Garoute, who learnt all about the garment industry working as a buyer for a U.S. department store, and his long-time business partner, Jean Robert Lebrun, a former banker and clothing manufacturer, run INDEPCO (an acronym for Institut National pour le Développment et la Promotion de la Couture, French for National Institute for the Development and Promotion of Fashion).
Founded in 1992 as a non-profit, INDEPCO wears many hats. Fundamentally, it is a network of hundreds of ateliers, small workshops that produce clothing and other sewn goods for local and foreign clients. The organization pools orders, buys material in bulk, cuts fabric and distributes work among ateliers, helping them achieve economies of scale even though most have fewer than 10 sewing machines. With 600 members in 32 cities, INDEPCO also gives a voice to small businesses in Haiti’s garment sector, where large companies often have thousands of employees.
INDEPCO is also a training institute dedicated to upgrading the skills of atelier owners, supervisors and workers, giving them tools to climb up the textile value chain. That is what Vietnam did, Garoute assures, obtaining technical assistance from France to build a formidable garment industry.
However, to reach that stage, Haiti must overcome many obstacles. The 2010 earthquake destroyed entire factories, killed countless workers and crippled the country’s economy. One of INDEPCO’s buildings in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Delmas collapsed, crushing much of its equipment. A second building suffered major damage, and looters took whatever they could find among the rubble.
Back in business
INDEPCO managed to rescue some equipment, including several old but dependable industrial sewing machines. One week after the quake, they reopened for business in a shed belonging to a neighboring school furniture manufacturer. The first big order, for thousands of vests, came from Digicel, Haiti’s leading mobile communications provider. That request allowed dozens of INDEPCO members to get back to work.
Shortly after, the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), which had supported INDEPCO in 1999 with a $370,000 grant for a three-year institutional strengthening program, approved $180,000 in emergency funds to help them replace lost equipment and rent a new plant.
“From past experiences with natural disasters, we knew that one the best things we could do was to help Haiti get people back to work as quickly as possible,” said MIF senior specialist Maria Teresa Villanueva, who coordinated the agency’s earthquake response.
To that end, the MIF approved over $1.8 million in emergency grants to local organizations and other partners with which it has worked over the years in Haiti, including some of the leading microfinance institutions.
The MIF also connected INDEPCO with the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which in July made a $245,000 grant for working capital and to help them recondition and rewire their new 13,000 sq ft plant, where they were able to accommodate some members who had lost their workshops.
And in recognition for Garoute’s efforts on behalf of INDEPCO’s members since the earthquake, in January Digicel named him Haitian Entrepreneur of the Year.
From its new, more spacious facility close to Port-au-Prince’s airport, INDEPCO hopes to expand beyond the local market for government, corporate and school uniforms. With an eye on niche markets, it is training more members in beading and embroidering items from clothing to placemats, computer cases and handbags.
“Besides the big retail chains, the United States has a huge market of boutique stores that aren’t interested in carrying the same items as department stores. That’s the segment we have to go for,” says Garoute, who as a younger man imported Brazilian beachwear and lingerie to the United States following exactly that line of reasoning.
In his vision, Haiti must graduate from assembling low-cost items for foreign buyers to a stage where local companies can design, cut, sew, finish, pack and sell clothing, reaping a greater portion of product value.
To achieve that goal, INDEPCO seeks to build on Haiti’s sewing tradition. For as long as Garoute and Lebrun can remember, Haitians without prospects of becoming lawyers, doctors, teachers or engineers learned how to sew. Therefore, there are potentially hundreds of thousands of people with basic skills to work in the textile industry. The challenge is taking their abilities from an artisanal level to an industrial one.
INDEPCO assists its members in the process, training them in the techniques of mass production and quality control so they can participate in filling large volume orders punctually. “Even if they aren’t using industrial equipment, they are using industrial techniques to keep down costs and ensure standardized quality, which you can’t do if you make pieces one by one,” says Lebrun.
Garoute feels strongly that Haitians are not taking full advantage of their creative talent to produce fashion. “Couture is art, and we have always been good at art. But we have never translated it into fashion,” he says.
A key aspect of INDEPCO’s mission is to build up members’ confidence. Garoute, who attended New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, travels around Haiti to hold assemblies with hundreds of participants. “You’re no different from Pierre Cardin or Calvin Klein,” he tells them. “They’re all tailors, just like you!”
Lebrun prefers a pull-yourselves-up-by-your-own-bootstraps message: INDEPCO will help its members if they help themselves. “There’s business in your own city, so go out there and get it, or someone else will take it,” he says.
The partners also have diverging opinions on the issue of imported second-hand clothing, which literally lines the streets of every Haitian town. “The true industry of this country has been left alone to fend against a flood of cheap clothes donated by well-meaning people,” Garoute rails. Lebrun, noting that thousands upon thousands of poor Haitians sell used garments for a living, says ateliers should ride the tide: “These are damaged goods, but you can repair or improve them, and sell them at your own stores.”
Looking to the future, INDEPCO aspires to become a federation with business hubs in every major Haitian city, providing services to clusters of ateliers around the country. “It would also help decentralize an industry that’s concentrated in Port-au-Prince,” says Lebrun. “If people in Gonaïves use uniforms, why do they have to be made in the capital?”
Garoute describes their dream in grander terms: “If we succeed, we could be starting a silent economic revolution, linking thousands of small businesses to major markets.”