Paola Mathe is many things, but she certainly isn’t boring. This lifestyle blogger, photographer, writer, and hospitality professional likes to keep people guessing. Her unique, vibrant style has captured a diverse audience through her blog Finding Paola, and her own personal ventures: Ansanm Nou Se Ayiti, her t-shirt line promoting unity among Haitians, and her newest project, Fanm Djanm, a collection of beautiful clothing, head wraps, and other accessories that seeks to celebrate the strong woman inside all of us. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng caught up with Paola as she took a break from her fast-paced life in Harlem to chat about her journey and the process of finding your own voice.
Akinyi: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from your childhood in Haiti to life in the States?
Paola: While I grew up in Haiti, I currently live in New York. My background is in hospitality management, but recently I decided to let that go to focus on my creative side. That’s when I decided to start my own headwrap line, Fanm Djanm, which means “strong woman” in my language. I’m a person who loves adventure. On my blog, I strive to show my journey as someone who came from a country that doesn’t have much and who has always dreamed of doing amazing things to actually being able to accomplish so many of my goals. It has taken a lot of work, but it has been much easier than people think it is, so I record this work to show people that you can draw inspiration from everywhere and that you can achieve things if you’re willing to work for them.
Akinyi: How did you decide to start a lifestyle blog?
Paola: I’m the kind of person who looks at things with an open mind with an eye towards thinking about how other people might view them as well. Finding Paola was originally about my move to New York City. It started as a journal chronicling my process of discovering myself. I met a girl who is a fashion and lifestyle blogger and she encouraged me to think of actually making my blog public. She thought that I had an interesting story to tell the world. To me, these things aren’t interesting – they’re life. But because I’m black and from a foreign country, simple aspects of my day-to-day can sometimes take on new meaning in a place like New York.
Akinyi: How did you decide to start Fanm Djanm, your headwrap collection?
Paola: I’ve worn headwraps for years. I would go to places in the US like Forever 21 or H&M and just pick out a scarf, but then I gradually became more interested in African fabrics. I’d style it various ways.
I used to work at a hotel as the Director of Marketing and Social Media. It was a typical work-place environment with suits, etc. While it was trendy, you still had to dress up. One day, I came in with my office dress and high heels, but I decided to wear the head wrap. I was initially nervous because I’d never seen anyone wear one to work. I walked in ready to take it off; my hair was done under the wrap just in case. I wear headwraps on the weekend, so I thought why not wear it in the office? I sat at my desk and my boss came in and complimented me. I wore it the whole day.
Later, I had a conference where I wore a head wrap. While I still had those same initial feelings of anxiety, all of these people came up to me to ask me questions. It was funny because it was something so simple, but yet something that many people hadn’t seen before – the idea of dressing a headwrap up and wearing it to a corporate event.
I opened two African-themed restaurants in Harlem and the headwrap became my signature look. One day, I decided I was done with hospitality. After years of running other people’s businesses, I thought it was time to run my own and use my creative spirit. I decided to start with something simple that came naturally – headwraps.
I posted a photo on Finding Paola and got a few likes then I decided to really take it seriously. I had a photo shoot with a few friends and some makeup artists, then officially launched. In the two months since we’ve launched it, it has been received very well. I’ve had customers from London, Sweden… you name it. Within an hour of opening the site, I had five orders.
When I first started, I had friends that were afraid they couldn’t pull it off. They kept telling me “oh, I don’t look like you. I don’t have your features,” but I’ve proved them wrong. Women of all races and backgrounds can rock the headwrap and look amazing. You just have to choose the right shade and style for you.
Akinyi: Where does the name “Fanm Djanm,” come from?
Paola: In Haiti, if you tie your hair, you’re usually thought of as lower-class or a peasant. I named the line Fanm Djanm,because I wanted the Creole word to be known around the world and also to prove to Haitian people that you can be sophisticated, educated, and worldly – all while wearing a headwrap. Fanm Djanm, means “strong woman” in Creole.
Akinyi: Do you have any advice regarding how people should style a headwrap?
Paola: I have tutorials on my website, but I would say that people are all different so the way that I wear my headwrap might not fit the next person. Not based on how you look, but simply based on your personality. Headwraps are versatile – they are what you make of it. There’s a certain art to it when you wrap it yourself. I did a thirty-day headwrap challenge and I tried something different. With a little experimenting, you can find what works for you.
Akinyi: What’s your design process? How do you decide which fabrics to use?
Paola: It sounds selfish but I go with what I would wear. My style is so broad and depends on my mood. I ask myself questions like: can I wear this during the day? Can I wear this on a night out? Can I wear this to a festival? If the answer is yes to all of these, then I get it. At the end of the day, it’s all about your creativity. For example, I have a black-and-gold headwrap I’ve worn to formal events, but I could also dress it down with a white tee and shorts.
Right now, I’m working on custom fabrics. At this point, the fabrics have mostly been those that I’ve selected from your typical African fabric store, but I want to establish some classic Fanm Djanm fabrics that you can’t get anywhere else. One day, I hope to design fabrics around issues that I really believe in. But there’s a lot in the works. At the end of the day, it started around headwraps, so they’ll be around for a while, but I want to expand my horizons.
Akinyi: You talked a bit about styling the headwrap for professional events. How do you think you are challenging notions about what a headwrap is and how it should play a part in an outfit?
Paola: I went to a recent event and went up to a black woman with a short afro. She was wearing a dress like she had just come from the office. She turned to me and said, “I really love your headwrap. I really wish I could wear it to work.” And I said, “Why don’t you?” She replied: “My office is very corporate and I don’t think it would be appropriate.” And I thought, “Why wouldn’t it be appropriate?”
When I first started wearing headwraps, people questioned me about whether or not it was a religious thing. For me, it’s not. And to me, it is appropriate. Headwraps are neat and they can match your outfit, so what is the problem? My advice to women who want to wear them more often or at the office is to own it: wear it with a nice, matching dress and a cute pair of shoes.
Akinyi: Those sentiments really resonate with me. So many African women have confronted the idea that traditional African dress is not appropriate in a Western work setting. To us, that may be a put-together look but to others, is it something they have to get used to. Should we always be conforming to people’s standards or should we try to introduce them to elements of our culture, especially in such a globalized world?
Paola: If an outfit is a part of you and you are not bothering anyone, you should be allowed to fully embrace that part of you. A suit is not the be-all and end-all. Be you. Draw your strength from within and resist definition from other people. You know what you stand for. To me, that’s the story of Fanm Djanm.