Text by Roxane Cassehgari, Photos by Haruka Sakaguchi
January 30, 2016 Culture
— Issue 2
Paola Mathe likes to describe herself as a fairy. It is probably the best title one could use to avoid any unwanted assumptions and labels. In fact, she will tell you that she hates titles. She is a strong woman from Haiti and founder of Fanm Djanm, a lifestyle brand that is also an ode to women’s strength.
Under the brand’s name, she is selling head wraps made with beautiful African prints; but like you would expect from a fairy, she has magically managed to create more than a hairstyle product. They carry a message. Paola is at the forefront of a movement that connects women from around the world to affirm that they are all equally powerful and beautiful.
Where do you come from? Why did you move to New York?
I was born and grew up in Haiti. I came to the United States when I was 13. My family decided to come here in search of better opportunities. I was really excited because as a little girl, I always wanted to explore the world. Haiti is such a small place and I would always daydream of traveling. I thought that by being here in the States, I would increase my chances of seeing more of the world.
Since you were quite young, do you remember your first moments settling in the U.S?
I remember everything: going on a plane for the first time, how nervous and excited I was. I did my whole education in the U.S: high school, college and when I graduated, I immediately wanted to move to New York. I did it, and I have been living there for 6 years.
Do you remember if it was hard to fit in the U.S.?
I remember that I had to learn English, and that I was made fun of for not knowing the language. However, I never tried to change or fit in. I knew I was from the Caribbean and people would just have to accept me. I knew exactly what I wanted to be. At school, I always liked wearing bright colors and never really followed any fashion trend. For instance, back then, long hair was the cool thing and girls would wear extensions. One day I showed up with my hair shaved. Everyone was in shock. This is who I am. I like to take risks.
You are assertive when it comes to who you are. Is this a strength you acquired as result of migrating?
It is rather the result of many things. My strength comes from observing people. I am an observer more than a talker so I know how to deal with different types of people. My mum is also a strong person. She did not raise me in a conventional way. She never forced me to follow any particular professional career. From a very young age, I had a great sense of responsibility. I knew what I wanted and did what I wanted. With time I also learned that even if you are scared, you have to pursue your objectives. Soon you will realize it is not that bad and then you have that adrenaline rush that makes you want to do more.
What do you answer when people ask you, “where you are from”?
The first thing I tell people is that I am Paola and that I am from Haiti. That said, I don’t like titles. I know that I am a black woman, that I am Haitian, and that because of this, I have it harder. However, I don’t want people to only see me for these things. I want people to know and like (me) more for the things I do. In fact, I like to think of myself as a fairy. I love colors, I love to express myself, share stories, and I love to make people feel good-to know their story is also important.
In your blog, you mentioned that being in New York makes you feel closer to home. Where is home? and what do you mean by that?
New York is home for now. I think New York has been very welcoming of my personality. I would not have been able to be all I am and do all I have done had it not been for living in New York City. I say that I am from Haiti, but I will not deny that I am also American. In fact, living in the U.S, I have immersed myself in so many different cultures that I admire. I grew up with people from many backgrounds: Asian, Indian, African Americans, white Americans etc. My fiancé is white and from Vermont. This is New York, and this is also why I hate labels. When I started doing the African head wraps, my dad asked me if I had become African. I responded “Haitian were always Africans!” At the same time, I never said “I am Haitian, so I am only to hang out with Haitians”. Beyond stereotypes, what interests me is people’s stories and knowing them for who they are. In this perspective, New York is home because it made me grow as an individual.
What I meant on my blog is that being in the U.S grew my love for Haiti. When I was there, all I wanted was to get out. I was not miserable. I had a huge family house and I went to a private school. I had a good life, but it was suffocating because I did not know anything else. I used to look up in the sky and think of the world out there. When I was finally in the U.S and got to college, I wanted to write an essay on Haitian literature. I went to the library and there was nothing about Haiti but instead, a lot of books on Cuba. Haiti has such a rich culture, I felt that was not acceptable. So I bought books online myself and this is when it hit me. I told myself I had to go back. I had the chance to go back for the first time as an adult with a non-profit organization and I recognized all about the country. I loved it.
Did you feel you belonged when you went back to Haiti?
When I was there as a kid I never felt that I belonged, but when I went back, I felt Haitian. People would still ask me where I was from and they would ask me about my head wraps. I did not mind it. I don’t think it made me feel less Haitian. I want to go back more often. I want to tell people about my culture, and I want some of the stuff I sell made there.
Is your cultural heritage part of the reason you have become a business entrepreneur?
Every Haitian who left Haiti left for better opportunities and a better life, but everyone is proud of where they are from and want to go back- They just don’t have that chance. Life in Haiti would be much harder and much less comfortable (for many). Haitians end up staying abroad longer so they can one day go back, or grant their children that opportunity. I don’t want to go back right now either, but in the meantime, I want to show the world other sides of Haiti than what we see generally in the news. I have named my business “Fanm Djanm” which means “strong woman” in Haitian Creole because I wanted people to ask what it meant. It is like putting a Haitian flag out there. Now people who are not Haitians are pronouncing it. This makes me really happy. It is very different than wearing a T-shirt that says Haiti. I want this to be an opportunity to tell people about Haiti and show Haitian talents. Through Fanm Djanm, I have, for example, the chance to showcase so many Haitian talents: creators, artists, musicians etc.
Can you tell us a bit more about the story behind the head wraps you sell?
