She said the tote bag and other similar fashion and decorative items made by Haitian artisans are part of her "dressing and addressing people" campaign: taking art to where the most people will buy it.
"A painting can say anything, but let's get it out there in the world where people buy T-shirts," Karan said at the opening of a Little Haiti Cultural Center exhibition of art, accessories and furnishings produced by artisans in Haiti and sold through Karan's Urban Zen Foundation.
It's no charity craft fair. The items artfully displayed in the Miami gallery would sell in any mainstream home furnishings store. What sets them apart is their origin: handmade in Haiti from stone, wood, metals and textiles sourced or repurposed in the Caribbean country.
Tobacco leaves are molded into neutrally colored vases. Strings of crystals dangle from wrought-iron chandeliers. Naughty, charming, seahorse-shaped figures cut from tires strut in lines across a wall.
Discarded cartons and wrappers have been coiled into beads for multi-strand, statement necklaces. Fully functional tote bags are made from recycled cotton T-shirts or paper mache ("It's so durable, it's scary," Karan said).
The exhibition also includes oversized metal work by contemporary Haitian artist Philippe Dodard. He also is the director of Haiti's national arts school and is working with Karan to train Haitian artisans with techniques that will help them bring their traditional skills to a global marketplace.
"What we have to do is give them the tools to produce a product that is equal to their competition. That doesn't mean factory. That means artisanal," Karan said.
Karan started her Urban Zen Foundation after the death of her husband in 2001. A Haitian employee at the foundation urged her to turn her focus to the Caribbean country after Haiti was devastated by an earthquake three years ago.
Karan is among the designers, celebrities and retailers who have advocated for Haitian artisans amid ongoing, sputtering reconstruction efforts. Many of the artisans lost tools, studios, homes and loved ones in the earthquake.
"She understands what we as a people, what we as a government, want to do with our art: show the world the riches of Haiti and commercialize it," said Haiti's consul general in Miami, Francois Guillaume. "But, we don't want to lose our identity. We don't want to lose whatever it is that makes Donna Karan like Haiti that much."
The "Discover Haiti Exhibition" will run at the Little Haiti Cultural Center for two months.