Local Buttons clothing is proudly made in Haiti.

Local Buttons clothing is proudly made in Haiti.

Changing lives through fashion

What to do with an undergraduate degree is a challenge that faces most university graduates.

What to do with an undergraduate degree is a challenge that faces most university graduates.

Degrees in history, philosophy, English, and even chemistry don’t seem to land people any closer to a career than when they started.

Nelson native Anne Pringle found herself wondering what to do next when she finished her degree in international development studies from York University.

“A friend of mine and I— who I graduated from my undergrad with in 2009 — were in Toronto and we were trying to figure out what to do with our lives,” said Pringle while in Nelson for Christmas vacation. “We decided to organize a local, eco-friendly, ethical fashion show. We just printed out business cards and went to local designers and tried to put together a fashion show focusing on local design. We just figured Toronto is such a great avenue to showcase all of this local talent.”

Pringle and Consuelo McAlister decided that the fashion show wouldn’t just be in celebration of local, sustainable and ethical fashion, that it would also be a fundraiser to support Haiti, which had been hit by an earthquake a few months before.

“We wanted to focus on something that wasn’t just an aid organization or a charity working in Haiti,” said Pringle. “We wanted it to be about the community more. So we found an organization that works with artisan communities and they sell their art to North Americans. They came to our fashion show and talked to us about integrating fashion into helping the people in Haiti.”

The fashion show spawned Local Buttons: Catalyst for Sustainable Enterprise.

“It took a while for us to know exactly what we wanted to do and how it was going to work,” said Pringle. “In November when we went down [to Haiti], we’d never been there yet. We just landed in the airport and someone picked us up and that was that.”

What they wanted to do — with the help of talented Haitian tailors — was design clothing made of secondhand clothes purchased in Haiti.

“In some ways it was empowering because it was all the junk that we send over to these developing countries and we’re cutting it up and sending it back. We’re purchasing it back from them,” said Pringle.

When Pringle and McAlister landed in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince they were shocked by what they saw.

Much of the city was still rubble even though the earthquake had hit nearly a year before.

There were tent cities everywhere and the tension of the upcoming election was growing every day.

“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” said Pringle. “We met some amazing people and we saw both the sadness aspect of it but also the beauty of people rebuilding their country and working together.”

With passion and designs for vests, Pringle and McAlister began working with tailors through an organization called INDEPCO.

INDEPCO works to promote the development of the sewing industry in Haiti.

“When you go down the secondhand markets there is absolutely everything and the secondhand industry has kind of wiped out the tailoring industry,” said Pringle.

Suit jackets, dress shirts, jeans and other pants are purchased at the markets and then they take the items back to the factory where the seams are ripped apart.

“We lay them all out and we figure out what would look best with what design and what other pattern and they cut out the clothing and sew it back up,” said Pringle.

Working with the tailors was a challenge at first. The tailors couldn’t understand why they would

want something made of old clothing instead of having something completely new.

“As soon as we really explained what we were doing and we went through the whole process, everyone in the factory really wants this to work,” said Pringle. “We talked to a couple tailors that we are in contact with as well as the factory and they really want this to work because it is an avenue to really showcase the talent of the tailors to the rest of the world and being part of changing something.”

Undergraduate degrees don’t prepare students for the challenges that Pringle and McAlister faced when they landed in Port-au-Prince.

“I’ve learned more in the past year and a half. I’m so glad I had the theory from my undergrad but they do not teach you practical skills,” said Pringle. “I’ve learned so much about things like importing fees and all the business aspects.”

An obstacle that Local Buttons had to overcome was the minimum wage standard set out by the Haitian government for tailors and seamstresses, which is $5 a day.

“Most factories only pay about 3/4 of that,” said Pringle. “All of the factories said that they wouldn’t be able to meet their quotas unless they paid their workers less, so they pay about $3 a day. We talked to people and figured out really quickly that $5 is not a livable wage. We told them that we couldn’t pay that if that’s what he was going to pay people that worked for us.”

Local Buttons pays the employees that work on their clothing about three times the minimum wage.

“What we do is we pay everyone the regular wage and at the end we give a commission to anyone who has worked on our clothing,” said Pringle. “We were worried because we don’t want to create some kind of internal issues, but we also think we need to put pressure, as well as the tailors to say they need to be paid well. We realize we are not making widespread change, but we are putting pressure to make it happen.”

Back home in Toronto the reception to Local Buttons has been overwhelming.

Pringle and McAlister officially launched Local Buttons in the fall of 2011.

Their launch party was even attended by host of CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, George Stroumboulopoulos.

“It was so great to have him there. I used to work at a bar and his best friend used to come in there all the time, and he came in sometimes too,” said Pringle. “It was great for him to come out and support what we’re doing, and the PR from that is great.”

Local Buttons has also appeared on the Global Toronto Morning Show.

“It’s beginning to take off and we just want to ride that train,” said Pringle.

The team is headed back to Haiti in February where they will be starting designs for some new items.

“We’ve been working on some jackets and I have a couple shirt designs for women and my friend is working on a skirt,” said Pringle. “Ideally we’d like to see something similar to this in different countries because every country has a different esthetic. We know a few people in Brazil and Columbia who might be interested.”

Nelson will also be showing it’s support for the Local Buttons initiative. Cottons Clothing Company has placed an order for the vests.

“We haven’t yet made our living off of this,” said Pringle. “We still have jobs outside of this. I’m also doing my masters right now. I’m studying sustainable fashion, so all the research I do goes into the business. But we’re hoping that one day soon this will be our full-time job.”