9.15.2014

An Interview with Lucie Cincinatis

 Lucie with her Jacmel & Co bag for The Man Repeller. [Source]
If there's two things I find absolutely brilliant, it's strawberry lemonade and Lucie Cincinatis. One of these is especially brilliant because she brings us fruit bags-- and I got to talk to her about them through a Skype interview! These bags work to create jobs, empower women artisans and foster sustainable living. It's fashion with a function! With the help of seven Haitian artists, this Belgian by way of New York found herself designing eco-friendly bags that show Haiti for what it truly is and that's 100% awesome. Well, awesome-ness and humidity, but mostly awesome-ness.

I present to you, my interview with a glass of strawberry lemonade.

Just kidding, it's Lucie Cincinatis, founder of Jacmel & Co. Or as I like to say, fashion-humanitarian hybrid who is changing the world with fruity bags, as we less interesting people benefit by having our wardrobe livened up. Call it what you will, but one thing's for sure, fruit bags rock and I need to replace my old tote with something a bit more a-peel-ing.

TAYLOR: How did you get started designing bags?
LUCIE: It all started because I moved to Haiti, that's a big component. I'm not a designer from training, I went to Columbia University--

--That's where I want to go! Ok, keep talking.
Really? Ok, well, I went to Columbia to study international relations, fashion design isn't really my background. What happened was, I went to Haiti through a humanitarian program and I got really inspired by the local artisans. That's when I met a rasta who was carrying a calabash bag, but not like the ones we have now. When I saw the bag I got really intrigued, I was like "Wow, that's cool! It's a fruit and it's also a bag." In Haiti they tend to be very good at producing products, but they don't really have this idea of design and making a product that could be sold and carried around. So, it started really organically and I would say that it was more of a collaboration between my input and the artisans's creativity.



That's awesome. 
Thanks, I just got off the phone with a designer in New York, actually. I'm going to be working with her. She just came up with new design for bags. So, we're going to completely change the design that we currently have and launch a new collection this spring.

What? That's so exciting! 
It is really exciting, because the finished product is going to be amazing and I think it's just going to take it to the next level.

That's seriously next level stuff. Tell me about how you ended up in Haiti.
Well, I studied in New York and I love New York, it's the love of my life.

Good. My city is the best. 
[Laughs] Then, I had issues with my visa. I was working finance and I hated my job, I was looking for something more creative and more fulfilling to do. So, last September I got offered a fellowship program and they said "Do you want to go to Haiti?" [Laughs] and I said "Sure, why not!" You know, like, I love traveling and I've been to many developing countries, it's not something that scares me or anything. I just went with it. Are you in New York?

Yep, but I'm on the countryside of New York right now which is why everything behind me doesn't look like the city. I go to school here then during the weekends I stay in the city.
Oh, I see.

Do you still come back to New York often? 
Yeah, Haiti isn't too far from New York. Haiti is a beautiful, beautiful country. So, yeah, that was a year ago. As the year went on, I decided to start my own business there. It's kind of a very unexpected journey.

I'd say! Who would have thought you'd leave finance for fruit bags! When did you realize that you could create a real business out of your bags? 
That's a very interesting question, when I met the man who was carrying the bags.

The one you were telling me about before? 
Yes, he was carrying a calabash bag. I wanted one really badly, but I wanted one with leather. The bag [he was carrying] was really hand crafted and it was kind of falling apart. I said to him "I really want a calabash bag, if I buy the leather and if I create the design and show you how I want it, could you make it for me?" and so he did that and I just started carrying this bag around. I went to New York, Brazil, and people kept asking me about it, you know? They asked me on the street "Oh, what is this?" That [happened] in New York a lot. Leandra Medine from The Man Repeller stopped me on the street said she had never seen a bag like this. I think that's when I was like "Wow! This bag has potential!" You know, if a really famous blogger like her is interested and thinks it's really well thought and original, then maybe I should try to expand it. I said to people "Oh, I could make one for you!" So, about three months after I met the rasta for the first time is really when I opened an atelier and hired a woman and started a production. But, you know, as an entrepreneur it's always difficult. It's very competitive and you always doubt a little bit about what you're doing and where you're going. So, I think this summer is really when I decided to make a business out of it. Like, hiring people and building a team and all that.

