Atop every woman’s head is a crown.
Whether it is invisible or tangibly catching the rays of the sun, celebrating women’s strength and affluence go beyond one month or day.
Paola Mathe, a Haitian native, is leading the celebration of women and their many hues of beauty through her fashionable, statement-making headwraps.
“You never really know the strength of a woman whether she is super dressed up to the nines or not,” she said. “Those women who are working with their hands in Haiti, they deserve respect and women who are here no matter where you are located or what you are doing at the moment they deserve respect too. It’s about being a better person and just working to contribute to the world, that’s what a good person is. No matter where you’re from. That’s what I’m really trying to put out with my headwraps.”
Paola started Fanm Djanm, which directly translates to “Strong Woman” in Haitian Creole, just one year ago. Since its inception, she has been featured on an array of websites, expanded her business to include jewelry and clothes and has recently travelled to Puerto Rico to take part in two pop-up shop events. Despite all her early successes, Paola does not consider herself a designer nor does she describe herself as such.
“I wore headwraps long before I started so it was always apart of my personal style,” she said. “People would always say I was a creative person and I never really knew what that meant. I don’t even consider myself a designer because I really look at these peoplw with a high regard and to me they had years of training, they know what they’re putting out there or what they create; I don’t know what I am yet.”
Before her journey began, the 28-year-old worked in hospitality as a manager for restaurants in hotels. When she was struck to launch Fanm Djanm, she left her job cold turkey and dedicated all her time to the creation of the elaborate scarves.
Already wearing headwraps often — no matter the occasion — Paola developed her lengthy list of styles after a 30-day Instagram challenge which encouraged the participants to post a photo wearing a headwrap. Not wanting to post the then two styles she was familiar with, she played around to develop the many bows and shapes you see featured on her Instagram. “When I first started, I wanted to find a shape that could be styled in a bunch of different ways so it made sense economically so I didn’t have to have a variety of sizes especially since I started in my studio apartment,” she said. “I decided to have this large rectangular piece and I played around with it and saw how many ways I could style it.”
Featuring pieces inspired by primarily African prints, some floral and her newly added denim, Paola handpicks each pattern and only chooses pieces she could see herself wearing.
“They are all handmade here, the fabric is handpicked in different African countries — mostly Senegal — some are handpicked by me here, especially those that are not African print. I have some florals and some stripes and a lot of the non-African prints are very popular,” she said.
Her background in hospitality has given her the knowledge to embody good business practices. Many of her opportunitites would not have come to fruition without Paola making off the fly decisions and simply asking questions. Like her Puerto Rico trip, a question can lend itself to reach new heights. A photographer visiting New York from Puerto Rico chose to pick up three headwraps from Paola’s store and through their meeting a connection was formed that allowed for her to participate in a natural hair event and host her own pop up shop at a store.
“He told me they founded this natural hair movement in Puerto Rico and last year 250 people showed up,” she said. “I had never really met any Puerto Ricans with big afros so I was like ‘I need to see what this is about.’ So I said, maybe I will join you but to me I thought it would be a good business opportunity because it’s a new movement, meeting new people and I decided to fund the trip and just go not expecting much in terms of selling. I reached out to a few shops and held an event that was actually really successful and now I have my headwraps being carried in one of the stores. A lot of the time all you have to do is ask.”
With any movement that goes against the grains of popular ideals, Fanm Djanm did meet some backlash. Women who often wear their heads tied are considerd low class in Haiti. At the beginning of her journey, Paola did meet some criticism that quickly dissipated as her brand grew more popular.
“I definitely got some backlash when I first started. It was either backlash or people ignored the fact that I had it but as it grew more and more popular people were like ‘oh, maybe I should get one to support it.’ They weren’t saying it was nice, they were saying ‘I guess I’ll support you’ and then eventually they were like ‘I really like this, I need at least five,” she said.
Paola’s mission to ascend new heights does not end at fashion. Posting inspirational messages to a following of 17.6K on Instagram, 7,066 on Facebook and a combined 1,108 on Twitter, the Harlem resident continues to strive with empowering women in mind. Whether it is a lawyer looking to make a statement in her office or a woman with transitioning, natural hair looking for a fabulous protective style, Paola is more interested in the stories of women who she believes all embody strength in their own way.
Considering the headwrap is, in fact, a scarf some women prefer to wear them as such or as a shirt. The versatility of the scarf offers women more than one way to wear their style through these vibrant colors, patterns and textures provided in each Fanm Djanm piece. “Some women wear it actually around their necks or as a belt or a top, I’ve worn it as everything. It’s all about your confidence,” she said.
Aside from running her online boutique - she takes appointments for drop-ins - Paola is also interested in serving her community and becoming better acquainted with the Fanm Djanm’s of past and present. Through a book club brunch series, Paola and other women read one book a month written by a female author representing the African Diaspora then meet over mimosas to discuss the stories.
“We pick one book a month, every month and the brunch is supposed to be once a month as well. We’ve had two brunches so far and it something we are very passionate about. All of our guests just discussing these works by these African authors just makes it all worth it. We’ve also added a community service program where we read to children for free because we want to instill the importance of reading to children,” she said.