. Culturally though, Haiti has so much to offer, in terms of music, arts, traditions and core values.
I would say that one of the most striking cultural differences I have experienced is the fact that Haiti has not yet been “invaded” by consumerism. It is extremely refreshing to live in a place where I am not constantly encouraged to buy things I don’t need. I live a more simple life, eating organic food, spending time in the mountains or at the beach (in nature), and feeling like I’m constantly exposed to raw beauty and creativity that comes from simplicity and hardships. It’s kind of amazing!
What do you aim achieve with the bag?
My mission with Jacmel & Co is to create jobs and stimulate the local economy in a sustainable way. Whether I am employing Haitian women artisans from my community, buying leather from a local tannery or purchasing organic raw calabashes from farmers, I want as many as Haitians as possible to benefit from the business.
My long-term vision with the bag, and my company overall, is also to re-shape the negative image of Haiti, a negative image that is constantly portrayed in the media. I want to show the world, through beautifully crafted products, through my artisans, that Haiti has a uniquely talented artisan population. There is just so much beauty in Haiti; one just needs to know where to look for it.
Are you looking to create other products?
Absolutely! While the calabash bag will remain our signature product since it is so unique, I want to bring all the good things I found in Haiti to the American market. Sandals, home décor, jewelry, bags… there is so much talent and craft down there, and I cannot wait to grow the company and get more artisans involved in the process.
Whats coming up next?
Right now, we are looking to scale the calabash production in Haiti and work in collaboration with contemporary artists to get the bags painted. We recently collaborated with Spanish-American artist, Domingo Zapata to raise funds for a school in Haiti, and the painted limited edition bags were a great success. I will continue to work on those different projects, and this fall, I will hopefully start a leather sandal collection… Stay tuned for some new awesome Haitian handmade products.