Paola Mathé walks the streets of Harlem like a queen in her kingdom. Standing at nearly six feet tall and flaunting one of her famous patterned headwraps, she’s hard to miss — a modern-day Nefertiti, but with an important distinction: Mathé’s not Egyptian. She is a proud Haitian immigrant.
The way Mathé talks about her childhood in Pétion-Ville, Haiti almost sounds like the setting of a yet-unmade Disney movie. Her early years were spent in the spacious and colorful home her great-grandmother built. Chickens clucked away in the backyard. Merchants lined the streets outside, where a steady stream of Haitian women bombarded her with lessons of wisdom and of courage. “This was my Haiti,” Mathé says.
Dressed in a colorful ensemble and constant smile, the Paola we meet on a hot spring day in Manhattan feels like a walking poster child for the radiance that comes from embracing your self-worth. So it’s a surprise to learn that Paola was a shy and reserved child who often felt like an outsider.
While her mother was downstairs hosting her frequent parties, young Paola could be found up in the attic poring over a box of sappy romance novels, enthralled by the various worlds painted between the spines. That attic became her solo hideaway, where she spent hours cloaked in spiderwebs and buried in books.
Those attic paperbacks launched her earliest fantasies of life beyond the Caribbean island. “When I started reading the books [I thought], ‘People don’t understand me here. I want to be where this character is’,” she remembers.
While some of Mathé’s early memories sketch a rose-colored image of Haiti, she wasn’t oblivious to the economic struggle associated with her home island. Her house had no electricity, and blackouts were common. She remembers seeing “pregnant women on the side of the road giving birth.”
She also found that her perception of women as strong and powerful creatures didn’t match her society’s views, and remembers some Haitian men treating women “as if they were their property.” Suffice it to say, chivalry wasn’t something that was custom or common.
Then, at 12 years old, Paola was plucked from her quiet, cobwebbed attic in Pétion-Ville to be reunited with her father who had already immigrated to America. At this point, she was ready for a change. “I was just so excited because I was so close to these characters I was reading about. If you’re growing up and you know that there could be bigger opportunities elsewhere, you’re going to do what’s best for your family.” She was still a shy girl who had trouble making eye contact, but she was on the brink of a transformation.
But Paola’s paperback fantasies and her American reality strongly differed. They set up in a one-bedroom apartment in Newark, New Jersey, a city outsiders might only know for its international airport. “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,” she says. “It’s not what you’re reading about. It’s not what you’re seeing on TV.”
At first, Paola’s shy tendencies made it difficult to adapt. Like most immigrants, Paola recalls bouts of loneliness and feeling overwhelmingly out of place. But her high school years proved to be key in the formation of her blossoming confidence.
While navigating the complicated new cultural landscape America offered, she had no other choice than to break out of her timid cocoon. “[I realized] you can’t get what you want if you’re hiding from the world, especially if you have nothing to start with,” she explains.
As she moved into adulthood, Paola eventually found her groove managing restaurants in Harlem, handling the operational side of the business. She was successful but still didn’t feel fulfilled. “I learned how to have over 100 employees under me,” she recalls. “I learned how to fix problems. The only thing missing was being creative, telling a story.”
Enter: Fanm Djanm, Mathé’s three-year-old headwrap brand and passion project. The fashion label, which specializes in bold, patterned headwraps, translates to “strong woman” in Haitian Creole. With a mission statement that “[encourages] women to wear a bold print, take command of a room, laugh a little too loudly, and pursue their greatest goals,” Fanm Djanm feels like a tangible extension of everything Paola stands for.
Headwraps are regularly worn by working women in Haiti, and more specifically by the group of women who helped raise her. So, the production of the vibrant wraps seems a fitting venture for Mathé, as they have woven their way through most of her upbringing.
“The headwrap, when I wear it, makes me stand taller. It makes me feel like I can take on the world. It signifies hard work. It signifies strength, confidence, beauty.”
When asked to recall the first time she donned a headwrap, she takes us back to that colorful old house in Pétion-Ville, surrounded by her mother’s friends in a bathroom. As she wrapped and twisted her great-grandmother’s scarf around her head, she remembers catching a glimpse of her reflection and feeling a sense of contentment. “I remembered that day, not feeling like I had to pick something [in my hair] or gel something or swoop something to feel alright.”
It wasn’t until her time in the restaurant business many years later that she decided to experiment with wearing a headwrap again. It started as a way to spruce up the button-down and blue jean uniform that’s standard in the industry. People quickly took notice and it didn’t take long for Paola to realize this was an untapped market.
Mathé’s confidence had already skyrocketed since those initial years in America, but she credits the statement accessory for her now-trademark swagger. “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.”
It’s been three years since she made the career shift, and the change suits her beautifully. But make no mistake — running Fanm Djanm doesn’t consist entirely of idyllic days spent sewing in her small studio in Harlem. She deals with the uncertainty and stresses that any business owner must face.
“When you own a business, there’s no safety for you,” Paola explains. Instead, it’s a constant game of problem-solving. Despite the uncertainty that comes with entrepreneurship, Paola remains as inspired and dedicated to her company’s mission as ever. It’s clear that she’s still that same girl who faces obstacles with a defiant sense of optimism. Except this time, it’s not a new culture she’s conquering; it’s a new profession.
After 18 years in the United States, Paola Mathé considers herself an American, but her Haitian heritage will forever remain an integral part of her persona. She is resolutely an immigrant: someone who identifies strongly with her foreign roots, but who also fully embraces the American way of life.
“Being an immigrant has helped shape everything that I am,” she says. “It helps me shape the way I love and the way I interact with people because I feel like I have a broader view. I can see different worlds, really, and I can understand them. I can see what oppression is. I can see what freedom is. I can see what colors are.”
Life is good for Mathé in America at the moment. She recently married her American-born husband in a ceremony Essence characterized as “black girl magic realized.” Business is booming. And her 100,000+ Instagram fans follow her adventures on a daily basis. Still, a return to Haiti isn’t off her radar, especially considering all that’s happening in America right now.
The current state of America, it’s not something you can ignore if you live here,” Paola admits. “It’s a place we’re taught is where dreams come true – that this is where things happen. It’s terrifying for a lot of us.”
But her unwavering sense of self has provided her with an outlook many spend a lifetime searching for. “Often, [life is all about] trying to fit in, and it’s exhausting trying to be yourself,” she says. ”Now, I just say, ‘You know what? If you label me, it’s a reflection on you.’ It’s made things a lot easier.”
“Being an immigrant woman in America means that I have to be strong. I have to find my strength even if I don’t feel like being strong. I have to find ways to keep my head up.”
Even in an era that sometimes treats Paola and the rest of the immigrant community as outsiders, you’ll find her standing tall in Harlem. She’ll be the one in a headwrap, probably making friends with the guy tending one of the community gardens in the neighborhood. You’ll find her unashamed and eager to talk about where she comes from.
“An immigrant is hope,” she says. “An immigrant is a dreamer. An immigrant is someone who turns everything out of nothing. An immigrant is hard working, someone who goes from mopping the floor to owning a business […] Everyone always knows that I am from Haiti. I am always proud.”