“Math was my first love. It’s the only universal language I could connect with every time I moved and was lost with new languages”. Diarra Bousso was born in Dakar, Senegal, but raised between her motherland, Norway and the United States. She graduated in Mathematics, as to be expected, and started her career as a trader in Wall Street. Two years later, she left everything to start not one, but two direct-to-consumer fashion brands in her native country: Diarrablu and Diarrabel.
But one would be mistaken to think she turned her back to Mathematics entirely. Her prints are designed based on mathematical equations. Those who visit Diarrablu’s first flagship store, which opened in Dakar this month, can use a coloring station to interact with the equations and create their own prints. This way, Bousso says, everyone can be a print designer.
Now, she divides her time between the roles of educator, researcher and fashion designer. Her designs, which have been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Elle and the New York Times, are available for purchase worldwide via the brands’ ecommerce. Diarrablu also works with a number of concept stores in Abidjan, Nairobi, Brazzaville, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami and Aspen, with more international wholesale partners to be added soon.
FashionUnited spoke with Bousso to learn more about her career trajectory and future plans. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How was it to become a fashion designer and start a fashion business without previous fashion experience? What challenges did you face in the beginning?
I did a lot of research and fully immersed myself in the field. For three years I traveled to every fashion week I could be invited to, tried networking as much as possible, and visited factories in Asia to learn their processes and train my Senegalese artisans. I just fully focused on learning rather than making any sales.
It was challenging because I had to invest a lot to travel and self-explore in a field I knew nothing about, but my previous experience on Wall Street definitely helped me to structure everything I saw into a business model and be able to make projections.
You were born in Senegal, but also lived in Norway and the US. In what ways have these three different cultures influenced you as a person and as an entrepreneur?
In Norway, I went to the United World College which was an international boarding school with all countries represented. We were 200 students between grades 11 and 12, aged 16 to 18. I got to learn about diversity, global citizenship and tolerance which has really shaped my worldly vision.
After college in Minnesota and working in New York, I knew when I came back to Dakar to launch my company that it had to be geared toward a global audience. I knew it had to be conscious and celebrate diversity at all levels, from the staff we work with to the audience we cater to.
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Your designs are heavily influenced by mathematics. Can you explain how?
I love Art and Design but ultimately my first love in Math. It’s the only universal language I could connect with every time I moved and was lost with new languages. Math makes me feel free and, in a design sense, the idea of infinity makes design options limitless.
The main print for Diarrablu’s SS19 collection, titled “Ndar”, was obtained from the graphing of various equations (linear, quadratic and absolute value) to recreate randomized shapes. The shapes were then filled with colors and the patterns were cut into various shapes and went through geometric transformations such as dilations, rotations and reflections in order to create a final motif, printed on crepe and chiffon fabrics. The main equations are parabolic of the form y=ax2+bx+c.
Tell us about your first brick and mortar store in Dakar.
I always dreamed of having my own gallery. I was never excited about a store, but rather wanted a space that would represent my world, which lies at the intersection of math and art. Fashion is just one of the consequences of my fascination with math, so the space had to convey that message. That’s why we opened with a museum-style exhibition.
I wanted my first flagship to include all the elements that create meaning for me. I want people to feel the texture of my equations, understand the history of my traditions and celebrate my rich African cultural heritage consciously.
Any plans to open more stores in Senegal? What about abroad?
We plan to open more stores in Senegal as long as each space can be unique, represent the Diarrablu lifestyle and have the Math Lab setup so customers can make their own prints. As a math educator, I am obsessed about classrooms and labs as that’s where I spend most of my time. We also aim to expand abroad.
How is your business going so far?
We prefer not to share numbers but Diarrablu is growing very fast with trailing 12 months revenues at a 400 percent growth as of April 2019. We hope to use this growth to increase our production, grow our team and expand in more markets.