Haiti hasn’t won a medal in an Olympics Games for 88 years, but the earthquake-scarred country still managed to turn heads during its Rio debut at the opening ceremony for the 31st Olympiad.
And it was all due to a Port-au-Prince fashion designer Maëlle Figaro David and her flair for showcasing the country’s unique brand.
Team Haiti’s ruffle-sleeved blouses and button-down embroidered look by David, 58, was described as one of the trendiest in the Parade of Nations by Yahoo Style. The digital magazine put Haiti’s 25-member Olympic delegation in its top three best dressed.
The accolade immediately caught the attention of Haitians, including the prime minister, who all responded with congratulatory pride.
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“When I first heard the news, I didn’t know what it meant,” David, who didn’t make the trip, said from Port-au-Prince, where Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles congratulated her last week in an official communique. He noted that the team, dressed in David’s creations, made the front page of the Olympic Village magazine Village Life.
“I feel such a sense of pride and satisfaction that at this moment in my career, my creations have allowed all Haitians to feel a common sense of joy, and Haiti is being well-represented at the Olympics,” she said. “I am happy I did something for my country.”
Haitian Tourism Minister Guy Didier Hyppolite said the ministry could have tapped any number of Haitian designers — from the high-fashion sisal straw and coconut fiber style of Ralph Leroy to the Vodou-inspired prints of Felicia Dell to the music-inspired versatile designs of David Andre — to outfit the country’s 10 athletes and coaches.
“But Maëlle David was the one we felt could give us something that represents our flag, our culture, our brand in Haiti,” Hyppolite said.
“It was a one-shot opportunity to showcase our culture, our beautiful country,” he said. David not only delivered, but she did it with just five days and five individuals sewing the outfits together on a budget of less than $10,000 from the country’s cash-stricken tourism ministry. Though she made 25 outfits, Haiti’s team is made up of 10 athletes including University of Chicago swimmer Naomy Grand’ Pierre and Josue Deprez, a fitness and judo coach in Miami.
“I didn’t know the athletes and most of them didn’t live in Haiti, so I had to go to the internet to look at their faces, and their build,” she said. The athletes, and delegation members, sent measurements via WhatsApp and email.
The president of the Association of Haitian Designers, David has been in the fashion industry for 34 years. She has built a reputation dressing beauty and carnival queens in traditional Haitian costumes, including the former French colony’s version of the long cotton bandana skirt or quadrille dress that is popular in the English Caribbean.
Named after the late 18th century dance craze made popular by European settlers, the quadrille is often recognized by its cotton fabric, gathered skirt and sometimes-matching headdress. In Haiti, it’s known as the karabela dress.
David said she wanted a look that wasn’t just uniquely Haitian, but one that made a statement about the country by turning the pejoratives into positives.
“Haiti is always covered, masked in bad words,” she said, describing the significance of the white fabric and tiered look underneath a blue flap on the women. “I decided to give them the traditional white blouse we use at home, but I also wanted the design to portray an opening.”
There is also another symbolism, and lesson about Haiti’s history. The tiered shirt combined with the ruffle blouses on the women is known as the Affranchi look. An old legal French term once used to describe an emancipated slave, it was also a pejorative used to describe individuals of mixed race. Unlike the slave, the Affranchi dressed elaborately, but her dress was still less expensive than that of her white mistress.
For the men, David wanted to showcase the Haitian peasant or farmer and chose the traditional Kouzen shirt. Similar in style to a Cuban guayabera, it has a denim look from the chambray fabric and is hand-embroidered with the symbol of a spiral. The embroidery pays homage to Kouzen Zaka, a spirit of the Vodou realm who represents work and agriculture. The spiral, she said, “helps you rise and eventually become rich.”
“I wanted to represent the Haitian peasant but in a classic way and with a certain elegance,” she said.
Her daughter, Nora David, also a well-known fashion designer known for her sisal and fabric clutches, said her mom is raising the bar for her and other stylists but produced a look that is “authentic of our culture.”
“Haitians tend to forget their culture, and misrepresent it,” she said. “The youth have no idea what the culture of Haiti is, and they tend to mimic other cultures.”
Nora David, who splits her time between Aventura and Port-au-Prince, said a lot of beautiful, well-tailored costumes were showcased during the Olympics Games opening ceremony, including Team USA’s $700 jackets designed by Ralph Lauren. To have Haiti recognized as third-best dressed, she said, makes her proud.
“As Haitians we should represent like this in everything we do,” she said. “It should be like this for us on any platform.”