And all that jazz. 
[Laughs] Yeah, and bring a designer on board and scale things up.

That's great, so what's an average day like for you? 
Well, it's very different when I'm in Haiti than in New York or London. Like, right now I'm on vacation, so it doesn't really count.

What's a day like for you in Haiti? 
I usually wake up in the morning and I work out. I really like to work out, especially for my mind. Then, I go to the workshop and I give the instructions for the day. There's days where we cut the calabash, there's days where we work with the leather and braiding. Then there are days where all the material is ready so we could assemble the bags. Then, I usually leave for lunch, I go back to my home and eat. Then, in the afternoon I usually do a lot of emails. Reaching to distribution, press and I also have Skype meetings. It's very different day-to-day. There's days where I have to go to Port-au-Prince, the main capital, to get the leather. But, you know, as an entrepreneur your days are more free. Like, one day if I don't want to do anything, I could do that also. But you think about your business 24/7, so I work on weekends. There's no work and life balance sort of thing, it sort of comes together. When I'm in New York I try to have as many meetings as I can with people in fashion, press and other entrepreneurs who I could really learn things from. But, I think as the business and company evolves it's going to change.

How? 
I may not be in the production site and just in marketing and branding. So, this is going to be a constant evolution.

Lucie with her Jacmel & Co bag for The Man Repeller. [Source]
So, Haiti: What do you think is the biggest misconception a lot of people have about it? 
Are you Haitian?

Nope, my mom's side of the family is Dominican, but I was born in New York. I speak Spanish and everything, though. I'm technically American, but I really consider myself to be Dominican. 
I was just asking because you know, anyway. So, the misconception--

--[Laughs] I'm sorry, keep talking. 
[Laughs] I think the biggest misconception is that it's a dangerous place.

I totally get you on that, many people say that about the Dominican Republic. That's not the case, I mean a little bit, but it depends where you go. 
Right, well um, people think it's a violent country. I think people automatically associate poverty with violence and I have not experienced that. I know there have been moments in history where Haiti has been very violent with a lot of civil unrest and political instability, but personally like as a foreign female, taking public transportation, taking a motorcycle around…I mean, I don't live in a community that's gated. I've never experienced any violence or felt in a situation where I was in any danger. So, that's a big misconception. I think that most people don't know that it's also a really beautiful country. Like, amazing beaches.

Holla! 
You know! Beautiful mountains. I mean, of course it's very poor so if you go to the slums of Port-au-Prince, it's not really a place you want to go for vacation.

Right. 
But there are so many other places that have so much potential there and I think people don't realize that at all. Or like, they don't really want to think about it that way. You know?

Yeah. 
They just see it as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and the nation where everyone is poor and there is trash everywhere and that's about it, there's no like further thoughts about Haiti.

"Everyday is another challenge, everyday is a new day to impact a community." 

How do you keep your job interesting and exciting? Although, that shouldn't be too hard, you make fruit bags in Haiti. 
[Laughs] You gotta work for it, you know? I mean, work in Haiti is definitely exciting and challenging, because everyday there are different things happening. Often you plan things and they don't always work out or go according to the plan. Maybe you go to work and two of the artisans don't show up because they have issues. So, like, I don't know. Maybe that's not really positive, but it's still exciting! You know, when you're passionate about what you do and the product that you launch. In my case I think the calabash bag is very unique, it has a soul, you know? It's exciting! It's exciting because it's different. It's different than what most of my friends do. Everyday is another challenge, everyday is a new day to impact a community, to sell a product to a different market, to prove a product, to source a product. I'm hoping to have a lot of different stuff for Jacmel & Co, not just bags.

Like? 
Jewelry, sandals and other accessories. I think just, you know, have a vision and a plan. Just go for it, you know. I don't really need to do much to keep it exciting, I don't even really see it as a job. I see it like a project and a passion that came together and is now my job. I don't need to do much to keep it interesting and exciting, it just comes naturally.