I launched the brand last year, and started by selling 8 head wraps made of African prints. An African head wrap is such a powerful statement when you wear it. However, it is important to remember it is not a trend. It is a way of living for a lot of women of color around the world. In Haiti, women who tie their hair come from the working class. When I thought of Fanm Djanm, they are the first people I thought of. I started the line knowing that when you tie your hair, you are considered poor and uneducated. I wanted to celebrate these women. Even in the U.S, in New Orleans, black women used to be told to tie their hair in order to hide it. They started to wear it lavishly in protest. I had to read a lot of stories like these to make sure I respected all of the different meanings behind the head wraps. People would also say “it is bad because it is African”, but in Africa, the more luxurious the head wrap, the better. It gives women a sense of pride. The head wrap is, for me, a way to say “We are strong women”, wherever we are from. I don’t have a problem with women from other races buying the head wraps, but I like people to know the story. I want to give credit to these black women. I don’t want people to say Paola Mathe invented it. Neither do I want people to think I made it better. I just took all of these different stories and revived their meaning.
Fanm Djanm seems more like a message than a product. Did you initially envision this when you started the brand?
I started Fanm Djanm as an online business and I now have a store where I meet people on appointment. To me, buying a head wrap must be an experience that matters. I always chit-chat with my customers. I want to know about their story. I have African women, who wear traditional head wraps, ask me to teach them how to tie it. I have a customer who is an attorney and wears her head wrap in court! Recently, girls from Malaysia added my shop as one of their suggested destinations in New York on their blog. I had a woman from Rwanda send a friend to my store to buy a head wrap although she could have found these African prints anywhere else. I never expected any of this. I wanted to do something around Haiti and now it is beyond that. People would now reach out to find out more about the story than the products I sell.
Fanm Djanm is, in fact, more than just selling products, it is a sisterhood. It is about connecting women from all over the world. It is also a way for me to celebrate all these beautiful Haitian women and show their talents. I love to see women striving and doing things. I think that too often we are put against one another. I want to show that I can be you and that you can be me.
How is the process of designing and manufacturing the headwraps like?
I create all the designs. The fabric is imported from local businesses in West Africa and everything is manufactured in Harlem. I do not want anything to be mass-produced, so this is why, at first,I only had 8 head wraps. I like the idea of a slow process and knowing where everything comes from. Nothing feels better than wearing something and knowing where it comes from. So, eventually, I want to be more involved in the making process, and even dye my own fabrics. I would love to make things in Haiti.
I am also designing jewelry in collaboration with artists. I am hand-picking some stuff that I know would go with the head wraps. As beautiful as they are, head wraps can be quite intimidating, and I don’t want to force a head wrap on anyone. Some people would, for example, only buy the jewelry. I also have clothes, skirts, tops etc. In addition to the African prints, I have other prints. Eventually I would love to sell other creator’s products.
What are your style influences?
It is a mixture of things. I like vintage, retro. I like African prints, colors, and testing textures. Sometimes I mix all of these, or just pick one that I can focus on. I like taking risks in style, It does not have to be trendy. I like matching pieces that are not conventional. Comfort is also important. I need to be able to do kicks and back bends. I design my head wraps in a way that you don’t need any pins, and you can manipulate it in different ways with no difficulty. I also love older women’s style and love walking through the streets to see what they have put together – they have confidence, they don’t care. They are fairies, too.
What I like, in style, is that people (become) curious and ask about my style. I like that style can create interactions, even when unspoken.
You are, in fact, a social entrepreneur, but it seems that this happened almost by accident. What was your journey leading up to Fanm Djanm?
I majored in economics with a focus on third world development. After I graduated, I moved to New York. Soon I was juggling three jobs at a time. I worked as a research assistant at the Columbia medical center, a hostess in a Tribeca restaurant, and a front desk agent at a hotel. I started doing projects on the side, like my blog (Finding Paola). I also started this project with a friend called “Jump File”. I would jump in front of attractions in New York for no reason. The General manager of the hotel I was working at found out about it. She decided to use it as the hotel’s social media campaign and offered me a promotion. I learned a lot with this boss and I had a great team. After a while, I told her I wanted to build my own personal brand and I quit. It took me a while to get started, though. Before Fanm Djanm, I was a server (again), and then helped run two restaurants in Harlem. I did not know how to start, but I knew I wanted to express myself. I needed to find a way to get there. I quit my last day job in March 2014 and started my head wrap company.
Since I started Fanm Djanm, every moment has been a learning process. I got an order within the first minute I launched the online store. I had not thought of the packaging or how to ship it. I started to cry, but these were tears of joy, of being overwhelmed. When I first left my day job, I wondered how I would fill in the days, and now they are packed and there is so much happening. Building Fanm Djanm has become a whole lifestyle. I make head wraps, but it does not have to stop there. I can create stories. Every day, I get inspired to do more, but (right) now it is about taking one step at a time.
What is the next step then?
Fanm Djanm will be around for a while. I don’t know if I will make head wraps forever, but I know I want to start making things from scratch. The problem is that the product will be more expensive, but I still think it is important to make things that have value and will last forever. I want to make my own prints – handprints and digital prints. I want artists to benefit in a way from my business, so I want more collaborations. I want to explore different textures, silk perhaps. I also definitely want to create jobs in Haiti, and I want to keep using local things. I do my prints in Harlem because I like the human interactions with business owners. I hope to keep doing a portion of all of these things in a couple of years. I also have this beautiful place in the store, and I am thinking of making some Haitian coffee at some point to create a whole Fanm Djanm experience. Very importantly, I want to inspire women to start their own project, to tell their stories.