Artisan in Haiti.

“It’s never about the Me but the We,” says Donna Karan, philanthropist, designer and founder of Urban Zen, her philosophy, fashion and lifestyle brand.

And Karan’s longstanding campaign for a “conscious community” will soon take form in the annual Urban Zen Holiday Marketplace, a “winter market experience” pop-up at the Urban Zen Center in New York, in collaboration with the International Folk Art Market, or IFAM, from Dec. 6 to 29.

Urban Zen’s Holiday Marketplace will feature more than 30 international artisans, such as Farzana Sharshenvieva, Kyrgyzstan; Abduljabbar Khatri, India; Jabulile Nala, South Africa, and Porfirio Gutiérrez, Mexico, offering products ranging from accessories and clothes to textiles and home decor. “Urban Zen and International Folk Art Market have something important in common: We are both deeply in love with human creativity and culture,” said Keith Recker, creative director, International Folk Art Market. “We see the same beauty in hand-spun fibers and natural dyes. We hear the stories told in the symbols woven into baskets and carved into wood. We take the same joy in listening to artists from around the world talk about why and what they make.”

But Karan’s passion for scouting and promoting talented artisans is rooted in various philanthropic initiatives through the designer’s Urban Zen Foundation, a nonprofit she founded centered on health, education and the preservation of culture. And notable achievements include its DOT Center, which stands for Design, Organization and Training, located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which was established as a vocational training and production center to provide ongoing education, product development and commercial support for Haitian artisans, the organization said. The DOT Center was cofounded by Urban Zen Foundation, The New School’s Parson School of Design — Karan’s alma mater — and Haitian artist and businesswoman Paula Cole in 2015, after Karan spotted superlative artisanal talent in Haiti during a trip to the region to help with post-earthquake recovery. In addition to its artisan training services, the DOT Center provides scholarships to Parsons graduate to apprentice in Haiti, offering full immersion into “the regionalized historical, economic, social and environmental considerations of design development and production.”

Here, Karan and Joel Towers, executive dean, The New School’s Parsons School of Design, talk to WWD about its DOT Program, the importance of vocational training and growing market for artisan talent and craftsmanship.

WWD: How does Urban Zen Foundation and Parsons School of Design leverage the DOT Program to prepare students for fashion industry careers and opportunities?

Donna Karan: I went down to Haiti nine years ago after the earthquake to support. I then realized that everyone in Haiti is an artist, and instead of giving them fish, I wanted to give them a fishing rod. When Parsons got involved, the DOT didn’t exist. It was about understanding the creative powers of these cultures, as I did as a Parsons graduate. Parsons, in its totality, is not just looking at a dress down the runway. You look at the industry in the involvement that we have to teach the students, and what I’ve learned is they need to experience it. It is about connecting the dots between design, manufacturing, creativity.

Joel Towers: The students’ educational experience in the DOT program goes far beyond just creating objects that consumers want to buy. Once selected for the program, the students are immersed in the regionalized historical, economic, social and environmental considerations of design development and production. They gain a deep understanding of product development, honoring the time, skill and effort that goes into handcrafted designs. They learn how to create thoughtfully designed artifacts that can be passed down instead of being continually replaced. They experience first-hand how a community can respond to sudden, intense, life-changing events in ways that foster resilience for future generations.

Most importantly, the students then carry these unique experiences and methods with them into their professional lives. Businesses today are increasingly seeking people with the skills to harness the power of creative collaboration to effect change. This is true not just for the fashion industry, but broadly across virtually every sector of the global economy.

Joel Towers and Donna Karan in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Urban Zen. 

WWD: Would you elaborate on the multidiscipline vocational training that DOT offers artisans? What’s involved in the education process?

D.K.: DOT was designed as an incubator for Haiti’s artisan community, fostering innovation, providing a wide range of specialized tools and other resources as well as access to materials that are hard to find in Haiti. Occupying 5,000 square feet in an existing 20,000-square-foot building in Port-au-Prince, the DOT Center was designed by Parsons faculty member Alison Mears with two Parsons graduate students. The design of the space was custom built for DOT to include specialized machines and tools located in a well-designed, light, airy, safe space. The space has production and workshop facilities and exhibition space to display artisan products.

DOT’s resources enable artisans to scale their work, increasing the number of products they fabricate and elevating the quality of production while preserving the integrity of their unique culture. At DOT, Haiti’s artisans work in a wide range of materials including horn, metal, textile, ceramics, natural dying, beading, leather and recycled materials. They receive hands-on instruction in material fabrication, as well as instruction in the use of new tools and materials to complete their designs. A range of workshops are offered to local artisans in the summer and are developed and led by DOT members and Parsons faculty and designers in the areas of jewelry, textile development, leather, pottery, hand dying, printing and beading.

A DOT chess board. Photo courtesy of Urban Zen.  Evgeny Popov

WWD: The artisan economy has grown significantly in recent years. What are the contributing factors to this growth, and why do consumers desire specially made objects?

D.K.: It’s about creativity and collaboration. The educational and commercial lens has to be looked through differently today.

J.T.: The supply chain models of the last century are too inflexible to contend responsibly with the variables that affect production today — diminishing material resources, complex cultural dynamics and migrating labor pools, to name a few. Throughout Parsons, designers are reimagining the supply chain network to foster sustainable manufacturing, financial stability and cultural resilience. Artisans represent a driving force behind that network, and an important part of the fabric of the global creative economy overall.

D.K.: Within this changing context, consumers are reexamining their buying habits as well. People today care about where something comes from, what it’s made from, who made it, in what conditions, and what will happen to it after. I think as a society we are starting to slowly change the criteria by which we evaluate a product’s value — and that is a good thing.

J.T.: More and more students are incorporating handwork into their designs, so we anticipate that the artisan economy will continue to grow within the larger fashion industry.

WWD: Why are Haitian products so differentiated in the market? How has Haitian artist Paula Cole impacted Urban Zen’s product design and purpose?

D.K.: Paula Cole has become the Big Kahuna. When I saw her T-shirt bag, I said, “That’s a bag that will last forever.”

J.T.: Haiti is home to many skilled artisans who bring a high level of craftsmanship, creativity and resourcefulness to their work. Paula Cole is an extraordinary Haitian designer and entrepreneur who really understands the market. Her vision and leadership have enabled DOT to grow over the last four years in a country where business development has struggled to succeed. She has developed contracts with a range of local and international designers and has helped Haitian-designed and locally made products reach a global market by providing help in every aspect of production, productivity and design.

WWD: How would you describe the “soulful economy,” and how are design students today preparing for careers in that emerging marketplace?

D.K.: I think of the soulful economy as one that changes the focus from products to people. It’s about prioritizing humanity and culture, and designing responsibly, creatively and purposefully to contribute to the public good.

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