Designing Woman Dayanne Danier: An Interview with Bien Abyé’s Creator
Are you byen abiye? Are you a dandy type, the type who will not step outside your door, without giving yourself a multi-angle full-length mirror look over? Are you the renaissance woman type, who not only excels in being cultured, but being sophisticated and chic too? Dayanne Danier’s line Bien Abyé—spelled her way—is the way to go for you. The collection is made up of well-tailored silhouettes with a definite feminine look, with plenty of attention to fabric detail—of that Danier makes certain. Her hip, uniquely-made fashions have had participants at fashion shows crane their necks for a second look, and has socialites clamoring to get a piece from the latest creations in her latest collection, which she’s termed Amazon Come Alive. The collection thrives on bright colors, reminiscent of the liveliness of the jungles of the Amazon, but no savagery here. It’s all about the sophisticated, ready-to-wear look.
Born in Massachusetts to Haitian parents, Danier figured the fashion world would be her calling in life early on. Although her family was one the first Haitian families to settle in the predominantly white suburban area of the state at that time, she emphasizes that they were very, very Haiti-centric in their ways. For better or for worse, but mostly for better, little Dayanne grew up with a strong sense of personal responsibility that was bequeathed to her by her parents. She has a strong work ethic, thank you very much, even by designer working life standards. Her day starts easily enough, with the email checking, followed by an energy-boosting workout at the gym, but then the grueling part starts: staying abreast of the year’s fashion calendar, masterminding her newest collection, working with sample room on client orders, and dealing with the demands of a new season. More than being the designer extraordinaire is her interest in her fellow Haitian (a good 10% of her time goes into working with organizations that operates in Haiti). She is in the middle of a project that she’s been planning for Haiti for some time now. It’s taking a lot of time away from her line, but she’s confident that it will bring her as much satisfaction as dressing the sophisticated women of the world.
Q & A
How did you come up with concept and the name for the brand? The concept for Bien Abyé really came from a void I noticed in the market. Women today are more active than before. We play major roles at home, at work, and in our community. Over the past few years, we have become such a casual and contemporary society; it became harder to find clothing that fits this new active lifestyle. Either brands are too casual for a woman to wear to work or too boring to wear out to an event with friends. There is a need for something in-between that takes women everywhere; from work to a night out on the town. She wants to be well-dressed at all times, and that is what Bien Abyé is, well-dressed! The name, I have to say comes with an interesting story. Like most designers, I wanted to use my name. When I went to trademark Dayanne Danier, my lawyer said it was not available. I almost laughed and thought he was kidding. Well, he wasn’t. And over drinks with a friend—Rum Barbancourt—to get over my sorrow, he asked why I became a fashion designer. When I told him it starts with my dad always saying: “Make sure you are Bien Abyé when you leave the house”, it just came to me that was going to be the name. Bien Abyé was born.
Did you feel that having a Creole name for it would become an obstacle, in terms of pronunciation—though the fashion world does thrive in exotic pronunciations? I have had that question asked of me before, especially since it is not really 100% Creole but more “French”—Bien—-Creole—Abyé—and that is Dayanne’s version of Creole. [Laughter] But the beauty of being an artist is making up your own rules. And when I think of how I grew up, Bien Abyé was such an important concept in my life. The world will just have to learn this exotic pronunciation like the rest of the fashion brands out there. Also, growing up with the name Dayanne, I am used to bad American pronunciations.
Are you the one who selects the models when you’re having a fashion function, or for your print ads? That all depends on the situation. I try to express my preference as much [and have as much] say as possible without being a diva and whatever I can’t influence, I go with it and make it work. There have been times when I am presenting my collection with a group of designers, so I can’t be too picky on model selection. When it is a fashion show I am planning, then yes, I pick the models. I try to be as diverse with my model selection as possible. Bien Abyé is not just for one demographic and I believe it is important to represent that on the runway or through presentations. When it comes to print for look books, I have a lot more say because I am the one setting it all up.
You attended Massachusetts College of Art, and earned a BA in fine arts with a concentration in Fashion Design. If you had to do it all over again, would you still do that? Or would you get a degree in something else…say business, and minor in fashion? If I had to do it again, it would always be fashion! I was an artist at a young age. I was always the class artist since grammar school. By the time I got to high school, I still loved art. School was never a challenge, matter of fact I was the president of the National Honor Society. At the same time, I always found myself running to calculus class with pastel chalk all over my hands from art class. But I can’t lie, to satisfy my Haitian parents, I did apply to college for computer engineering. But dealing with fabric and paint was more fun. It was important to me to do something that had no formulas, something that was pure imagination. And so fashion was it. I do love pattern drafting so that must come from the side of my brain that loved calculus.
