WASHINGTON - Haiti’s ambassador to Washington, Paul Altidor, has been on a mission to show his native country’s best and brightest side since mid-January, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported disparaging remarks about Haitian immigrants.
Trump's reported use of a vulgar term to describe Haiti and African nations angered the Haitian-American community, sparking rallies in Port-au-Prince, New York, Palm Beach and Boston to denounce racism. Altidor said the comments about Haiti "hurt the country."
“So for those who think Haiti is a sh**hole country, let me tell you, my country is a beautiful country,” Altidor exclaimed to applause and cheers in his opening remarks to the large crowd of Washington locals, Haitian-American celebrities, dignitaries and fashionistas at a recent "Diplomacy by Design" event at the Haitian embassy.
The runway show, held during DC Fashion Week, featured the collections of four of Haiti’s top designers — Victor Glemaud, Prajje Oscar, Azede Jean-Pierre and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss.
“The eyes and ears of the world have been focused on Haiti during the last few weeks,” Altidor noted. “Most of the world has a singular view of our country that we are looking to reshape.”
Veteran designer Victor Glemaud’s colorful knitwear line in eye popping reds, blues, orange, yellows and fuschia, mixed with black and white separates, were up first. Female and male models turned heads as they strutted down the embassy’s long, winding, red carpeted staircase and into the various rooms where seated guests responded with oohs and aahs.
Glemaud, a Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) graduate who moved to the United States at age 3, began his love affair with knitwear after cutting up his father's old sweaters.
He was one of the 2017 finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an annual competition hosted by the non-profit Council of Fashion Designers of America with the goal of cultivating "the next generation of emerging American design talent."
Glemaud worked for Paco Rabanne, Versace, Marc Jacobs and Helmut Lang before starting his own line.
Women’s wear designer Azede Jean-Pierre, whose fashions were worn by former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, did not present a runway show but had a few outfits on display in a special room set up by the embassy for guests to see.
"I’m thrilled to be here at the embassy to participate in this event and to show a different Haiti," Azede told VOA Creole. "I know everyone’s talking about Haiti these days, but we want to show that we have a beautiful country and that there are people who are doing great things."
Azede, who emigrated to the United States at age 5, said in the fashion world, designers who are unique are sought out, and being Haitian gives her an advantage.
We asked how she came to dress Michelle Obama.
“I sent her a few messages, and then she accepted for me to make her something. I had 10 days to do it," she said cryptically. "And I completed the outfit, and she liked it. And then she invited us to the White House to talk to children. And I had a second opportunity to dress her, and it was a great experience.”
Kerby Jean-Raymond, whose menswear label is called Pyer Moss, also did not present a runway show, but he made special outfits for the "Diplomacy by Design" event.
The night’s showstopper was women’s wear designer Prajje Oscar, who wowed the audience with his Ezili collection. Elegant hand-beaded floor-length gowns, sexy pantsuits, jumpsuits and knee-length skirts in reds, pinks, whites and turquoise were presented, as traditional Haitian rara music filled the room.
Prajje, who was adopted by a French couple when he was 12 years old and reared in the U.S., has been described as one of Boston's "most promising young designers." The Massachusetts College of Art and Design graduate, who holds a degree in fashion design, said he always remained connected to his Haitian roots and wanted to honor that with this collection, which bears the name of the voodoo priestess of art, romance, love and sex.
When Altidor heard about Prajje's concept for the collection, he said, “You have to make it happen,” the designer recalls.
“This is a way to show that Haiti is not what Donald Trump called us. Perhaps Haiti doesn’t have a Bill Gates - I mean, not people who will say openly they are [as rich as] Bill Gates - but we know there are a lot of rich people in Haiti."
Prajje said he was in Haiti when the ambassador asked him to participate in the fashion event.
“He asked me, 'Do you want to [participate]?' And I said yes. Whatever you’re doing, I support you, Mr. Ambassador. I’ll be there.”
Haitian-American NFL star player Pierre Garcon was one of the ambassador's celebrity guests. The former Washington Redskin, who currently plays for the San Francisco 49ers, said he was happy to attend the fashion show.
“I was in Miami when I got the call, and I told the ambassador, 'You know I’ll support you.' So, here I am.”
Garcon graciously declined to name a favorite among the designers. “I’m not really good at that kind of thing. Just give me a team uniform to wear. That’s the fashion I know best,” he said.
A Nigerian-American guest at the embassy, who identified herself as Kydele, acknowledged she was impressed by the show.
“It was fascinating. It really gave you an earful and an eyesight into what Haiti’s all about. And I thank God that DC was able to host that,” she told VOA Creole.
Kydele also spoke about Altidor’s stated goal at the beginning of the evening - to change the Haiti narrative.
"The ambassador has brought on a different perspective about what government is about," she said. "He’s so open-minded and has his arms open to everyone coming to Haiti. He’s very approachable, so I believe he’s letting us know Haiti welcomes you. Haiti wants you to come, and we’re all one. So, I really felt that with his spirit tonight."