#WCIW: Paola Mathe
Colorful Style Icon. Bold Entrepreneur. One Strong Woman.
Paola Mathe is a proud Haitian immigrant now living in East Harlem in NYC. Growing up in Haiti until her teens, Mathe’s childhood home had no electricity, and blackouts throughout the country were common. She recalls that more than once seeing a woman giving birth on the roadside, and witnessed men regularly treating the women in their lives as their property.
But she also remembers her childhood as full of color and incredibly strong women who supported each other. It was with these women in mind that Paola started selling handmade, brightly-colored head scarves out of her NYC apartment in 2014. Beginning with eight different designs, Mathe’s company, Fanm Djanm, was founded. The company’s name pays tribute to those women of her childhood — Fanm Djanm is Kreyol Ayisyen (Haitian Creole) for “strong woman”.
Since 2014 the company has grown and expanded, but Mathe never forgets her roots.
When she was twelve, Paola was taken to America to live with her father in Newark, New Jersey. An avid reader of fantasy and romance novels, she was at first excited at the prospect of a new life and adventure in the US. Upon arriving, however, she realized that her new neighborhood was not quite the romantic vision she had in mind.
Of the experience she said, “You’re reading about all of these almost-fairytales and then you move in as a Black family who speaks no English, into one of the poorest neighborhoods in America. It’s not what you’re reading about. It’s not what you’re seeing on TV.”
A shy child, she initially found the new surroundings difficult. She soon realized, though, that in order to get what she wanted in life, she couldn't hide from the world, and worked diligently at improving her English and overcoming that shyness.
After high school, she moved to NYC to find greater opportunity and the adventure she had always craved. Working as a manager in swanky hotels and restaurants throughout the city, she learned how to run a business and empower large numbers of employees. The only thing lacking was an outlet for her burgeoning creativity, but that would soon change.
The inspiration for Fanm Djanm struck when Paola began to wear head scarves to spruce up her daily uniform. She found that wearing the scarves had a transformational effect on her. “The headwrap, when I wear it, makes me stand taller,” she says. “It makes me feel like I can take on the world. It signifies hard work. It signifies strength, confidence, beauty. There’s just so much culture behind it that every day, depending on the shape of it, depending on how I style it, it makes me feel stronger.”
The scarves did not go unnoticed by the women around her. After many compliments and numerous women asking where she found such beautiful wraps, Mathe realized that there was an untapped market. With her initial eight designs, she hoped to fill that discovered niche.
Fanm Djanm “encourages women to wear a bold print, take command of a room, laugh a little too loudly, and pursue their greatest goals,” The company is determined to be environmentally and ethically sound, and the majority of their production fabrics are sourced from African villages to support those local economies and workers. The company also has a “zero waste” policy and recycles all fabrics. In the future, Mathe hopes to work with the nonprofit sector to create opportunities for students and young people in Haiti and abroad.
For her dramatic, colorful style, fierce entrepreneurial spirit, and dedication to strong women, Paola Mathe is this week’s #WCIW.