Jacmel & Co is still in diapers. Meaning, like, it's a pretty new company. Did you ever have a moment when you weren't sure if this whole [motions with hands] thing was going to work? 
Yeah, actually yesterday! [Laughs] I was in London and I woke up and my sister was here. This summer was great and we sold out, so we don't have any bags left. It's quite an achievement, we got so much support from the press. It's been great, but like, then what's the next step? You know? Do I want to be in Haiti all the time? Now that this thing is really real and it's not just a project but a company with recognition and people writing about it, you have to keep going but you want to make sure you're doing things right. As an entrepreneur it's a lot of pressure on me. Like, if I don't do it, no one else is going to do it for me. Of course I had doubts, so many times. About the product, about Haiti, about the people, about whether or not people would like the bags because they're different. But it's all part of it.

Do you think doubt is ultimately a good thing for an entrepreneur?
Definitely, it makes you realize what your weaknesses are. Which can be good. Nothing comes easy in life. What I realized this summer, as you said, is everything happens so quickly. If you want to build a strong company and a strong brand with a really good product, you kind of need to have a long term vision, which I was lacking in the beginning. I was sort of like 'Ok, we're going to make bags. Let's go! I'll reach out to bloggers and press and it's going to be great!' But you have to really take your time and really see what's essential to the business and to have a plan. Which is why now, for the next year I'm going to really improve the product. [I'm going to] bring a new product under the umbrella and kind of just take things a little slower. Stable and steady-- and hopefully successful.

Lucie with her Jacmel & Co bag for The Man Repeller. [Source]
What's the best part about your job? 
I really like sharing my experience. Because a lot of people have the kind of jobs are once they're out of their job, they don't want to talk about it because they don't feel so connected to it. But, I think the best part of my work -- I'd call it my work more than my job -- is that it's also a passion. It's really exciting to share my story with others. To try to be an inspiration to people, to show people that there's always another way. There's an alternative. An alternative life, an alternative lifestyle. A way to contribute to society while making money. I mean, money is important and you do need to have a salary to live. So, that's fun. I love this, I love giving interviews.

Good, 'cause we're only half way through this thing. 
I love talking to people in fashion. Like I said in my Man Repeller article, I have so many people reaching out to me and really showing their support. Really telling me that they admire what I do. I get a lot of encouragement and support. It's fantastic and rewarding. It makes me happy.

"It's a process and it's all about building relationships and communicating in a good way."

What's the hardest part? 
I think the hardest part is living in a developing country. It's difficult. It's magical at times, but difficult. It could be very hard and isolating. That's why between spending time in New York and spending time in Haiti, when you make bags you have to make sure the bags are good. [Laughs] You have to make sure you're there to control the process. To be there with the artisans. It's difficult, because that kind of responsibility for local people could be very dangerous for my business. It can go very well or it could go very bad. I'm a start-up and I can't afford for it to go very bad. It's only the beginning. So, that's hard and you know, sometimes there are definitely cultural differences between me and the artisans I work with. Between scheduling and quality control. It's hard, because if I say A and they do B, then I'm not going to be happy and then they don't understand why I am not happy. That's difficult. It's a process and it's all about building relationships and communicating in a good way.

I totally get that. Do you think it's important to be active on social media? 
Yeah, it's crucial. It's very important. I'm not using Twitter and I know I should--

--I am. I'm on Twitter, @hellotaylorkate. Ok, back to you. 
Um, and Facebook. I'm on that. It's fine, but I think Instagram is such a powerful tool right now. Like, what it can do for the brand. Someone posting a picture with the bag and talking about the brand. It's absolutely very important. I'm trying to really build a brand via social media and I want people who buy our product to become part of a community. To be the calabash community.

#CalabashClub? 
[Laughs] And [for people to] not just wear the bags because they think it's cool, you know? They also should support our mission, our vision and our desire to support Haiti. I think it's very powerful, yeah.

"If you don't make things happen, nothing is gonna happen."

