The Strength of a Haitian Fashion Icon
Name: Marie Therese Hilaire
Occupation: Designer/Owner of Rapadou Boutique
FD: Where are you from in Haiti?
MTH: I'm from Jeremie. A town in the south of Haiti.
FD: Tell us about your travels and how you started in fashion.
MTH: For years, I worked as a beauty consultant in the Virgin Islands. And that's when I started with my creativity. On my lunch hour, people would ask me to go shopping for them since they liked the way I dressed. I would go to all the different stores, and of course they knew me because I used to shop everywhere! I started to personal shop for others, even if their style wasn't necessarily mine. I could accommodate everyone to make them look their best. And I have a sister, she has STYLE! She just had a way of putting everything together. I also looked up to others as inspiration. I remember this German lady in St. Thomas, her name was Elfie. She had everything. It was the jewelry, the linen, the height. She was gorgeous. I looked up to her. And I started looking at other people's personal styles everywhere I went. I would compliment a random woman whose style I loved walking the streets of Haiti, and she would look at me as if I'm strange. But I think you have to acknowledge beauty in every way, and encourage people.
FD: Where did you go after the Virgin Islands?
MTH: I came back to Haiti because I wanted a Haitian child. I married a Haitian man, and I have a beautiful daughter named Talissa. I came back to Haiti and opened my store. One of the best advice that I've ever had was from my husband. He once came to my shop and started to look at the clothes. Then he asked me, "Would you wear these?" I replied, "Sure I would!" He then immediately responded, "When? I think you should make clothes that YOU would wear, and that you would enjoy wearing." I followed his advice, and I am where I am today. Far from "rich" but my dear, I have a wonderful career.
FD: How has your traveling molded your view of Haiti now?
MTH: Well, Haiti is like they say in Kreyol, "Lakay se lakay." (Home is home.) I don't think I ever would've been able to do what I do if I hadn't been back home. Because it was the hard time, and the political turmoils that kind of motivated me to create. Looking at the people in the streets wearing their thrifts, the way they put it together. The color schemes. I'm attracted to colors! That's how I got into painting on fabric because I can put together some very unusual colors and make them work. Some of the clientele doesn't quite understand it, but for me, it makes a lot of sense.
FD: When was the first time you painted on fabric? Do you remember?
MTH: Again, the difficult times. You're locked in to your house for a week, and can't go anywhere. You have the fabric. You have the paint. You call on to your spirits and let them speak to you. I think it's the same way I get my ideas. They usually come before I wake up. I get the idea, I wake up, go look for the fabric, and start playing with it. That's how I have my whole line of wraps! I would go to the fabric store, and if I found something that I loved, I would hug it. And from the hugging it, I would feel, and crinkle it up. From there, I let my imagination run with it. When I get home, I lay everything on the floor, put on some nice music, and of course my glass of wine, and then we play!
FD: Have you been to the US?
MTH: Yes! I've lived there for 18 years. New York City. There's an energy in New York that's just amazing. Even though I never got into the "nitty gritty" of New York because I was living with my parents and studying. Once, I finished, I came back to Haiti. I just like to stand back on a wall somewhere, and just watch New York's energy from afar. It's amazing. That's where so many people have their own individual style: from funky to chic, but the blend is wonderful.
FD: Can you tell us about a difficult time in your life?
MTH: There have been quite a few difficult times in my life. One of them was leaving Haiti to move to the States when I was thirteen as result of a massacre in my home town. The difficult times in Haiti really took a toll on me. And, about six years ago, I had a battle with cancer. I don't like the expression, "cancer free", but I did my treatment, and now I am well. Thank God. I think positively. I eat well. And, I'm keeping a positive attitude. I think that's all you can do.
FD: How has the massacre in your home town affected you? Do you still think about it?
MTH: Of course I do. It's not something you ever forget because it still happens. Not in such a large scale, but there is still lots of things happening in Haiti that are just not very pleasant.
Haiti is rich in so many ways. It's a very complex place. You can't understand it. You can't judge it. You can't define it. You can't expect it to be another place. Haiti is Haiti. And you'll love it because it's home. There's the smell of coffee in the morning. The sounds of the people chatting. The kids studying under soft light. There's so much! You know? Every Haitian who is away misses home, and hopes to return one day.
FD: Would you recommend moving back?
MTH: No, I would not. I think they should come and visit. Visit as often as they can to see how they feel about it. Then, if they want to take the plunge, then I'd welcome them with open arms. But they shouldn't expect it to be America or Europe. What it is, is what it is. And most of all, they shouldn't complain because complaining doesn't change anything about the place. There are problems with water, electricity, traffic, and so on. I believe this government is doing what they can. And from what I've seen they've done more than any of the previous ones. But they're not miracle workers either.
FD: What gets you excited...
FD: What keeps the excitement going with what you do as a designer/shop owner?
MTH: There are ups and downs. The other day this lady told me that life is like the waves, and it goes up and down. It's true. I'm a very creative person, which means that I crash often. And when I crash is when I get creative. My highs are getting dressed up, and traveling. I love the beach, reading, music. I like people with a story to tell- with depth, and who are real. I think I'm on a journey. I'm lucky to have met a lot of people. Some of them I've left behind. Some of them, I'll meet further up the road. I think I'm on the right path. And I'm excited to be alive. And I'm excited about my husband, my daughter, and all of the people who mean a lot to me.
FD: We already know that you're a fanm djanm, which is why you're being featured. Can you tell us in your own words, what makes you a fanm djanm?
MTH: Fanm djanm? I don't think I should say that I'm one. I don't think I should talk about being one. I think I should be acknowledged as one.
FD: What do you think other people would say when they're acknowledging you as a fanm djanm?
MTH: Some would agree and shout, "of course she's one!" And others would say, "Sa li gentan gen la?" (Since when? What's gives her the right?) *Laughter* And you have to laugh. You cannot take yourself too seriously.
FD: Any other words?
MTH: I want to thank Paola! For being such an inspiration, and for waking me up because I was dormant for the last couple of months. And it's a delight to have met her. I will be looking and cheering her on.