By the age of 9, you already knew you wanted to become a designer? Yes. I don’t know why, but I loved drawing clothes. My mom loved to sew, like every Haitian woman. There were always about 3 or 4 sewing machines in the house. But it wasn’t sewing that intrigued me; it was truly the designing part. Coming up with things from my own imagination. I always had a vivid imagination. But that is a whole other story.
When you were in high school, were you the type of girl who stood out among everyone else? I wouldn’t say I stood out like someone who wore weird clothes. I was just active. I was the class artist, I was president of my senior class, and surprisingly I was on the basketball team. In high school I probably stood out because of my laugh. I love to laugh.
You didn’t sew anyone’s prom or cotillion dresses, did you? [Laughter] Actually, I designed both my junior and senior prom dress. And once again, I designed it, not sew it. I always wanted something different. Not different crazy, just different…something no one had!
Before starting Bien Abyé, you worked for such fashion houses as Perry Ellis International and Philip Van Heusen. When you work for big mainstream brands like that, how did you keep your own independent vision as a designer in place? I always say every experience in life is a learning stage and working for two big apparel giants was exactly that. I learned so much from each. They both opened my eyes to major elements of the apparel industry. A designer will always have their own vision, but one must keep in mind who their client is and those companies taught me that a lot. With both companies, I was a men’s wear designer. So of course, I was not designing for myself, but I never lost my vision. If anything, it helped me to discover how to morph my vision for whoever the client was.
What did you learn while working for those two brands that have helped you with Bien Abyé? They both came with their own lessons. With Perry Ellis, I worked under the Latin brands Cubavera—which was great because Latin men know fashion—so designing for that demographic was exciting. Fabric development was a very important aspect of each design, so I got to really enjoy developing new fabrics. Philip van Heusen was a fabulous experience as well because they really put an emphasis on branding and always trying to stay brand focus. In this economy, with so many people just wanting to sell anything, understanding the concept of branding is very important to a designer and I am very grateful for having that experience.
Were your parents supportive of your career choice? Or did they buy you a stethoscope as a hint? [Laughter] Wait [More laughter] Were my parents supportive? What Haitian parents are supportive when their child says, “I want to be a fashion designer”? What I had to go through to get my father to accept that his engineering dreams were not coming from me. I remember the day I told him what type of college I was applying to, he was not happy. I know he was worried when I graduated at first. But after [seeing me work for] two big American companies and me sending him clothes that I designed…he got used to it. It was having a Bien Abyé fashion show during New York Fashion Week—where everyone was there for me—which made him realize he doesn’t have to worry.
Some girls, some women will step out of the house any sort of way, convincing themselves that the way they’re groomed has no bearing on anything whatsoever. What’s your viewpoint on this? And what’s your advice to them? I completely disagree. I feel your clothing is the first impression you make to someone before opening your mouth. If we all started off by walking into a room screaming and shouting statements, that would be one thing. And it would be a crazy society, but when one walks into a room, one is sized up immediately. If you want people to have positive things to say about you, then dress appropriately. Whenever I see someone in the streets who is dressed in an odd way, I say that they must have no mirrors in the house or maybe just face mirrors. My advice to people is: It’s all about setting the right tone, painting the right picture, and always being Bien Abyé!
You’re launching a new not-for-profit called Fleur de Vie Yes, this year I started an organization call Fleur De Vie. It stems from over the past few years. I have traveled back to Haiti to plan a give back program with the community in a grassroots way. First year is an after school art program with children in school. Last year, it was pattern drafting with adult teachers. It is a way to ensure donations truly get to the end user and don’t get lost in “administrative costs”. Although, fundraising for Haiti is good, at the same time, as a Haitian living in the U.S, I feel it is important to connect direct with Haiti on the ground and help wherever possible. I also get frustrated when I hear about all the money that was donated to Haiti, but I don’t see where it went. But sitting on the side lines commenting about it is not going to help. Fleur De Vie’s focus is not just to raise funds and awareness. It’s to develop programs on the ground that reach out to the community. This year’s project is about “Back To School” and children. I strongly believe in education and mentoring at a young age. Children are the future of Haiti. How can we expect the future of Haiti to change if we don’t start to nurture the minds and dreams of children?
