Paul Andre began his career in fashion…when he was four years old.
Living in Abidjan, the largest city in West Africa’s Ivory Coast, he would help his grandmother while she sold fabric in an open market. It was at this time that he became fascinated with people and cultures and, primarily, with fashion.
Years later, he moved to the United States to study IT and eventually began working at a law firm. But he could never escape the idea that fashion was where he belonged. In fact, although he tried to get away from it, it seemed to be right in front of him through every step of his adult life. It was, as he puts it, his destiny. This is why he decided to quit his job at the firm to follow his dream of owning his own store: Paul Andre Boutique.
Keep reading to learn more about Paul Andre and his road to entrepreneurship.
CBRBiz.com: Who or what has inspired you on the road to entrepreneurship?
Paul Andre (PA): I gave myself the inspiration to own a boutique since I was young dreamer, and I always wanted to see people wear clothes correctly. I had always wanted to know the connection between people and clothes, depending on their mood, culture and economic status.
Since I was about 4 years old, I used to be with my grandmother who was a vendor in one of Abidjan’s largest open markets. She used to sell fabric. All types of people from all over would came to purchase her merchandise. This was one of my first exposures to different types of people and cultures. Since I used to help her with little chores in her business, I learned a lot, and I loved it.
Spending time with her was so much fun because she was comical. She always made rough situations turn into fun with the other vendors as well as the clients. Everyone looked up to her for advice, good conversation or just good ol’ friendship. She had a gift of being charismatic with everyone. I think the savoir-faire of dealing with people rubbed off on me because I became popular with her clients, too.
CBRBiz.com: How do you see your business growing in the next 5 years?
PA: I will promote/show how African designed clothes are/might be worn in regular fashion and high-fashion styles in the fashion world. I know the inside of West African fashion, and the samples of clothes that I have worn and given as gifts in the past were always so impressive to my friends. I was always asked to get more for their friends. Links and connections have endless possibilities.
These styles are in high demand, but the limited supply is a challenge. However, once I can make the supply and demand more equal, then I will be able to see growth. I would like to try and make the clientele more aware of what’s available and of the latest unique fashions from upcoming local and international West African designers.
CBRBiz.com: What motivated you to move to America and start a business?
PA: I came to the United States to study IT (computer science).
Actually, starting a business in the U.S. was not part of my plan whatsoever. However, after living here and becoming more aware of the incredibly high fashion market in New York City, I was shocked. I knew it existed but not to the degree that I witnessed.
Schools were quite different in the U.S. compared to Ivory Coast. From grammar school to high school, students are required to wear uniforms. Once in college, you’re free to wear what you want. But I noticed in New York, teens wore what they wanted. My college student peers were as diverse in clothing styles as in cultures and personalities. This collage of diversity was so interesting to me that I became very interested in what used to interest me in my childhood, which was being alongside my grandmother in a hustling, bustling market. I resisted the urge to be in that type of career because of peer pressure from back home. I do believe that many people who migrate to the U.S. feel they have an obligation to get the best education and try to get a job that is far more “socially acceptable” than what they used to do in their home country. Anything less than the best is often perceived as a failure.
It is your life, and you have to do what makes you happy if you can, and you have to at least try.
Having had that burden on my mind, I tried to move up the ladder onto other types of jobs that I thought would be more accommodating to my acquired educational level. Then I saw the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.” What an eye opener it was for me. It reflected the reality of the world of work, whether you love or learn what you do, whether it’s your passion or being able to do your best.
It is your life, and you have to do what makes you happy if you can, and you have to at least try.
CBRBiz.com: Where do you get your inspiration for your clothes?
PA: My inspiration for clothes comes from traveling to different countries. Growing up in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and being that Abidjan is a very cosmopolitan city with a large variety of African ethnic groups from all over the continent, I would see tourists and residents and basically know where they came from by the way they dressed. That was always intriguing to me because most of the time I was correct. The mixing of African, European, Asian or American styles was interesting; I liked the blending as it made unique combinations in my mind.
The artwork of artisans was equally as influential. Wood carvings, batiks, paintings, jewelry, mud cloth and stone carvings inspired designs on shirts, dashikis, boubous, pants and dresses.
Having moved to the U.S., I lived in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. I would always feel I was walking into a live fashion show on the streets. I would see (who I thought were Africans who migrated like myself) people wearing different styles of traditional west African style clothing that I could not pinpoint like I was accustomed to doing in Abidjan. I would sometimes ask them about their clothes, and I oftentimes would discover they were African-Americans who had traveled to different African countries and would have clothes tailor made to their own personal style.
It made me feel so at home. I felt as if I could really relate to everyone through clothes.
Other times, they hadn’t traveled to Africa but just enjoyed the remnants of the styles that were influenced from the 1960s and 70s Black Beauty Movement. This was so humbling and interesting to me as it gave me a connection to African American sisters and brothers. The styles were sometimes similar to some of the basic ideas and designs that I had on clothes years ago. I would also be reminded of the vast array of clients as well as expatriates who lived in Ivory Coast back in the markets and streets.
Europeans (especially the French) always felt comfortable expressing their tropical fashion-wear in the heat of Abidjan. Asians from China, India and Lebanon were also wearing their traditional fashions mixed with typical Ivorian fashion. In New York, I would see similar fashion mixes, too. It made me feel so at home. I felt as if I could really relate to everyone through clothes.
