Turning a Cover-Up Into a Coveted Accessory

Courtesy of The New York Times

In a matchbox-size studio on the third floor of a building in East Harlem, Paola Mathé unfolds a sienna and black printed scarf. To most observers, the 21-by-70-inch piece of fabric is just a strip of cotton, but for Ms. Mathé, it’s the cornerstone of her fast-growing label, Fanm Djanm, which means “strong woman” in Haitian Creole.

Ms. Mathé, born in Pétion-Ville, Haiti, and raised in New Jersey, stands 5-foot-10 but often appears taller thanks to the vibrantly patterned wraps she regularly wears around her head. On a recent Sunday afternoon, she wore her simplest black wrap, which she said made her feel regal.

When the self-described “dreamer and romantic,” who has been praised for making “colorful the new black,” moved to New York in 2009, she was struck by how often strangers stopped her to ask where she bought her headwraps. Some people emailed her, others reached out on her blog, Finding Paola, and others left comments on Instagram. “I’d look at them like they were insane,” Ms. Mathé said. “Like, just go to a fabric place.”

But the constant curiosity and compliments about her go-to accessory got her thinking. “There wasn’t a place you could walk into and say, ‘May I have two headwraps?’” she said.

So she decided to create that place.

Ms. Mathé, 30, is quick to admit that black women have been covering their heads “forever,” but she believes she was one of the first people to change how women wore wraps.

“Why not wear a headwrap on the red carpet instead of just to cover your head to run errands?” she said. “It’s this beautiful, powerful accessory that promotes strength and power and culture.”

She quit her job managing two restaurants in Harlem and began designing wraps with one question in mind: What would make all kinds of women, with diverse backgrounds and wildly different daily routines, buy her product?

“Women would like a brand with a message,” she said. “The idea of promoting strong women through the headwrap.”

Ms. Mathé met with tailors and spent hours every evening in her studio apartment twisting different fabrics on her head. She quickly learned that designing what seemed like a simple accessory would be a challenge.

The perfect headwrap, she realized, had to be the right shape. A square piece of fabric wouldn’t work. “There are styles you can’t do with it,” she said. It had to be the right fabric — “some silk was too slippery, some cotton too heavy.” It had to appeal to a wide range of women, but there couldn’t be too many choices “because then they also get confused.” And it had to attract women who had worn headwraps their whole lives as well as those who had never worn one before.

But while she knew early on that her wraps would be for all women, she wanted her ad campaigns to prominently feature women of color. “I created images I would have loved to see as a young black girl in Haiti,” she said.

Ms. Mathé introduced Fanm Djanm in April 2014 after settling on the approximately 21-by-70-inch wrap because it could be twisted and contorted into the various shapes and designs that made her feel regal and strong.

The first wrap sold in 10 minutes. Within the first year of business, Ms. Mathé started selling jewelry, with a focus on items she had struggled to find for herself, like gold arm and neck cuffs, which are now among the store’s best-selling items.

The wraps are made with cotton from the Netherlands and occasionally from Senegal, raw silk and linen from Italy, and denim from around the United States. The simplest wax cotton wraps start at $22; the more elaborate raw silk ones, which can be worn formally, cost around $60. Every order is delivered with a card illustrating a number of ways to put on the wrap. The online store also provides video tutorials on how to style some of the more than 30 styles sold.

Since starting Fanm Djanm, Ms. Mathé has attracted more than 100,000 Instagram followers and thousands of dedicated customers who sometimes get to meet her at pop-up shops around New York and in Montreal, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico and Trinidad.

“I think one of these days I’ll book a trip so I can be at Paola’s pop-up shop,” said Tonya Ervin, who has placed 14 Fanm Djanm orders since the end of 2015. “Paola’s saying to young women, ‘Hold your head up high.’ I take those words and tell my little one the same thing.”

 

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