By MARTIN DeANGELIS Staff Writer
Albert Semerville has several different places in his life story — his native Haiti, his old life in New York, and for the last 10 years or so, his family’s home in Egg Harbor Township.
He also has several different lives in his life story. He was a radio broadcaster and magazine writer back in Haiti, a job that ran him afoul of the country’s notorious “Baby Doc” Duvalier regime. And after Semerville’s radio station was raided and shut down, he realized that he should get out of the country while he could still walk away.
Semerville also taught French and was active in theater in Haiti, but he moved into computers, working in and teaching information systems when he came to the United States about 30 years ago and settled in New York. But some of his oldest memories in life are of seeing neighbors and friends come to his childhood home to be measured by his mother and father — then seeing his parents’ talents translated into beautiful clothing they created by hand for their personal clients.
Then there’s his work as an advocate for Haiti, the country that still hasn’t recovered from the devastation of its 2010 earthquake. Semerville has tried to raise money for and interest in building quality, affordable housing in his homeland through a pair of organizations he founded, Rebuild Haiti Better and Haiti Fresh Start.
And all those places and lives and missions show up in Semerville’s latest venture, a business he recently started to sell high-end women’s scarves inspired by the culture and beauty of Haiti. To the owner, the company he calls Vevelle doesn’t just make clothes. It makes art — that just happens to be wearable.
Art has a price, too. On his web site, Vevelle.com, the scarves start at $140 and go up to $165.
“It’s luxury silk, and silk is very expensive,” says Semerville, who showed off a selection of his scarves recently to some visitors to his home, with help from his 26-year-old son and star “stylist,” Donald.
Also, Vevelle is having its products made in Italy and France, where labor costs are high — but so is the quality of the workmanship.
“France and Italy are the powerhouses in terms of scarves,” said Semerville, who still has plenty of Haiti and its official French language in his accent. He’d like to get some of his goods made in America, but “the U.S. is not there yet” in producing the quality he needs for his brand.
The Vevelle founder also notes that in the level of the market where he wants his products to live, $140 or $165 for a scarf is no cause for sticker shock. And an online search for “luxury silk scarves” actually turns up retail prices of Alexander McQueen scarves at $555 apiece. Then there are scarves by Cartier, where the price tag starts at $330 — and runs up past $1,100.
But no matter where Semerville has his clothes — or art — made, the inspiration comes straight out of Haiti and the Caribbean.
“It’s not just a design,” he said, pulling out a scarf based around the sacred sun symbol of the Taino Indians, the original inhabitants of Haiti. “It’s a design with a story.”
And he clearly enjoys telling the story behind each scarf. Take “Peacock’s Exuberance,” which highlights a bird that’s revered and relatively common in Haiti — and that Semerville occasionally, almost shockingly sees parading around an odd corner of Egg Harbor Township. Then there is his “Papillons de la Saint-Jean” design, featuring brilliant butterflies in flight on a Haitian holiday when butterflies are usually abundant.
When it comes to “Mermaid’s Dream,” Semerville says mermaids are a popular subject of myth and legend in Haiti — so popular, he had his mermaids created in several races, to appeal to clients of all shades. But he also knows those myths go well beyond the borders of his homeland, or any country.
“The mermaid is not a Haitian story, it’s not a Puerto Rican story,” he said. “It’s universal.”
So is the love of beauty — “You’re buying art now,” Semerville says, delineating the details of another design. “If you want to frame it, go ahead and frame it.”
The stories unfold as the scarves do, and Vevelle hopes next year to be able to use money from these Haitian creations to help Haiti.
Semerville makes it clear that his brand-new company hasn’t donated any money yet, but when he starts selling more, he plans to start giving some to causes close to his heart and home, including housing for Haiti. He also wants to do good locally, by making contributions to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s southern branch, in Egg Harbor Township.
John Rosser knows the Vevelle founder through Sustainatopia, “One of largest conferences in the world for social, environmental and financial sustainability,” as Rosser explains it.
He organizes the annual event and Semerville has been a speaker several times, mainly on land and housing issues in Haiti. Semerville will be on a panel for next year’s conference in Los Angeles, and Rosser said it was no shock to him when he heard that his Haitian housing advocate had stepped into the luxury-scarf market.
“In our research in Haiti, Al’s name name came up in more than one place,” Rosser said by phone. “We could tell by the people he was working with and his associations there that he was doing good work, and the reviews have been good on his speaking.”
Next May, Semerville plans to speak again about Haiti in California — and to show and sell some of his new scarves.
“Anyone who works in Haiti, you have to become particularly entrepreneurial, because things don’t work well in Haiti,” Rosser said. “With the creativity you need to be a successful entrepreneur there, it doesn’t surprise me he would take that background and do something else with it. Doing anything in Haiti is so challenging, you develop a kind of confidence and thick skin if you’re successful there. ... It’s a good training ground for anyone who wants to be entrepreneur.”
And that was Semerville’s training ground — or one of them. He’s had several, and he keeps learning, living now on a peaceful, quiet, low-speed street in a suburb of Atlantic City.
“But I’m going 100 miles an hour in terms of ideas,” as Semerville told a visitor, still showing off the scarves that are his latest idea.
Photographer: Michael Ein
Albert Semerville poses with his newly launched scarf line called VèVèlle /vɛ.vɛl/ in his Egg Harbor Township home, Wednesday Dec. 10, 2014. The Italian made, Haitian themed fine silk scarves are sold on his website.
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