What skills do you think are important when it comes to your work? 
You have to be a lot of things. You really have to be a go-getter. If you don't make things happen, nothing is gonna happen. Like, you really have to be a hustler. Go and reach out and if people don't respond, return again. Never feel discouraged. Be strong, be very positive. It's all about sharing and inspiring. I think you have to be very organized as well. That's something I'm working on right now. If you're not organized, things aren't going to work. If you have a big order and you're not able to go on with production, you're not going to have a good reputation in the industry. I think you have to remain humble as well. When you get press and attention it's good, but you still have to keep it cool. You have to work hard and keep working hard no matter what you do. It's a constant process, if you stop then things won't work. You have to be proactive about everything. In terms of working with local communities that have a different culture, you sometimes have to be softer in your approach. Be friendly but also demanding. That's something I have to work on. I can be pretty strict because I want things done [motions with hands] this way. You just have to find a solution to them in a diplomatic way. There are a lot of skills. I talked about a lot of things. I guess I'd say the top are you have to be a go-getter, be proactive, be positive in sharing your stories, be organized and be detail oriented.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? 
Many people say you have to have tons of work experience before starting your own business. But, I would tend to disagree with that. The best way to learn is to just go for it. If you have an idea and if you believe that you have the capacity and the possibility to do something, do it. Have people who will slap you in the face when you do something wrong. Like, entrepreneurism is kind of a lonely profession sometimes. You're alone with your ideas. So you have to have kind of like a team around you that supports you. Friends, family, teachers, people who can support you in your project. People who could tell you everything is going to be ok when you're feeling down. I'd say entrepreneurs at the end of the day are just dreamers. They're dreamers who like something and want to do it and don't really conform to what society expects compared to more traditional jobs. It's not for everybody. You have to be ready to spend a lot of time on your own, a lot of time working hard and a lot of time having to work for something that may or may not work. Not all entrepreneurs are successful. Sometimes they try something and it doesn't work and you know, that's ok also. Be able to let it go and start something else.

Lucie with her Jacmel & Co bag for The Man Repeller. [Source]
What has been the most memorable experience in your career so far? 
As the founder of Jacmel & Co?

Yeah. 
The most memorable memory, there have been so many. I think one of my most memorable memories was when I was in Haiti. Basically, the guy who I started the business with--

-- the one from like, 30 minutes ago? 
Yeah, that one. He found the job too stressful for him at Jacmel & Co. He decided he didn't want to be in charge and so he left without telling me anything about leather. Like, where he was getting it or where he was getting the glue. I didn't know because I wasn't part of the production, I was more part of the marketing and selling. I wasn't really inside making the bags. I had to go to Port-au-Prince and find leather. Port-au-Prince is like a huge city. Tons of people, very dangerous, all slums. I had no idea where I could find leather. I had to go to a place where people sell sandals. I knew the sandals where the same leather from the bag and so I went and asked them and they sent me to one factory and then another. All day I was basically trying to find leather because we didn't have any and we had to make bags! Well, I finally arrived in a really bad area of the city. I got there and there was a canal of like, pigs and children playing and I was just thinking 'What am I doing here?' I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. I found a guy who said 'Oh, goat skin, we have what you need.' So, I went to his house and in the backyard I see like leather skin hanging. Like, the goats where literally killed and the skin was there hanging.

Oh my God! 
Yeah, it was there drying on this wood. I was like, 'Wow, this is where my leather comes from.' It was amazing because at the point I didn't know. You need to really know every part. You gotta know, if you just rely on people, that's not working. If they leave, then they take all their secrets with them. It was really amazing. We bought like, twenty sheets of leather and I was exhausted that day. I finally returned and all the artisans were like 'Did you find leather? Did you find leather? We want to make more bags!' It was fun, it was memorable, it was a crazy day. I hustled and I found the leather.

"I really want to try and make a difference in the world."

That's wild! What is your dream for Jacmel & Co? 
I think I really love traveling and I feel that Jacmel & Co in Haiti is just the starting point. I think there's so many communities all over the world that are doing really great products but don't have much of an access to markets. So, my dream is, obviously, to see Jacmel & Co become very successful. Whether that's through the calabash bag or the other accessories we're going to do. Just really changing the image people have of Haiti and to create more jobs. With each job that we create, like, ten people in the family will benefit from that. To see it grow and to hire more people. To have more amazing products that people all over the world are buying and supporting. Creating this community around my brand.  Not just in Haiti, maybe Venezuela, Morocco or Bali. I like working with product, but with product that has a soul. I hope that more and more people are becoming more conscious of what they buy. Most of what people buy has no human factor in it. A lot of it is made in factories or by people who aren't treated kindly. As a social entrepreneur I really want to try and make a difference in the world.

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