As a favorite of such hip young Hollywood celebs as Jessica Biel and Vanessa Hudgens, Los Angeles-based jewelry and fashion designer Chan Luu has built a thriving business based on ethical principles. So it was no surprise when representatives of the Bush/Clinton Haiti Fund approached her to develop a jewelry line manufactured by local artisans in the earthquake-ravaged country.
But Luu had a better idea.
"I'm not doing charity. My job is training them to create a sustainable income," she says.
With the help of the International Trade Centre, a joint operation between the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, she created a Chan Luu Ethical Fashion International division that markets bracelets, necklaces and earrings hand-made in Kenya, with colorful beads, and Haiti, using recycled paper. She launched the collection at a New York trade show in January and was surprised at the reaction. Jewelers bought 20,000 pieces in three days and "it's been continuously selling for three months," she says.
Last week Luu teamed with her good friend, J. Silver owner Jay Landa, to showcase the collection in a United States store for the first time. Luu holds a trunk show at the Rice Village location just before Mother's Day each year, since she considers Landa like part of her family, so they decided it would be a good idea to introduce the new line.
"I don't like to do a lot of trunk shows, but Jay gets what I do. He's almost like my second family," she says. "And I like Houston. Here, they say, 'What recession?' People have money and they want to do good things."
"I like Houston. Here, they say, 'What recession?' People have money and they want to do good things."
Luu admits the challenges of creating a collection in an impoverished nation are great. There is "zero infrastructure" in Haiti and she was appalled by the open sewage and poor living conditions in Haiti and Nairobi. The first batch of jewelry was of such poor quality she refused to sell it.
The items, which now maintain her high standards, reflect her design aesthetic at a lower price than her Chan Luu line. Unisex bracelets retail for around $28 (she says she sold 120 in one day during her trunk show at J. Silver) and the most expensive piece, a metal and paper-beaded necklace, is under $200. (The collection remains available at J. Silver.)
Several hundred workers make the bracelets in Africa and around 100 in Haiti. With guidance from the United Nations organizers, they are vendors who sell the pieces to Luu. She then markets them to more than 3,000 stores around the world.
Luu insists it's not a charity line, but a way to help bring sustainability to a developing country. "I make it very clear (to the workers). You have a business with me and that way you have sustainable commerce, so you have a sustainable life."
She is headed to Japan at the end of the month to speak about ethical fashion, but insists that anyone can get involved in creating a better world.
"A lot of people want to help," she says. "All you have to do is ask."
See Chan Luu's first visit to Africa: