How “I am Kreyol” Manages to Slay Every Day (a Black Pumps Notebook interview)

I’ve been stalking Joelle (or Joey) Jean-Fontaine (on the left with model wearing her creation), resident creative, designer and founder of the I am Kreyol fashion line, since I first saw her stunning work at a Boston Museum of Fine Arts Juneteeth fashion installation two years ago. The brocade, the tulle, the textiles, the prints, the nuance-rich designs, the tulle, the edgy florals, the tulle! They were mouth-watering. I knew I had track her down because her red lace confection of a dress spotted in her instagram feed needed to be hanging in my closet.

Joelle and her Kreyol creations have been exploding into a variety of venues and onto the pages of a multitude of art and fashion magazines lately so I was lucky to catch up with her for a brief interview at her studio in the Fairmount Innovation Lab on Columbia Road in Dorchester, MA.

Below are excerpts from our conversation:

Black Pumps Notebook: Did you sew as a child?

Joelle Jean-Fontaine: (laughs) No. I started when I was 22 or 23. My mom used to sew and tried to teach me when I was younger but I didn’t want to learn. I had my son when I was 20 and was home losing my mind and started taking clothes apart to keep me sane. I was always interested in fashion and won best dressed in high school.   My mom made all my dresses and when I started designing they were initially based on dresses mom made, lacy with pouffy sleeves.

BPN: When did you decide you were going to be a designer?

JJF: I never said that I was going to be designer. I was actually in school for architecture. Fashion design chose me! My ex-husband had a photographer friend who was finishing school and doing her thesis. We met up and started soing photo shoots. I would put clothes together, get models, makeup and she would shoot photos. We shot something every week.

BPN: Were you working other jobs?

JJF: My son, Isaiah, was 3 when I went back to work at a call center and then on weekends we would still take photos. I’d also take days off to go to NYC. It started to get lucrative and people would commission us to do shoots. Ultimately I got fired from that job and when I got in my car Jill Scott’s “Golden” was playing and I started freaking out. It couldn’t just be a coincidence.   I called my friend and said we are moving to NYC. My son was in preschool and I went home and made the announcement that I was moving and going to work at Trace magazine. I found contact info for everyone who worked at Trace and sent my resume and pictures along with a letter saying “you need me”!  A month later I was working at Trace and living in NYC .

BPN: You clearly know how to turn dreams into reality.

JJF: When I walked in for interview my new boss said, “Come on lets go. I don’t know why I’m even interviewing you. You are my intern. When I returned there were 10 copies of your resume on my desk. You are so determined.” I stayed in NYC for a year.

BPN: What came next?

JJF: I was not selling anything, just creating and having fun. People started calling me a designer before I thought I was. I won a competition that I didn’t even know I had entered (someone entered me). Amazingly, I won third place and my work was shown in a Soho museum and my designs were in the window. This got me some notice as well as around that same time Caribbean Fashion week expressed interest in me. I ended up showing in Soho and in Jamaica on the same day. My husband did the Soho show and I went to Jamaica. We had to create different looks for the two shows and that’s when my mom began working with me. The first New York Fashion Week show I did was while I was still living in Boston. A friend invited me to a conference and had a show for designers. I created three garments to showcase what I do and went with Archangel Boutique and they loved it. I then had to come up with twelve looks in seven days. My career was launched!

BPN: How did you manage to juggle so many things?

JJF: Isaiah stayed in Boston with his dad and I would return on weekends. After the year I came home because it was too hard to do with a child; I could not be a good mom or a good wife and, in fact, I couldn’t even be a good designer. I took a hiatus, got a job and purchased a home.

BPN: Was it hard to put Kreyol on the back burner at that time?

JJF: Well it wasn’t always I am Kreyol. First it was Caleidoscope. It’s been I am Kreyol for over 10 years now though. I realized I needed time to get things in order. When the earthquake happened in Haiti, we did a major fundraiser with other organizations and with artists like Shea Rose. The fundraiser was very successful and I am Kreyol was back, creating events and bringing artistic elements together.

BPN: Can you talk more about the significance and/or influence of Haiti in your work?

JJF: It’s huge. I was born in Haiti and came to the states, New Jersey first, when I was 7/8 years old. During the Duvalier regime when he ousted, there was political unrest and a kind of militia terrorizing us. My mom had a store that was burned down and we would sleep under the bed with sounds of gunshots so she moved us here. Coming here in the late 80s was very hard. Haitians were linked with AIDS and considered dirty. As an immigrant I’ve never really felt at home in the US but I also don’t feel at home in Haiti. (In Haiti they called me a white girl). But I have found home in myself and I can laugh now about what used to make me cry. I was treated differently and I’ve always been different. I didn’t know how to speak English and was put in a bilingual class but the kids would make fun of my accent. I remember one incident when I asked the teacher for an eraser except I used the Creole word which is “gum”. The whole class laughed at me and so of course, that is one of those things that stayed with me.

BPN: That explains your community activist spirit. How does that fit with your design aethestic?

JJF: Well we are located at Fairmount lab now and working on acquiring more space for production. I want to hire someone in the Haitian community, an immigrant to whom I can teach a skill to help sustain her life style. My plan is to travel to Haiti and do a factory model in three years. We would provide skills to Haitian women, putting money back in Haitian pockets. Additionally there are a lot of small business designers like me in Boston and I want to provide co-production space for other designers who can also use our skilled women. You need to have capital to bridge the gap in this way. So I definitely want to go back to Haiti and contribute to economy.

BPN: Sounds like for you, the business is just as important as the fashion?

JJF: To be honest, I don’t love fashion that much. I’m good at it but fashion is an avenue to get enough influence so we can raise enough capital so we can provide a means.

BPN: I admire your commitment.  Rumor has it you recently quit your day job. Congratulations, you’re getting closer to your goals.

JFF: Thank you. Yes, Kreyol has been up and running steadily since 2012. I left my latest job in January 2017 because last year it was really hard. The business was taking off but I had no time to do it all. I began getting sick a lot, falling asleep at the wheel…. I realized that I can’t sacrifice my family and I also can’t sacrifice Kreyol.

BPN: Your work has so much depth and nuance. Is this your inspiration wall? (Note: The area behind her desk is a montage of magazine photos of multi-hued models, fabrics, clothes, art pieces, makeup, etc.)

JFF: I had a sewing room and all four walls were like this. I’m doing a fall collection called “Lotus” and want to use all dark skin women with white hair, pure white, and do some henna on their skin. Every collection is different. My former boss at H and M told me that she hired me because of my answer to her question about my inspiration for a vest I created. I said it was a copper penny (with tones of charcoal gray, green and copper). I had this mesh at the house and made a vest and spray painted it to look like the penny and then got inspiration for rest of collection. Inspiration is not always profound. One time I used a traditional Haitian dress silhouette but made it out of denim. Often times I need to see the fabric first and then that will dictate what comes next. Every single collection has its own story.

BPN: By the way I attended the Tyaphaka art/music/dance performance at Hibernian Hall mainly because I heard you were the costume designer for the dancer. It was magnificent. How did you come up with that design?

JJF: I looked at sculpture that inspired the musical work, videos of the dancer and I listened to pieces from the composer but I had to bring my own element and interpret in my own way. I used lycra, a regular leotard and stretchy top so it was easy to move in.   Everything was breathable; the nylon and lycra moved along with the dancer’s body and replicated the sculpture. Texture was really important so I fashioned that shiny fiberglass onto her arms to give her wings. I wanted it to become something magical.

BPN: You and Kreyol are everywhere lately. Gallery shows, costume design, magazine spreads, art collaborations, other creative endeavors. How did all this recognition come about?

JFF: I never sought to push myself to the foreground but the more I created, the more it would be noticed. I did some work with other creatives like Shea Rose that garnered notice and I created 60 costumes for an event. We’ve been really consistent.

BPN: I’ve seen several of your epic installations and you always have such stunning yet untraditional models. How do you find them?

JFF: I look for certain things. When I first started designing, all models were thin, tall blonde with blue eyes. Black models were not the thing. I always said I wanted to see black models in high fashion not just urban wear. So we shot editorials that were not traditional with huge hair and ethnic models who are sculptured with great features. They don’t have to be traditionally beautiful, but beautiful in their own right. If there is a girl who is beautiful on the outside but her energy is not right, I won’t use her. I look for someone for whom it means something beyond putting on a garment. Someone who looks at themselves like Kreyol, which signifies bold, beautiful and individual. I also think its awesome to use larger size models and older models. A lot also depends on the collection of course. And it’s harder to maintain in Boston than New York.

BPN: Do you feel mainstream fashion is changing?

JFF:  There are definitely more models of color on the runways and in magazines. It’s making people aware and more conscious. Check out Teen Vogue For February; they’ve got a new black editor there and it shows. Fashion is a catalyst for the message we are putting out. Designers are using fashion shows to say whatever they want politically.

BPN: You clearly have a very supportive family. What roles do they play?

JFF: My mother sews, my brother does a lot of PR and is the “people person”. It’s truly a family affair as my sister does communication and customer service. My son is learning to be the website person. He was born that way; at three years old he was putting together the VCR.

BPN: What’s Kreyol’s business vision for future? Taking over the world?

JJF: Right now we have no option but to stay small but that’s not the ultimate goal. We want to be in multiple high-end boutiques across the nation and, ultimately, we want to be global for sure.

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