For Haitian artisans, painting on canvas, bottles and even public walls is how they express themselves — and make a living.
But for the last year, some have added shoes to artistic canvas, customizing TOMS shoes with their hand-painted designs.
“We’ve sold out tens of thousand of pairs of the Haitian Artists Collective,” said Doug Piwinski, spokesman for TOMS. “We’ve gotten an amazing response.”
Now almost a year into the venture, TOMS has announced it’s expanding its relationship with Haiti. The company is launching manufacturing operations in Haiti to manufacture shoes beginning in January.
The five-year investment was announced this week during the Clinton Global Initiative in New York as part of the company’s commitment to the philanthropic venture launched by former President Bill Clinton.
“Three years ago at CGI the President asked me to help support the people of Haiti, and TOMS responded by giving hundreds of thousands of new pairs of shoes to children in need,” said Blake Mycoskie, TOMS founder and chief shoe giver. “Today, our dedication to Haiti is so much greater, and we look forward to creating jobs and opportunities in Haiti over the next several years.”
TOMS will initially employ 50 Haitian workers — in addition to the 31 artisans it’s already employing to create the hand-painted shoes — to manufacture shoes in Haiti. They hope to double the number of workers by the end of the first year.
“Haiti’s location and proximity to the fashion industry in New York and the United States is very important,’’ Piwinski said.
The Haiti expansion, he said, is part of the company’s overall strategy to expand its operations and giving program that provides a free pair of shoes for every pair of shoes that is purchased.
“We give in 60 countries,” including Haiti, Piwinski said. “Our giving partners assess the needs, and they determine how many pairs of shoes and sizes. Our job is to make sure we sell enough shoes to make sure we meet that need.”
So far, TOMS has donated 10 million pairs of shoes to children in need — and is on track to provide that same amount in the next year and a half, Piwinski said. The seven-year-old company also has helped save or restore sight for more than 150,000 people in 13 countries, it said.
Meanwhile, plans are also underway to possibly open manufacturing operations in Kenya to provide shoes to all of Africa, Piwinski added.
“This is a very interesting business model we have created, and people have responded well,” he said.