Our Folklore: Entrepreneur Paola Mathé On Building Strong Brands & Community
Creative Director Paola Mathé's makes products for strong women. Her headwrap brand Fanm Djanm, which means "strong women" in Haitian Creole, is a reflection of the company's mission to celebrate sisterhood, self-love, strength, and freedom. Recognizing that no two women are alike, Mathé strives to design headwraps for any and every woman. From bright and bold patterns to subtle and elegant hues, each wrap conveys a different story, and each story carries with it, it's own sense of strength.
In the early 2000s, when Mathé had just immigrated from Haiti to the U.S., head wraps were salvaged from fast fashion scarves or leftover fabrics. They were something some women in America wore out of necessity, not preference. In 2014, Mathé, noticing the lack of fashionable African headwraps, decided to design and sell her own. Despite lacking fancy production tools or financial backers, she rented a table at a local Harlem market, hoping to sell two headwraps to break even on her table investment. It wasn't until she was sending her boyfriend––now husband––to grab more scarves from her apartment after selling out, that she realized her potential.
Soon after her market success, Mathé rented out her own corner of a store in New York. She continued to design, craft, and sell her artfully crafted head wraps online. Concurrently, Mathé's blog Finding Paola, which she started in 2009, grew in popularity. The success of the blog ensured that the story of Mathé's perseverance and personal touch remained intimately connected to her pieces. This personal touch also helped her build an engaged community both on her personal Instagram and the brand's Instagram. Within six years, she went from having a few hundred followers across both platforms to having over 300,000 followers combined.
Paola's interest in weaving the opposite ends of the color spectrum through her wraps is inspired by the colors that surrounded her as a child growing up in Haiti. Pink oleander, hibiscus, and passion fruit blossom throughout the country and throughout Paola's patterned fabrics, photographs, and favorite inspirational quotes. Just as flowers come in all colors and shapes, so do the Fanm Djanm headwraps. The variety of shapes lend themselves to a plethora of different styles of tying. One wrap combines a striking red background with white poppies, while another wrap exudes elegance and subtlety through dark silk.
Beyond a brand, Fanm Djanm is the story of a Haitian-born woman finding success by letting her colorful persona speak through her work. Her pieces exude personality and warmth, and every purchase honors the culture from which the headwraps were born. Whether it be Paola's photography or her accessories, her personal touch results in one of a kind, magnetic art. Her effervescent pieces allow their wearers to experience the attention and adoration of the flowers blooming along the Haitian mountainsides.
Listen to episode ten of 'Our Folklore' featuring an interview with Paola Mathé. Available now on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Google Play. Find excerpts from the interview below.
When I first came up with it, it was a headwrap collection. It started with eight prints and the idea was to celebrate strong women. Everything that I do, I feel like I need to have a message about it. It was at the time where you didn't shop for headwraps. If you wrapped your head, you just had a collection of scarves - H&M scarves or whatever it is you could find or you just used plain old fabric leftovers. At that time when I lived in Harlem I was managing two restaurants and I was known as 'the tall lady with the headwrap'. It just became part of my personal style, and people just knew me [as that] and that's how they described me. Often I would walk from work - because the restaurants are in Harlem as well - and people would stop me and keep asking me where my head wraps were from. That's how the idea was sparked.
All women - we're all so different, and just because I wear my wrap a certain way, doesn't mean that you're going to want to wear your wrap this way. I was like, 'Okay, I need the specific shape that isn't too bulky, that if someone wants to show their hair on top they can do that,'. It was hard to kind of figure out, and - once I did - that just became this thing and it took off. I started doing markets, just local markets in Harlem. You rent a table for 50 bucks. My first table, I was like, 'If I just make 50 bucks back, that's all I need,'. The head wraps were between $20 and $25, so I just needed to sell two head wraps, but I didn't think I was going to make it!
When I felt like the online orders started getting out of control and my studio apartment couldn't take anymore fabric, it was just too much, there was this vintage shop on 125th. I knew the owners. They were these very colorful, very flamboyant men, and I loved shopping at their store. They moved to a new location that had more space, and I noticed that they weren't getting that much traffic then because they moved onto the second floor. Being on the second floor versus the ground floor of a busy street can really change your business completely. I came in a few times. I maybe bought an item. Then I wrote the owner an email and I said, 'Hey, I have this online business and I'm outgrowing my space. I would love to rent a corner of your store,'. I didn't know that was possible. I just went out and did it… I wrote a mini proposal, I signed it, I went over, they signed it. I was really excited, and next thing you know I was moved into that little corner.
My goal for going to New York Fashion Week was to see all of these people, who clearly knew so much about fashion, and see how they were dressing and see if eventually I could have a head wrap to suit every style. She's wearing an ivory suit and this kind of heel. Clearly the head wrap I'm wearing won't go with it, but what if she had a beautiful silk head wrap, if she wanted to wear a head wrap. What if this woman here who's in all denim and it's constructed or fallen in this beautiful way, what if we had a plaid head wrap - if she wanted. To me, if I put a head wrap on with a look, I don't want it to look forced. I want it to compliment the look as much as possible.
One thing is creating something great. Another thing is being able to sell it. Selling it comes with so much because there have been times where I know that I'm a good image creator, and then I sign a contract with a brand and it pains me to do it because I don't like the restrictions. You have to balance it out because at the end of the day, you have to find the balance in order to eat and in order to create.
Words by Paige Downie