The rhythmic beat of bongo drums can be heard over the chatter as people mix and mingle, and the smell of burnt rubber fills the warm January air inside a local shoe factory in Haiti. Today is the grand opening of a new workshop for ethical fashion brand Deux Mains.
Among the sea of happy faces, one woman stands out looking like a ray of sunshine in a bright yellow dress. This is Jolina Auguste. She’s zipping through the crowd, smiling ear to ear, searching for one person: Kenneth Cole.
It’s a magical moment for the two, who met in Haiti four years ago during one of the footwear giant’s trips to the country following the 2010 earthquake. Cole is back, and Auguste’s energy is palpable. She’s beaming as she introduces him to her two young daughters. And while they don’t speak the same language, it’s obvious what’s going on. This is a moment of gratitude for a man who for years has quietly worked to improve the lives of ordinary Haitians. And FN visited recently to see what he’s accomplished.
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It’s Jan. 12, the ninth anniversary of the earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions. It’s 6 a.m., and I’m boarding a JetBlue flight to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Cole greets me to say how excited he is to have me join and that the trip will be meaningful. I’ve met Cole many times, and I could tell this was going to be a different encounter.
Landing in Haiti, we are greeted by our guides, John Chew and Anny Frederique, a married couple who have worked with Cole during past trips. They, along with two drivers, take us into the city. Immediately, my senses are overstimulated. Locals line the streets selling all manner of secondhand goods, from shoes to shampoo. Brightly colored vans and buses fly by while Haitians hop on and off for 50 cents a ride. These are “tap taps,” and they are painted in reds, yellows and blues with Americanized murals featuring such famous faces as Rihanna, 50 Cent and Vin Diesel.
About 15 Kenneth Cole employees were selected to join the trip through a merit-based decision. Many are first-timers, while one team member is a veteran. He speaks knowledgeably about the country’s improvements, explaining that when they first came to Haiti post-earthquake, tent cities filled the streets for miles, and the roads looked like they were paved in garbage. “Each time I can see the progression,” he said. “It’s a lot cleaner.”
While there’s little tourism in Haiti, the streets are bustling, and the entrepreneurial spirit is alive.
We are heading north of the capital to Titanyen, a shanty town filled with people displaced by the earthquake. Frederique describes it as an ecological disaster because there are no trees or running water.
Immediately, our noses are hit with the smell of sulfur as we drive uphill on a rocky road to attend a religious mass of remembrance honoring earthquake victims. Around 100 people, including locals and mission groups, have gathered to honor the dead. This open field became a burial ground for unidentified earthquake victims. Two priests read scripture and lead the crowd in prayer while a band plays music and children whisper in the background.
As we lay flowers during sunset, Cole takes his time gazing over the grounds, clearly reflecting. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how fragile our lives are, so how do you make your life meaningful?” he muses. “I’m doing what I love to do. I don’t consider this an obligation. It’s a privilege. But it has to be authentic or it won’t work.”
Cole’s ongoing effort with Haiti is personal. The power player has made a long commitment to fighting HIV/AIDs as a UNAIDS International Goodwill Ambassador and the former amfAR chairman. And he is known in the industry for speaking out on social issues, whether it be gun violence or LGBTQ+ rights. With Haiti, it was all about timing. At the moment when Cole was launching his annual shoe drive, the earthquake hit.
The designer recalled, “We all looked at each other, and it was clear there was a need here.”
In addition, his youngest daughter, Catie, was a driving catalyst. Cole had come home after work one night to find a box of red relief bands for Haiti that his daughter had bought for 30 cents apiece. “She bought these bands and was going to sell them at school and donate the proceeds,” he said. “The key here is that she wanted me to buy the bands so everything she made was profit.”
The campaign quickly turned up several notches when they sold the bands for $5 each at local merchants in Rye, N.Y., and in Kenneth Cole store locations, raising a total of $10,000.
“Catie needed to know where the money was going, so she came on the first trip,” Cole said. “This is not just business; it’s personal and familial. When I do something,
it is something I commit to. We have seen the impact. That’s what these trips do. We see it, and we see the needs that continue to evolve.”
Driving down to Cité Soleil, a tract of tin huts meets my eye. This is known as one of the most impoverished areas in the Western Hemisphere, densely filled with approximately 400,000 inhabitants. The difference in way of life compared with Port-au-Prince is immediately evident. Pigs and cows roam the streets. Instead of eating grass and grains, the animals are face down feeding off piles of trash. Kids walk the streets barefoot, and life seems to be at a standstill. We’re here to meet Father Rick Frechette, founder of the St. Luke Foundation, a nonprofit that provides health care and education to the least-served population in Haiti. Cole and his team have been partners with St. Luke since 2012, when they first teamed up to build the Kenneth Cole Health Center at St. Mary’s Hospital in Cité Soleil. The clinic provides disease prevention and treatment to the underserved.
“We funded the structure, and then every year, we continue to raise money to add to the relief,” Cole said. Recently, his team has been able to raise funds for an imaging machine, solar panels, support of healthcare workers and an emergency speedboat.
“We come here to make sure [our efforts are effective]. We want to bring business to the community — that’s the ultimate sustainability,” said Cole. “One of the issues here is that you can feed hungry people today, but someone has to feed them tomorrow. You need to empower the community. The health center is a platform we can build upon.”
