Peulh Vagabond: The Discovery of One Another. An Interview with Dyenaa Diaw

There isn't a woman, but rather THE woman present in each one of us, wanting to open up to the world, take charge, and claim her individuality. This is Peulh Vagabond's ethos. Peulh, a french word referring to the Fulani tribe or otherwise called Fula or Fulbè, an ethnic group in the Sahel and West Africa. Vagabond, a fun quest for untold stories. Peulh Vagabond is a Parisian fashion label consistently surprising the world since 2014 with a romantic dance between avant-gardist structures and traditional textiles, calling for the discovery of one another. Each collection is inspired by a travel, the people, and their story. Dyenaa Diaw, the creator behind the brand, is a young French woman born to Senegalese parents, whose passion for travels, quest, and culture was sparkled succeeding a personal turmoil. A single mother of two, her story is one to inspire many.

FATIMA: What event led to the birth of Peulh Vagabond?

Dyenaa: Peulh Vagabond was born from my passion for clothing. I earned a degree in Fashion Design and Merchandising, and although I didn't work in the field immediately after my studies, I've always had a particular attraction to fashion. It is a part of me. I love envisioning, drawing, and conceptualizing. I did lack the courage to undertake my passion. It isn't easy to leave a stable job to start an entrepreneurial adventure, but I have no regrets. And if I were to do it over again, I would run with it without hesitation and less concerns knowing the journey isn't an easy one. 

FATIMA: You were born and raised in the 18th arroundissement of Paris to second generation Senegalese immigrants. Were there any cultural gaps and expectations that impacted your creative freedom? If, so tell us more.

Dyenaa: Living in Paris with immigrant parents, in modest conditions, was actually a strength. I grew up with this double culture, and Africa was omnipresent. Fourth of 8 siblings, our home was lively. My father would constantly speak to us in Fulani, and I would often travel back home to Senegal. My mother's closet was full of treasures. I would search her trunks for African fabrics that I would later incorporate into my western looks. The environment participated in my open view of the world. Growing up in the most cosmopolitan neighborhood, where Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Yugoslavs among others coexist, I was inspired by the cultural melting-pot. Then, in terms of creativity, I had to prove I could offer the same as those from Ivy League schools. Things weren't easy, I had to fight to be taken seriously. 

FATIMA: Being a single mother of two young children, how do you balance your work and personal life?

Dyenaa: I was lucky to receive support from close family members. My mother would often repeat: "Dyenaa, don't turn your children into needy ones otherwise you'll struggle." So early on, the three of us found our rhythm. I empowered them to be responsible without putting my motherly duties to the side, and I have no regrets. This is our strength. They understand my situation and know that some periods are more intense in terms of work; launching a collection, fashion shows etc. And on the other end, the time spent with them is important to me, I enjoy dropping my son to his games and my daughter to her dance classes. I listen to them and openly share my hardships but also my successes. I want to inculcate them the taste of challenge. Peulh Vagabond is our adventure, the three of us. 

FATIMA: Any instances with your ex-husband that triggered the feminist side in you?

Dyenaa: I was married for several years and just like many women, I was completely financially dependent of my spouse. It was even harder, as I found myself at a loss. How to manage the aftermath and move on? Bills piled up with a declining morale, and like others I had to pick myself back up and handle the situation. This process wasn't without challenges, but I simply had to be strong. I reconciled with my internal demons, put words on my pain, rethought my faith, and accepted it all as a test to overcome. I then started working about a year after the separation. With the help of my sisters and a friend, I resurfaced, and discovered in myself resources I couldn't hope for. It was during this time that the desire to create my brand and bring my own creations to life was born. These hardships strengthened my relationship with my sewing machine. Once I resolved my financial problems, I started traveling more often; meeting Fulanis, having conversations with artisans and women at markets in Africa, who would share their life and difficulties with a smile. Their optimism and outlook on life was inspiring. Hearing their experiences helped rationalize things on my end much easier. In these times, our weaknesses become our strengths, we listen more, learn, and discover what true determination is. 

FATIMA: Before any big leap of faith there typically is a mess to clean, what size was yours?

Dyenaa: To launch a company the right way, it is important to be in peace with oneself otherwise nothing great comes out of it. On my end, things were clear. I had to let go of the unnecessary that clustered my brain, as well as the negative people around me, create a community of like-minded and trustworthy individuals with some expertise to bring on, open up, and get out of my comfort zone. Forgive and ask forgiveness, which I did without shame as I was already more serene and confident about the future. In other words, lighten my heart allowed me to start-over with the right mindset. 

FATIMA: Were do you find your motivation to push the limits and fulfill your destiny despite the challenges?

Dyenaa: My faith in God helps tremendously, knowing God has a project for me. The support of my community as well, they were the first one to believe in me, and kept saying "Dyenaa, you have a gift, go for it." I work a lot and want my children to understand and appreciate what it is to work hard. And for those who doubt, I want to prove them that everything is possible so long as you give yourself the means. For me, this is just like a ride, and I refuse to be the passenger. I want to drive and explore different horizons without regrets. 

FATIMA: Going back to Peulh Vagabond, have you ever imagined being were you are today with milestones such as a Marie France feature and the opening of your first store?

Dyenaa: Very honestly, never. These milestones only deepens the idea that nothing is impossible. So, I continue my journey, and work harder to see other projects come to life. My Parisian showroom allows for greater proximity with my clients, and everyday I am blessed with beautiful encounters.

FATIMA: Tell us about the opening day: what you felt, thought, and how big your "happy dance" was.

Dyenaa: I approached the launch of the showroom impatient but serene, when I am typically an anxious person. My showroom is at the heart of the 18th arrondissement in Paris, where I grew up. Each time I walk-in feels like going back home. The ones that know me from childhood say hi, others stop by to congratulate. The neighborhood's fathers come by to pray for me and send blessings my way. They respect my work and never disturb during private meetings with clients. It is my sweet spot, and I believe that is what my clients appreciate the most at Peulh Vagabond. This lively aspect where tradition meets modern with a brand's concept calling for the discovery of one another.

FATIMA: In terms of your specific aesthetic, who is the Peulh Vagabond woman?

Dyenaa: The Peulh Vagabond woman is a chic and audacious one, who isn't afraid to dare and affirm herself. The whole brand's concept revolves around travels and the exploration of textiles. The designs are contemporary, pop, and graphic. I also enjoying making prints of tribal masks. I love my creations to tell a story. 

FATIMA: Travels, explorations, and discoveries are recurring themes in Peulh Vagabond, how do you incorporate those in your work and what do they mean to you personally?

Dyenaa: For each collection, I bring forth a fabric traditionally used in different regions of the world: Madagascar, Tanzania, Burkina Faso or Japan for example. The idea is to travel along the creations, and mostly to tell a story, the one of the people. There are so many unknown fabrics, which history is worth being discovered. Today more than ever, there is an extraordinary openness to the other. We can listen to Korean music, watch a South African movie, eat a Brazilian specialty, but fashion hasn't really captured that cultural exchange. That is what we aim for at Peulh Vagabond.

FATIMA: How did you fund Peulh Vagabond? If you sought external investors, how was it to raise capital as a woman and minority in France?

Dyenaa: I benefited from the support of a French organization helping young entrepreneurs in addition to a private investor. My family also helped me during the launch phase. 

FATIMA: What has this journey taught you so far?

Dyenaa: This confirmed that nothing is impossible in life so long as you work hard and provide quality. I have many more steps to go and I work consistently with determination. 

 

Photographs via Peulh Vagabond and Cathy Thiam