You’ve also collaborated with Haiti Outreach Ministries and had seminars in Haiti to teach pattern drafting and construction techniques to sewing teachers there. Is that a prelude to something bigger? I strongly believe in helping Haiti the right way. To me, education and training is the solution to a lot of Haiti’s problems. My time with Haiti Outreach Ministry was amazing. I thought teaching adults was going to be a challenge, especially since my Creole at the time was very weak, and that is putting it nicely. But in the end, when the teachers asked me to come back, I realized I made a carbon footprint. Being able to teach people something that can help better their life is amazing. It was a wonderful experience, because I learned a lot as well. Is it a prelude to something…hmmmmm? If I am brought to Haiti someday to have a school for design or shall we say Maison de Couture, then I would teach them the same way I was taught. It would have to cover the concept of color, the fine craft of tailoring and construction, the beauty of draping, the knowledge of textiles and production. It would definitely not be a three-month sewing class or a two-year degree. I don’t know if the patience for such a school exists right now. Engineering in Haiti is a five-year degree. I would love for them to look at apparel and textile the same way. And then, I would look into it.
As a clothing designer, you have often created designs based on shoes? My other loves in fashion are accessories and shoes. They can be so much fun. There have been times that I have seen a shoe and the way it wraps the foot and it has inspired me for a new style and how to wrap the body. My inspirations come from all over the place because tailoring to me is another way of saying structure. So the structure of an object, in this example a shoe, can evoke other images in my head. I know it sounds strange, but…it works for me.
Do you have any counsel for the ladies out there who want to renovate their wardrobe? My biggest advice for women who want to renovate their wardrobe is to make their wardrobe an investment. Buy amazing staple pieces that can last forever, styles that you don’t have to change that often. That is where you spend the money so the styles are durable and have some longevity. And spice it up with trendy pop pieces like prints and accessories and that is where you can spend the least amount. A person—women and men—should not have a wardrobe that is made of all fun trendy pieces. Those go out of style and will get boring. Which will cause one to shop more and spend more money in the long run. Buy core pieces that work and shop every season for the new trend pieces that one does not mind throwing away after a few washes.
You’ve visited Haiti several times. What has been your impression about fashion there? Did anything in particular strike you about trends and style there? Fashion in Haiti tells me about one’s connection to the outside of Haiti. There are so many people traveling in and out of Haiti, nothing in particular stood out because brands you find in the U.S, you can find in Haiti. It might not be as accessible as it is here, but someone is either buying it while they are on vacation or will bring it to someone in Haiti. I wish as a country, they would support “Haitian made” more. There are a lots of talented designers in Haiti and the population should support them. I also notice the lack of shopping destinations in Haiti. People buy clothes hanging in the street. Everyone talking about investing in Haiti always refer to tourism, hotel, and factories. Why not invest in a shopping center that the majority of the population could afford the product? That way less imports of foreign brands and more support for domestic brands. There is a population of 8 million people. Can you imagine the underwear company that makes products for 8 million people? Some trends that I notice in my travels that did stand out quite a bit are the love for the color yellow and the fact that most women in the streets wear skirts. I noticed that ever since last year. This is very interesting considering I feel like the next big color in fashion will be yellow. But I could be crazy. And regards to the skirts, I don’t know what to say, I guess it is a cultural thing.
Naturally, we have to ask this question: Where do you find inspiration for your designs? My inspiration comes from all over the place usually comes in layers. I have inspirations for individual designs and also inspirations for a collection as a whole. Overall, it really depends on what I am in the mood for at the time. For example, when it comes to the overall collections, Spring 2012 was the Amazon Rainforest, Fall 2013 is Picasso’s Blue Period, Spring 2013 is Aphrodite, the goddess of love. I just pick them out of my head in a way. When it comes to individual designs, I am really inspired by architecture and flowers, things with structure—since I have a fondness for tailoring.
Besides the Bien Abyé line, where does Dayanne Danier do her shopping? Um, this is hard because I have not been doing much shopping considering my knowledge of the industry. My closest is really made of mostly Bien Abyé. I will have to say I have a love for Calvin Klein, but that comes with the years of work at PVH since they own Calvin Klein. I do find that having the perfect fit denim jeans is important and right now my brand of choice is Siwy Jeans.
