Paola Mathé is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
Blogger. Entrepreneur. Force of nature. Is there anything Paola Mathé can't do? She's a woman who wears many hats — or, in this case, headwraps.
Mathé is the owner and creator of Fanm Djanm (pronounced "fum jum"), a headwrap company and lifestyle brand that's been inspiring women to be proud of who they are and live their lives boldly since its inception in 2014. What started out as a tiny operation — picture Mathé selling headwraps out of her apartment on the weekends — later became a powerhouse brand known as much for its dedication to uplifting women as its statement-making headpieces, and it all started with a blog.
Before Mathé found her entrepreneurial calling with Fanm Djanm, she'd made a name for herself in the hospitality industry. She started out as a server and would later excel at a number of positions, including that of a host, a maitre de, and a hotel reservations manager.
Meanwhile, her sole means of creative fulfillment was Finding Paola, a small lifestyle blog she'd started as a way of recording her thoughts and chronicling her experiences. She'd dreamed of living in New York City ever since she first moved with her mother to the US from Haiti as a teenager. En-route to staying with family in New Jersey, Mathé found herself captivated by the bright lights of Times Square, and it was a fascination that never quite wore off. She hastily found her way to NYC after attending college in New Jersey, and her adventures exploring the city and "getting purposely lost," as she took to calling it, garnered her blog a couple hundred loyal readers in the beginning. It was never about gaining followers for Mathé though.
"I loved every second of it because I was living in this amazing city where you could find worlds that you wouldn't even think existed," Mathé said.
After she was featured on a friend's lifestyle blog, she started getting more and more attention in the online world, frequently because of her natural hair, headwraps, and personal style, topics she then started to incorporate into her blog offerings more and more. After rising the ranks in the hospitality industry, she took a major leap of faith.
"I quit my day job and decided, 'I'm building a brand.' I had no idea what that meant and I was so scared," Mathé said.
[Photo: Aaron Peg]
"You have to do something more," she recalls thinking. She decided to focus entirely on building her brand.
It was at 3 in the morning, a week before quitting, that she finally landed on her big idea: a headwrap collection. As someone who'd been wearing headwraps for years and had even been known as "that woman who wears the headwraps," she knew her brand could fill a major void.
"When I was wrapping my head at that time, I was just buying one yard of fabric and I woud spend 30 minutes in the mirror trying to see what I could come up with," Mathé said. "There wasn't a shop to go to where you could say, 'I'd like to buy some headwraps please.' You go to a random, maybe African, fabric store, and you would buy a yard, and you would figure it out. That's how [Fanm Djanm] started."
"There wasn't a shop to go to where you could say, 'I'd like to buy some headwraps please.'...That's how [Fanm Djanm] started."
She announced her newest venture on her blog; it was yet another leap of faith, because she had nothing but an idea at the time. The response was overwhelmingly positive — readers has been admiring her headwraps for ages — so she got to work, buying different fabrics and experimenting with shapes and styles. Once she came up with a way of cutting the fabric so that the headwrap could be worn in eight different styles, she knew she was on to something.
She reached out to friends, who collaborated with her for the first ever Fanm Djanm photo shoot. All of the women stood out in their own ways — different races, body types, personal style — and they were all wearing their headwraps in different ways. It was everything she wanted Fanm Djanm -- which means "strong woman" in Haitian Kreyol — to be.
"I wanted to focus on the strength of women and be more than the product," Mathé said. "I wanted it to be, 'Ok, I'm wrapping my head and I feel strong, I feel connected.'"
[Photo: Joey Rosado]
Mathé launched the Fanm Djanm website in April 2014 after a month of grueling, non-stop preparation. It paid off; she got her first order within 10 minutes, and later began to connect even more with her customers by publishing tutorials showing women creative ways to wrap their hair and feel confident in a headwrap.
Still, not everyone understood what she was trying to accomplish.
"In my culture, in Haitian culture, the people who wrap their heads are from the lower class — the people who are selling outside or serving people. [Some people] thought I was promoting something that wasn't glamorous enough," Mathé said, adding that she also encountered people questioning her heritage and telling her she wasn't African enough to do what she was doing. Still, she persisted, and focused instead on how she could grow. Mathé would often challenge herself by sitting outside fashion shows and observing all the different women, trying to imagine a headwrap for each one.
"My goal was to have a headwrap for every woman, whatever their style was," she said. "From that, I grew, and that's what Fanm Djanm has become."
Today, Fanm Djanm has a devoted customer base that includes over 80k followers on Instagram, a fact made all the more inspiring when you consider the company's humble beginnings.
These days, Mathé has cultivated partnerships so she can sell complementary items: buttery smooth lipsticks in deep, rich hues to go with any headwrap, and handmade jewelry that gives new meaning to the words "statement piece." Even cooler is that when customers purchase select products handmade in Haiti, a percentage of sales go toward repair efforts for artisans whose homes and work spaces were affected by Hurricane Matthew.
As Fanm Djanm continues to grow, Mathé continues to be an inspiration to so many women — and regularly encourages others by featuring inspiring women on the Fanm Djanm blog every month — and she got there by being herself and embracing what she loves.
"There will always be gorgeous traditional African headwear. I never want to say, 'Oh, Paola made this happen.' I didn't! Absolutely not. It's always been there," Mathé said. "The beauty's always been around. It's inspired me and I've been able to maybe inspire a few other women. But it's always been there and I'm just happy that I can be a part of it."
[Top photo credit: Aaron Peg]