Connecting the pieces: Haitian handicrafts meet high fashion at Mi Ossa

Mi Ossa studio sources its craft materials from Haiti, El Salvador, Ethiopia and other countries, to create unique, fashionable jewelry and accessories in a thoughtful way. Photo: Mi Ossa Studio Mi Ossa studio sources its craft materials from Haiti, El Salvador, Ethiopia and other countries, to create unique, fashionable jewelry and accessories in a thoughtful way. Photo: Mi Ossa Studio

There’s plenty of artisanal food in Charlottesville, so we were just trying to find out what was missing,” jokes Shannon Worrell. Together with Nora Brookfield, Worrell is co-founder of Mi Ossa, a design lab and fashion line that’s located in Charlottesville’s Tenth Street Warehouse. Their business model focuses on fair trade and environmentally friendly ways to design and create textiles, jewelry and other accessories that are handmade yet high fashion.

Featuring pieces primarily made of recycled metal, leather, horn, bone and papier mâché, Mi Ossa embraces an aesthetic that strikes a balance between haute couture and bohemian craftsmanship. In a way, this signature look reflects the business model. A collaborative effort, Mi Ossa works with local artists as well as suppliers from around the world to create its original designs, some of which are further embellished in the studio on Tenth Street.

“There’s this kind of movement to incorporate handmade elements into fashion objects because it makes them luxurious because they’re not mass-produced,” says Worrell. This, she explains, is slow-fashion, the clothing and accessories version of the slow-food movement. Slow-fashion producers invest more in the well-being of the artisans and craftspeople making the goods, as well as the environmental impact of their products.

The idea for the business came from an unexpected inspiration: time spent on construction sites in Haiti. A few years ago, both Worrell and Brookfield volunteered with a Building Goodness Foundation initiative to construct new housing for Haitians who lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake. (In full disclosure, this writer is an employee of the Building Goodness Foundation.) “We’d gone on separate build trips with BGF, and we just wanted to go down there and find something that we could do to help,” says Worrell. “We’re not doctors or architects, so we thought we could go back and figure out how to link together the creative people in Haiti.” The rich traditional art in Haiti provided the entry point they sought.

Mi Ossa set up shop about three and a half years ago. Since then, the business has evolved and grown—sometimes out of creative inspiration, sometimes out of necessity. “We’ve had to make stuff out of the materials we could get,” says Worrell. “We were never going to have everything made in Haiti. We wanted to bring back stuff and make stuff so that it was a collaboration in a way. You have to be willing to improvise. The materials are so elemental that you can make a shovel or a ring out of [one thing], a letter opener or a necklace.”

Most of the materials come from Haiti, El Salvador, Ethiopia and other countries. Worrell and Brookfield primarily source the materials by working with the Hand/Eye Foundation, which, according to Worrell, focuses on “connecting artisans to the world market.” They also work closely with the Artisan Business Network in Haiti and have close ties with Building Goodness Foundation to strengthen Mi Ossa’s relationships outside of the United States. “It’s such an incredible thing that BGF is doing, building homes for people, but [Haitians] need jobs to sustain those homes,” says Brookfield. “We have an interest in working with women artisans and women-owned cooperatives. They’ve done research that shows when women earn an income, communities thrive and they put [the money] back into the community.”

Mi Ossa’s Charlottesville lab is having a similar effect on local artisans. The studio has evolved into something verging on a maker space. Participants work part-time in the studio, crafting and embellishing many of the pieces in the Mi Ossa line as well as creating their own original work. A recent addition to the space is Jess Lee, who hand-dyes and sews textiles under the name Willow Knows. This Saturday, Lee will share some of her skills during a demonstration in Japanese-style shibori dyeing and other techniques to create one-of-a-kind indigo bandanas. “It’s so neat that you can make something but then you can see how she does it herself,” says Brookfield. “You just have a deeper appreciation for that process that she’s going through when you’ve done it yourself.”

As Mi Ossa brings awareness to a more ethical approach to fashion, the business also seeks to expand its offerings of hands-on experiences like this. “That connection to what you’re eating or wearing or buying is so important,” says Worrell. “In the 20th century we’ve gotten so disconnected from the source of everything we buy. And I think people just really crave being connected.”

Ordinarily open only by appointment, the Mi Ossa lab space is open to the public during the annual summer’s end sale through September 19 at the Tenth Street Warehouse (134 10th St. NW.). The indigo dyeing demonstration with Lee takes place on September 19. To reserve a place in the workshop, please e-mail nora@miossa.com.

What local artists contribute to the slow-fashion movement?

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