Having encountered this diverse fashion forced me to really be inspired to get back to my drawing board and begin making personal designer clothes. It was literally one of the biggest breakthroughs in my life.
CBRBiz.com: How would you explain your clothing and what makes it unique?
PA: Blending styles and fabrics with different types of clothing items. Mixing the unexpected. Take for example, Ivorian/Ghanaian Kente on a western style shirt, or an African style Dashiki in denim fabric–the list goes on and on.
Another type of fabric I found to be of great interest in the African fashion scene was mud cloth from Mali. The designs that are created by this type of fabric can be uniquely casual or a smashingly sophisticated evening wear outfit. Some of the clothing has embroidery on items that might not normally have such designs. Wonders of the imagination is probably the best way to describe some of my clothing, and I can confidently say it gives someone a sense of pride and well-deserved attention.
CBRBiz.com: How do you think Charlotte’s business climate differs from the one in your home country?
PA: Charlotte is quiet, tranquil, casual. It’s similar to Ivory Coast in a few aspects. People invite me to have tea while we conduct business, and on that personal level, I found it similar to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. However, Abidjan was similar to NYC as well, with the fast hustle and bustle of city life. So Abidjan has a business climate between NYC and Charlotte. This aspect makes me feel at home. I enjoy the easy pace of life, as it allows room to not be bombarded by endless noise and fast city life.
Looking at people in North Carolina always reminds me of seeing the same faces at home. My hometown was a diverse city, and I see the same type of diversity here. I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere where politeness and respectfulness are always shown to each other.
Abidjan and Charlotte are both international cities that enjoy the influence and sparkle of other cultures, mixing it well with the local culture. Being that Abidjan was a massive city with direct ties to most other cities/countries in West Africa, it served as hub for commerce. I’ve noticed that Charlotte too seems to serve as a hub for not only the airlines but a business centre from the north as well as the southeast. I do seem to find that Charlotte’s rules and regulations tend to be easier to navigate because they are just easier to understand and more straightforward than my past cities.
CBRBiz.com: You worked in a law firm before you opened your boutique, what was it like transitioning from one industry to another?
PA: I worked in the law firm, and I loved it. It was a new experience that was different from what I studied in school, yet I was still able to employ my computer science studies to my job.
I actively participated in understanding the relationship between law and life. Because law deals with every aspect of life, I learned quite of a bit about the business of law and how pricey it can be if mistakes or violations occur. Working within the confines of law–with lawyers, judges, law enforcement, corporate executives, as well as with everyday people–I was involved in a vast array of dealing with people on all levels of society.
Being that judicial court proceedings are formal, the lawyers in my firm were always well dressed. I would often hear that being dressed appropriately was appealing and portrayed confidence and success to clients.
“First Impressions are lasting impressions.”
“Dress for success.”
I had to be well-dressed too on my job. I was always complimented on my clothing, and my colleagues would often seek my advice for what to wear and how to wear what in front of different types of clients. It was as if they sensed a sixth sense in me in relation to fashion and the minds of others! I laugh to myself when I think about it, but for some reason or another, it seemed to be somewhat true. Even though I tried to get away from fashion industry, it seemed to be in my face through every step of my adult life.
It was, plain and simple, just my destiny.
CBRBiz.com: What obstacles did you face while starting this company? How did you overcome them?
PA: Money was the number one obstacle in starting the business. Finding a location that was affordable and would be in an area that supported an environment of shoppers and clients was challenging. Promoting and advertising the business were not the easiest things to put forward.
It seemed that taking a big loss before being able to break even seemed to be the norm, but it was a learning process. I initially was supposed to go into the business with a partner, but an unforeseen obstacle prevented the business partner from being able to continue, and we were unfortunately not able to partake in the venture together.
I went to the library and glanced through a few books on how to start a business. I learned that it’s good to become familiar with the general procedures with starting a business, in addition to the local Chamber of Commerce, local law enforcement, local community leaders in the neighborhood, as well as local politicians. Knowing the names and locations of key figures is always useful when navigating one’s way through the red tape and paperwork of a new business, as is making a reasonable budget plan and realistically being able to support the business, yourself, employees, and maintain the upkeep of the business.
I was very fortunate to meet a City Council member of District 2, Mr. Al Austin. Mr. Austin was very kind and open in offering me an abundance of advice on the correct proceedings on processing, registering and utilizing services available to businesses in the city. The information I acquired was invaluable and very helpful in integrating me into the city and my local business community in Charlotte. I found that the information in the book was correct because it made me seek information to be in a position to meet integral authorities in the local government. This knowledge made my journey into the business ownership world a pleasant, accommodating experience.
CBRBiz.com: Is there any advice you would give to someone trying to become an entrepreneur in Charlotte?
PA: I would advise someone trying to become an entrepreneur in Charlotte to have patience and find people in local government, the Chamber of Commerce, or community colleges to offer advice on key elements to consider for starting a business venture. Read as much information as you can about opening a business. Utilize all resources available, be it the library, internet, movies, “how to” videos on YouTube, etc.
Follow your dreams, and do what you do best.
Follow your dreams, and do what you do best. If you love what you do, you won’t have to try to do your best because you will be living your life doing THE BEST, thus it will be occurring naturally. Follow your dreams, and do what you do best.
Be sure to Like Paul Andre Boutique on Facebook, check it out for yourself! It’s located at 1814 Rozelles Ferry Rd, right near Johnson C. Smith University. Have more questions for Paul or for us? Tweet them to @CBRBiz!