A lot of people are their own persons when it comes to fashion, whereas others are often afraid to take risks. This goes back to my comment about how your clothes speak for you before you open your mouth. Those who often are their own person, like a Lady Gaga, their fashion speak to their personality. Whereas those who are afraid to take risks with fashion, are often afraid to take risks in life…Either way, there is a place for all types of people and a client for all types of fashion.
Trends come and go. What do you feel will never go out of style? Wow! There are so many things that will never go out of style: denim jeans, little black dress, white buttoned-down shirt. And the list can go on.
How has Haitian culture influenced your designs? Haitian culture has influenced my designs in many aspects. What is Bien Abyé? You say that to any other culture and they take time to come up with a vision in their head. You say Bien Abyé to Haitians and we just know what the word really means. So that in itself is a strong, strong influence. It’s interesting in the states. The image portrayed about Haitian culture is so wrong. I often hear non-Haitians [being] amazed at the fact that after the earthquake, people living in tents, can still get up and go to work or go to church and their clothes are nicely pressed and still look well dressed. Or at 8 A.M., when you are driving throughout Haiti, all the children are in uniform. To them, it is amazing; to them it is astonishing. To me, it’s Haitian culture. I learned the concept of Bien Abyé from my Haitian parents which raised their kids in the only culture they knew, the Haitian culture. So when people ask me has the Haitian culture influenced my designs, the only answer is of course [yes] because I am Haitian.
Growing up, who was the most fashionable person that you knew? I would have to say my dad. My dad looks great all the time. Image was so big to him. Bien Abyé, Bien Abyé! Growing up, he would have all his suits tailor-made. He would go to parent-teacher meetings in a three-piece suit. My dad bought his first pair of jeans after he turned 50. Looking appropriate was always a priority for him and it is a fashion he passed on to his children.
You often speak at fashion design schools. What advice do you have for up-and-coming designers? My advice to up-and-coming designers is to be as individually creative as possible while knowing the market. I am very big into branding. Too often young designers make one beautiful piece after another with no connection to each other and when you ask them is the client for each piece the same person, they say “yes” immediately, but in reality, they’re not. That’s the lack of knowledge of branding and knowing one’s client. And my other advice would be to have patience! This industry is a jungle and if a young designer thinks they are going to strike it big immediately, they could get burned quickly.
The road to success as a designer is not always filled with pretty fabrics and gorgeous lace. What difficulties and obstacles have you had to overcome? As a designer, there are many challenges and obstacles. Marketing, I would have to say, is a major one. Large brands have big budgets to put towards marketing and so do the celebrity brands out there. Small designers like me face major challenges trying to compete with a brand that has lot of dollars to spend on marketing. And marketing is everything. Without it, you don’t have a business. I would also say the quantity issue in combination with overseas production. Brands that are well-known are getting order requests that make it easy for them to produce in places overseas, whereas a small brand like myself will most likely produce in the U.S.—which I like because I strongly believe in “Made in the USA”. At the same time, labor costs in the U.S are a lot higher. I someday want to move production to Haiti, but still waiting for quality standards to meet high-end demand.
As a kid, did you wish that your Dayanne was spelled “Diane?” Are you in my head you and you didn’t tell me! Yes, as a kid, I always questioned why my parents spelled my name such an un-ordinary way. But then I found out the history behind the spelling and as an adult, I loved the spelling of my name.
Do you have any regrets about your life? I try not to regret any aspect of my life. I will say the death of my mother at a young age often makes me wonder how my life would be different if she were here. But losing her as a child made me the woman I am today. And I accept that. There are a lot of experiences and decisions we make in life that we wish we could change, but that is life and we just have to live.
What’s the best thing about being Haitian? The best thing about being Haitian is the sense of resilience. Haitians never give up. I don’t know if I could be in the industry if I were not Haitian-American. I was focused at 9 and I am focused now. I said I wanted my own business and…voila!
What’s next for the brand? What is next for Bien Abyé? To be a national brand in the US and develop a worldwide presence. I would love to have Bien Abyé free standing stores. Although the internet is taking over consumer spending, I want to bring back the concept of amazing client service. If a woman is spending money on fashion, she should have someone advising her the right way on how to spend her money. A wardrobe should be an investment, not this disposable product we have all over the place. The only way people will start to dress better is if they buy better clothes and people often need guidance on how to buy and wear quality clothes.