Just outside the walls around the health center, children are waiting to greet us. The kids cling to our bodies as soon as we walk into the slums — playing with our hair, taking selfies and laughing. A massive brown puddle blocks the entrance to one group of shacks, so we balance carefully on rocks to get across. A toddler, meanwhile, skips from rock to rock without hesitation to reach his home.
Chew walks us around the houses, which are typically 8-by-10 tin structures with dirt floors and a twin mattress that at times can accommodate a family of seven.
This is humanity at its core. The poverty level is astonishing — everyday materials and items are nearly nonexistent, and gang violence is an everyday occurrence.
However, despite the circumstances, Haitians find a lightness of spirit that shines through. Families laugh and smile. And they don’t ask for anything from us but to be
acknowledged and seen.
“They always pull together, and somehow they find a way to rebuild,” said Chew, a California native who has been in Haiti since the late ’80s. “That’s one of their strengths — they help each other. There’s always opposition, but when it comes down to it, they are proud people. They believe in helping themselves. After the earthquake, [people] were destitute. Their houses were gone, but they were helping their neighbors. They are used to disaster, but life goes on.”
In the face of adversity, a revival is in progress. Cement blockhouses are being built in Cité Soleil, for instance, crime is decreasing, and Father Rick is building an outdoor athletic center.
The culture is rich with tenacity — as well as with music, art, food and design. “People talk about Haiti, and they never have been here,” added Chew. “Until you come here, touch it, taste it, you’ll never know this country. You’ll see the truth. There are positives amid the negativity if you look for it.”
It is the day of the Deux Mains factory opening.
In 2015, Cole met with Deux Mains founder Julie Colombino, who started the brand through her nonprofit organization Rebuild as a response to the earthquake. Auguste was her first employee.
What started as a small training center teaching local women how to make sandals has evolved into a business that sources and crafts local sustainable product, providing stable jobs for the community. Their first order came from the Kenneth Cole brand.
“I lost everything during the earthquake,” said Auguste, who now owns her own land and runs HR and the sales division at Deux Mains. She’s speaking to FN in Haitian Creole by way of Frederique. “I thought my life was over until I met Julie in an orphanage. I said I don’t want a handout; I want to work.”
Auguste suggested to Colombino the idea of creating shoes from recycled tires after seeing the debris on the streets, and the company’s inception followed.
She recalled her first encounter with Cole, “I was very happy to meet him because even though our product wasn’t perfect, he loved it. He showed us how to perfect it, and I love him for that.”
Before Cole, Deux Mains struggled with quality, according to Colombino. She said the designer sent a technician after his visit to teach them shoemaking techniques while instilling the value of creating great product. It went a long way. Cole then partnered with the organization for “The Love-Haiti Sandal” collaboration, which invested more than $12,000 in the economy, provided 160 days of employment and recycled more than 270 tires. A second round of the collab will hit this year.
“I want to thank him for his courage to come here and for his encouragement,” Auguste said, “because if we are here in this building today, it’s because of his help.”
Throughout this trip, Cole has remained low-key — even humble — about the efforts he has been leading. He constantly gives credit to his team for the work that has been done. And instead of talking, he’s been listening, processing and observing. In particular, he watches his team members to see how they are taking in the experience.
Cole explained, “This carries my name, but at the end of the day, it’s a collective commitment. It’s embedded in our company culture. [My employees] feel like they are a part of something that’s bigger than a weekly paycheck. I’ve often said that what we do is really not that important. Nobody really needs another shoe. [This work is] what’s real.”
While many firms have adopted a philanthropic mission in response to millennial consumers, Cole’s philanthropic ethos is embedded into his being.
He says (quoting a brand tagline), “Heel heights and hem lengths change every season, but if I can speak to you not just about what you stand in but what you stand for, that will sustain any trend.”
The designer did admit, though, that he could do more to promote his charitable accomplishments. “People are realizing that you can be vocal. I was reluctant to,” he said. “I’ve been insistent that this has to be real, and the impact has to be tangible. I’ve always tried to connect. Philanthropy is something I love and made it part of business. Going back to Cité Soleil, for example, reminds us why we are here. We don’t talk about this enough. This is who we are. Basic human rights and social justice is what we stand for.”
At Deux Mains, Cole is watching artisans make sandals. One man is sanding the tire soles while another is gluing the shoes together. Cole’s team crowds around him as he handles the local product. Without saying a word, he pulls a knife out of his pocket and cuts a shoestring to create a makeshift ankle tie, showing the Deux Mains artisans an alternate shoe style. It is this kind of guidance that has helped serve this community far more than a paycheck would have.
Chew observed, “There’s a difference between helping humanity and serving humanity. When you serve, it makes a difference. It means following up, starting something and making sure you finish it. That’s what Kenneth is doing.”
After touring the factory, Cole gives a speech and, infected by the joyous spirit of the afternoon, grabs Auguste for a quick dance to celebrate the ribbon ceremony.
Before he leaves, I recount to him my conversation with Auguste, explaining how much he’s impacted the woman in the yellow dress. In classic Cole fashion, he simply pauses — smiles — and walks away.
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