Artisan Vanessa Winston’s Story of Courage

Commonwealth Fashion Exchange artisan Vanessa Winston, whose home was tragically destroyed by Hurricane Maria, is the subject of a new fundraising campaign:

When a devastating natural disaster destroyed Vanessa Winston’s home, it also threatened to take away her livelihood. The president of the Dominica Arts and Crafts Producers Association was one of the talented artisans that took part in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange Project, exchanging with designer Meiling of Trinidad & Tobego to create a bespoke butterfly-inspired look.  But shortly before receiving the invitation to participate in the project, Hurricane Maria struck Dominica.

Hurricane Maria was the worst natural disaster ever to hit Dominica – reaching Category 5 strength before hitting the island where it wreaked catastrophic damage. The home Vanessa shared with her four children was destroyed in the storm, with only her craft workshop still standing – despite being under 5 feet of dirt and water. “On the morning of the aftermath I walked down to check my shop. That was the time my heart just totally ripped apart. All my life’s work and craft were destroyed. My only means of income, gone,” said Vanessa.

Vanessa clearing the ruins of her shop

The family sheltered in the workshop for weeks, with Vanessa salvaging what she could from the muddy floodwaters so that eventually she would be able to resume her business and maintain some income, which as a single mother of four children was imperative. “I am a single mother of four, and my only means of income is my craft,” said Vanessa. “I have to figure out, now my home is destroyed and we have lost everything, how do we build back?

“I just wanted to save – to save all that I possibly could. My tools were financially irreplaceable, and I knew that the most important thing was to keep my income and craft alive. My children were traumatised and I knew I needed to provide them shelter and security – so I grabbed hammers and found whatever I could.”

Vanessa and her four children

Despite the challenges she was facing, Vanessa joined The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange.  Launched by Commonwealth Secretary General the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland and Livia Firth, the Fashion Exchange showcases the wealth of design and artisan fashion talent across the Commonwealth – using fashion as a thread that connects and unlocks the potential of artisan fashion trades to positively impact female empowerment and reduce poverty. 

For the project, Vanessa created an intricate leather corset belt decorated with butterflies that was worn with the hand-embroidered gown of organdie, silk and leather and trousers made from upcycled Indian fabric that Meiling had designed. The look is currently available for purchase on MATCHESFASHION.COM.

In February, just 5 months after Hurricane Maria struck, Vanessa and Meiling travelled from the Carribbean to Buckingham Palace in London, where their look was showcased. 

Vanessa at the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange Launch at Buckingham Palace

Now a year after the hurricane, Vanessa and her family are still facing uncertainty.  In the aftermath of Maria, Vanessa had made the difficult decision to send her children to safety in Barbados. They returned home to their mother 10 months later in July 2018, but unfortunately their home had still not been rebuilt.  A gofundme page, on which you can read Vanessa’s inspiring story of survival, has now been set up to help the family, who are still homeless and have received no financial help to rebuild their home.

“One of the things about being a creative designer, mother and entrepreneur, is that I have the opportunity to use my creativity as a means of income for myself and my children, and to be a stable mum,” said Vanessa. “They are my catalyst. They are what drives me to continue; to be determined; to be motivated.”

To support Vanessa to rebuild her home, donate via Gofundme.

Watch the film below for more details of Vanessa’s story of courage. Produced by filmmaker Georjie.