The Style and Power of Paola Mathé

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Words:
Chelsea Sonksen

Photographs:
Grey + Elle

She didn’t smile in her photo in The New York Times.

I stopped mid-scroll and clicked on the image. She wore a colorful headwrap and thick gold choker, but it wasn’t her accessories that had drawn me to her – not exactly. It was her graceful, regal confidence I found magnetic. Her chin was tilted up, just slightly, and her head rested lazily on the wall behind her. Paola Mathé looked like a woman who devoured life passionately and stood tall in her worth. I imagined she had a deep belly laugh and would tell you exactly what was on her mind. I felt I had so much to learn from her.

Paola is the founder of the Fanm Djanm (pronounced fum-jum, “strong woman” in Haitian Creole), which is a lifestyle company that began with a collection of headwraps and has grown to include apparel.

It was dreary and raining the day we visited Paola’s studio in Harlem, a short walk from the 125th Street Metro stop. We weaved through a circle of men congregating around the entrance and buzzed in. The walls in the entry were sky-blue, and the building showed signs of wear.

But as soon as we opened the door to the Fanm Djanm office, the energy changed. The space was full of color and pattern, fabric, and baskets. “Put on the photo shoot music,” Paola said to one of her employees, and the space filled with vibrancy.

Paola spent her childhood in Petion-Ville, Haiti, living in a big family house that her great-grandmother had built. But Haiti was rife with political turmoil. “I remember always missing school because there were political protests. People were burning tires. There was always some sort of struggle with the economic and political state [of the country].” Paola’s father was working in the States at the time, sending money back to Haiti to pay for schooling for Paola and her younger brother. When she was about twelve, Paola’s family moved to Newark.

From her first drive through New York City, Paola knew it was the place she wanted to call home, so, after studying French Literature and Economics in college, she took a job as a research assistant at Columbia. “I felt like telling people I was a research assistant at Columbia was a good thing…” Paola told us. But the job itself was stifling. “I was the youngest person there by at least a few decades. My office was this small, windowless space where I organized and coordinated events for professors… I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do for very long. I couldn’t interact with people.”

Paola took a second job downtown as a server, and immediately she began to notice herself changing. “[When I was] downtown, I was a completely different person than I was in the office. I was talkative. I loved everything. I saw myself stepping outside of my comfort zone and talking to lots of different types of people…”

This was the beginning of Paola’s hospitality career. She took a job as a reservations manager at a new hotel in midtown and was quickly promoted to Sales Manager and, later, Accounting and Human Resources Manager. And yet, she could feel that something was missing. “There was this really creative voice inside of me that wanted to come out,” Paola said.

Since she first moved to New York, Paola had been keeping a blog called Finding Paola. It was a personal blog where she wrote about her walks around the city and told stories about people she met along the way.

When a friend featured Paola on her blog, Four Aces, Paola’s readership grew. This was before the natural hair movement had really taken hold in the black community, and at the time Paola had an afro. She says, “[Readers] were like, Who is this woman with the afro?” They began to pay attention. Paola began writing about more Haitian events in the city, and her blog became a resource for immigrant women.

Paola bit the bullet and quit her career in hospitality to pursue a business of her own. She wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do, but her blog had gained quite a following, and she knew she needed space and time to see where it could take her. But weeks began to pass, and she hadn’t figured it out. After a while, Paola begrudgingly returned to work in hospitality, eventually managing several resturants in Harlem - which ironically served as the inspiration for her company Fanm Djanm.

The employees at the restaurant where Paola worked wore a uniform: dark denim pants and a white shirt. But the owners hadn’t set any limitations on accessories, so Paola began to sport a headwrap, infusing her otherwise ordinary outfits with a pop of color. People often asked her where she purchased them. But the truth was, she was buying the fabric and making them herself. It wasn’t long before Paola realized this was the business direction she’d been searching for. She gave her two-weeks notice and began pouring her time into developing a line of headwraps.

Fanm Djanm celebrates sisterhood and commemorates the culture and history associated with the headwrap. It is a vibrant, soulful brand that inspires women from New York to Nigeria. When I asked Paola what she hopes her legacy will be, she said she dreams of buying a brownstone in Harlem and creating an artist and entrepreneur residency for young adults from Haiti or Newark. Be it from a brownstone residency or her Harlem studio, Paola will continue to empower a generation of strong women.