The haitian sun makes the tarmac at the port-au-prince runway feel like an oven on hight, and when Donna Karan touches ground, she is quickly off on a mission: to put on a show, an artisans’ exhibition in the center of the earthquake-damaged city. But as she waits at customs, she is obsessing over a metal bowl–specifically, its patina. Donna Karan to Haiti, with Love.
Sure, Donna Karan will talk to you for days about the beauty of Haitian crafts, the gingerbread trim on the old houses that still dot the coastal town of Jacmel, the kaleidoscope of colors on the buses that negotiate Port-au-Prince’s downtown, where millions of people somehow press on in the mindset of catastropic ruin. Sometimes she sounds like a minister of tourism. “i go to Haiti to recharge,” she says.
Like many aid groups and celebrities and volunteers from around the worlds, Donna has been showing up in Haiti since a few months after the earthquake struck its capital in January 2010.
First, in February, Urban Zen, her foundation, joined with a group of music and hotel industry people (including Mary J. Blige) to form Hope, Help & Rebuild Haiti, a nonprofit collecting earthquake relief funds; the group began sending tents to Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, a health-care organization serving the poor worldwide. In the summer, she decided to make a visit to see where the tents were going.
Thus began a succession of trips that’s resulted in Donna karan‘s becoming obsessed with the work of Haitian artisans and their economic welfare.
Even before Haiti’s devastation, she had been a friend of former President Bill Clinton, who first came here on his honeymoon. Donna once worked as a fashion consultant to Clinton: The Former Arkansas governor likes to joke that some of the only good press he got in 1991 was when she helped him out with his presidential-campaign look.
It was natural, then, that after she arrived in Haiti, Clinton who is the United Special Envoy for Haiti, as well as the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission took an interest in her project, noticing her ability to recognize what is exportable to aid local artisans looking for an international market.
“she instinctively knows,” Clinton said recently at her Urban Zen foundation in New York’s West Village. “it’s the darnedest thing I ever saw.”