Designer Pascale Thèard left a burgeoning career in the world of haute couture in France to reconnect with her island roots in Haiti. Since returning, she has launched her own brand of accessories that is helping to spread the word about Haitian culture, while also providing a much-needed outlet for local talents and skills.
Sometimes the creative impulse needs a helping hand before it can start to flourish. Many factors, including circumstance, luck, determination, courage and self-belief, have to come together at just the right time for someone to find their true calling after walking a totally different path. Meet Pascale Thèard , the designer and creator of hand-crafted leather sandals, accessories, and so much more. Thèard quit a promising career in finance and marketing in Paris to come home to her native Haiti to make leather sandals!
Veve symbols, Voodoo and designs
Kreol met Pascale at her atelier, in the heart of the industrial part of Port–Au-Prince, where she oversees an ever-growing creative output. This output is more often than not inspired by the island’s ancient veve symbols, which are widely used in voodoo and inspired by the religion of the original Taino peoples of Haiti.
Inside her workshop there are displays of her designs everywhere: bags, clutches, sandals – all made from supple, quality leather and many of the pieces are embroidered with the highly distinctive veve symbols. It is the use of these ancient religious motifs that has quickly become Pascale’s signature although getting it right can be pretty challenging. “Voodoo embroidery on leather is very difficult because leather is a living material, so it took time to perfect, but I think that it is such a magnificent art that it should be accessorised to show it off more,” says Pascale. The bright, airy atelier and studio space, spread over two floors, is a modest, functional building and a world away from the refined salons of Paris. So what brought her here in the first place?
Education and training in France
Born in 1974, the daughter of a Haitian industrialist and art collector, and a French mother, Pascale spent her childhood in Port-Au-Prince, before being sent off to boarding school in Paris. After finishing school she studied finance although the desire to do something more creative never left her. The creative itch had to be scratched while she was enrolled in a post-graduate course at the Institut Superieur de Marketing du luxe, founded by Cartier. She did a number of internships and had experience of the workshops of famous fine leather brands such as Hermes, Berluti, and Massaro. The seed of an idea started to develop but first Pascale had to complete her thesis on, ‘The symbolism of the shoe at the dawn of the 21st century’, for which she was awarded a first in class. By now, she’d decided to follow her creative path, and thanks to a generous EU grant, she was able to do a specially adapted intensive course in leather craft at the famous Ars Sutoria in Milan. Next stop on her journey was a return to Haiti, in 2003. Her first creation was inspired by the sandals she wore as a child but which were no longer available.
“When I was a little girl, I wore traditional Haitian sandals like all the girls in Port-Au-Prince. These were made by shoemakers who would even customise them for you if you asked, but when I came back the sandals had been replaced by plastic shoes – and there weren’t any street shoemakers to be found either! I was really sad, and this inspired me to design my own sandals, based on those traditional models.”
Regrets? I had a few…
Although delighted with her sandals, Pascale doesn’t mind admitting that in those early days, she was filled with doubts for the world she’d left behind, and had uncertainties about her future in Haiti: “When I came back I had huge regrets at first. I mean the country was devastated, there were riots – in many ways it was a kind of no-man’s-land at that time. Now, I have no regrets, I spent 15 years in Paris, but Haiti is home. My mission is here!”
That sense of mission that started with recreating the sandals of her childhood soon led to her designing a traditional Haitian bag, complete with the three tassels and embroidered with veve symbols that Pascale had never quite forgotten. Her journey back became a kind of voyage of re-discovery as she saw the beauty and uniqueness of the voodoo spirits expressed in graphic symbols with a fresh perspective. She also realised that there was a real danger that the native skills were being lost as they were gradually replaced by imported designs. Creating a brand of accessories that was synonymous with the culture and traditions of Haiti became part of her mission.
Keeping it local
“I always say that I’d love the brand, “Pascale Creations”, to be synonymous with high-end accessories but with a strong link to the culture of Haiti. You want to have something that is linked to a place. That’s what people look for when they buy Italian, French or Greek sandals, for instance, something that is unique to one place and no other. The creativity of the Haitian culture is infinite and we’re trying to put it back in fashion. Everything we create comes with a story,” as she explains her underlying creative vision.
Popular with Haitian artists and singers, Pascale designs have been enthusiastically snapped up at fairs and around the world as word has spread. As well as promoting the brand through social media, a new website is in the offing to cater for international orders that can be shipped direct to the client. In the meantime, outlets in Haiti itself, where her accessories are available, include boutiques, galleries, shops, and of course, the atelier. At the ateleier, a number of local people are employed hand-crafting sandals, bags and other accessories.
Inspiration is everywhere
“Everything stimulates my creative side here,” says Pascale, “even in the street I watch how people are, their attitude, how they assemble things.” Her keen sense of observation helps to inform and transform her designs which have expanded in recent times to include creating an interior for a hotel that had previously used imported designs. “We appealed to the decorators not to import products from Mali and Bali when we could make Haitian-inspired designs instead, which is something people – especially visitors – would value more”, explained Pascale. She also works with and encourages local designers, artisans, and conceptual artists and these partnerships have led to other initiatives, such as installing traditional lanterns and sculptures in village streets, to enrich the sense of place.
Spending time and conversing with Pascale, it’s clear to see her enthusiasm and sense of mission to not only expand and grow her own successful enterprise but to raise the profile of what Haiti has to offer the world. With a determined and steely glint in her eyes, she expounds, “There is so much potential here. Haiti should be right up there and my contribution is in promoting and celebrating our culture. We don’t need just aid, we need work and our culture is what’s going to boost Haiti. We need to show that to the world, and if I can help in a small way, that’s fantastic!”