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Rainy Day Woman: The Designer Who Gives New Life to Old Umbrellas
Catherine Edouard Charlot's Brooklyn studio contains a lot of the things you'd expect to see in a designer's workspace: bright spools of thread, stacked copies of Women's Wear Daily, a collage of magazine photos tacked to a bulletin board. Then there are the 691 umbrellas. Stuffed in bins and strewn in piles on every surface, they range from black nylon throwaways to delicate floral parasols. Many are half-dissected, their fabric snipped from its wire skeleton, awaiting transformation into one-of-a-kind raincoats, totes, and Audrey Hepburn–inspired sheath dresses for Charlot's unconventional fashion line.
Charlot, 46, calls her designs "upcycled" (a term popularized by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their seminal 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle), which means they're not just recycled but made more valuable in the process. In addition to discarded umbrellas (Wall Street is a rich hunting ground), she uses old upholstery, canvas, even yoga mats.
The idea struck her during a rain-soaked commute in 2002. She'd moved to New York in 1994 from her native Haiti, and worked administrative jobs while taking a class at the Fashion Institute of Technology (she'd learned to sew at age 13 in Port-au-Prince). When she couldn't find a waterproof bag, Charlot made one out of an old umbrella. The gray plaid tote was so eye-catching, it inspired her to launch her business, Himane, in 2004 (naming it for her mother back in Haiti).
These days Charlot sells leather clutches and canvas bags at boutiques around New York—but still carries that original plaid tote, frayed seams and all. "I hate to throw things away," she says. "I can't."