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Joëlle Fontaine is the CEO of Kréyol, a woman’s high fashion brand with a mission of utilizing art & fashion to empower women through economic mobility. Kréyol has been featured in AM New York, the Boston Globe, Conde Nast Traveler, AfroPunk, New York Fashion Week at the largest Macy’s in the world in collaboration with 19th Amendment, and in Teen Vogue, where Fontaine was named as one of the top Haitian Designers to know. They debuted their Lotus Collection at London Fashion Week in the Fall of 2017 and have been named Best of Boston, Best Clothing Designer by Boston Magazine in 2017 and Best in Boston, Clothing Designer by The Improper Bostonian in 2016. In her crowdfunding campaign last year, Fontaine raised over 10k to begin taking steps toward her overall mission of contributing to the economic development of women artisans in Haiti. Currently, all of their “I Am Kréyol” tee shirts are produced in Haiti. This year Fontaine completed her session in the Babson WIN Lab accelerator program, where she has worked on revamping her business structure for a fresh new outlook and exciting partnerships for Spring 2020. Most recently, Fontaine and her mother were featured via WBUR for their costuming of acclaimed musical “Caroline or Change” at the Huntington Theater’s Calderwood Pavilion. Fontaine also serves as the Assistant Director at the Fairmount Innovation Lab, where her goal is to create a successful pipeline for creative entrepreneurship to thrive.
Joelle Fontaine is speaking during a Rising Stars session at the 2019 Fall Festival, happening October 1–3 in Boston’s Seaport. Learn more and register here.
Lindsay Gearheart: What is your background and what led you to create I Am Kreyol?
Joelle Fontaine: I am originally from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. I came to the United States in the late 80s when our president at the time, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was ousted and there was extreme political unrest. My family migrated to the US to find safety. However, I have always imagined myself returning home to contribute to the culture and economic development in some way, shape, or form.
That opportunity came in 2010, after the catastrophic earthquake that left much of the mainland in shambles. I remember watching the news reports from my living room, feeling powerless. They were requesting all essential relief personnel: doctors, nurses, construction workers, architects, etc. and I felt useless as an artist, a designer. How could pretty clothes make a difference in such a poignant time in history for Haiti?
At that time, I was not running a business at all. I was simply creating as a means of expression and others took notice. The first fashion show Kreyol was a part of was for New York Fashion Week. I was then granted several awards for my designs and featured via the Ise Foundation, a museum in Soho New York, which landed my work on the cover of AM New York. I was an artist and people were starting to take notice of my designs.
On January 12, 2010, bewildered, staring at a television screen almost in a zombie-like state, watching as people were rescued from the rubble, wondering if my grandfather was even alive- I decided that art and fashion would be my avenue to truly make an impact. I believe that we are all born with certain gifts. Some people have the gift of gab, some are great organizers, some people come up with brilliant ideas, some create, but all of our talents benefit mankind in a very unique and powerful way. No, I was not a doctor and could not fly into Haiti right away to assist. But, my superpower is that I can create just about anything out of nothing.
I decided to put together a fundraiser to raise money for two organizations doing work in Haiti; Boston Mothers Care and Ananda Marga. My team and I worked with the Liberty Hotel and raised over 10K for the Ananda Marga school, which I delivered personally on my first trip back to Haiti after the earthquake. It was on that trip that I decided to make Kreyol a business.
LG: Could you talk about your transition from artist to designer and entrepreneur?
JF: I have always been an artist. I was the child who would take a cardboard box and construct an entire city when I was bored or create a whole garment out of masking tape. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an artist. In fact, when I decided to do a fundraiser for the Haiti relief efforts, the very first product that we put out on the market were the “I Am Kreyol” shirts. The first iteration of those shirts (over a hundred of them) were hand painted on my lawn on a couple of beautiful summer days. My family thought I was crazy (I was. In retrospect, that was not a good use of time and/or resources 🙂 But, my artist brain told me that a hand painted shirt was more special and would mean more to the customer than a screen printed one. That makes sense right? Until, the shirt is washed and the paint gets all over the other items in the wash cycle (cringe worthy!) That was the moment I went from being an artist to a designer and eventually an entrepreneur. I am happy to say that I no longer hand paint our shirts. They are all produced by the locals in my homeland of Haiti.
As a designer, it is important that my work is beautiful and it reflects my art, but it is also equally as important that my designs are functional and that my customers are satisfied with their product. I spend a lot of time testing fit and fabrics because my goal to create lasting, quality garments. I became an entrepreneur the moment I realized that my avant guarde designs were lovely for the runway and magazine spreads, but I needed to also focus on ready-to-wear pieces with a wider commercial appeal. Now I understand the market for both and know how to navigate the two. My goal is always to find the perfect balance between staying true to my artistic aesthetic for my collections, meeting the customer’s design wants and needs, while making a profit.
LG: How did you choose the name of your brand?
JF: Kreyol is the native language spoken in Haiti. It is the language of the people. However, I was forbidden to speak it as a child. (I remember getting yelled at to come inside the house when I was caught speaking to my neighbor in Kreyol). It was considered to be the language of the poor. Haiti was colonized by the French. Therefore, if one spoke french, they were thought of as being educated and well-to-do. Kreyol represented the latter. It was an elitist mentality that I grew to despise. Naturally, as I was searching for a name for my business, I started to do more research on “Kreyol”. I found that there were Kreyols everywhere. It was not just a Haitian thing. Kreyol is not one particular group of people, but rather it is a collage, a mixture of a variety of languages, cultures, music, food, colors that evoke a specific type of energy- one that is vibrant, resilient and bold. I chose the name Kreyol (“I Am Kreyol” is our slogan) because it represented the woman we design for- the woman who is colorful, loud, tenacious and unapologetic in her ideals. She is the overcomer and very much a part of every woman.
LG: Your website says “We utilize fashion to inspire and make a difference in the world.” Can you talk more about how you do that?
JF: When I went to Haiti to deliver the funds to the Ananda Marga school after the earthquake, I realized that art and fashion is a powerful tool to bring about awareness and a call to action to a variety of causes around the world. Kreyol has been a part of campaigns to raise funding for clean water in Haiti, education in Haiti and the United States, AIDS/ HIV prevention, and currently we are working on developing entrepreneurship pipelines for the creative industry in the United States and beyond. I believe that art and fashion can be utilized as a means of inspiration and a catalyst for change.
LG: Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?
JF: I am honestly inspired by the most unusual things. I once created a whole collection around a rusted copper penny. My designs themselves are inspired by the dresses my mother used to make for me as a child, Haitian school uniforms, my love of costuming and architectural influence (I initially wanted to be an architect). I like bold prints on garments with clean lines, bouffant sleeves on lace a-line dresses. I am inspired by elements of vintage french couture and the Elizabethan Era.
LG: What’s next for your entrepreneurial journey?
JF: In the immediate, we are presenting a gender bending capsule collection and collaboration for the holidays, which will be featured on September 28th at the Gasp Industries Boston Fashion Week Show at the Arlington Street Church (25 Arlington Street or 351 Boylston Street, Boston) at 6 p.m. But, our future plans include a new brand image and focus launch in the spring of 2020, as well as working with women artisans in Haiti, creating an entrepreneurial pipeline for them to sell their goods successfully in Haiti and abroad.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.