How Marie Jean-Baptiste Translates Her Haitian Heritage into Fashion
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We’re often told that going to college and majoring in something safe is the only way to find success. But that wasn’t the case for Marie Jean-Baptiste. She went from being a nursing school dropout to a successful fashion designer.
Rue107 is Marie’s vibrant fashion brand which has influences from her native Haiti and her own unique way she sees color. Since launching Rue in 2011, mega stars like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé and Amber Riley have sported the clothes.
We went to Rue107’s showroom and talked to Marie about what it was like almost failing, and how she turned her situation into some crazy success for herself and her brand.
Talk about your upbringing, you were born in Haiti?
I was born and raised there, I had a very colorful childhood. I don’t know if you know much about Haitian culture, but for us, it’s the arts. It’s in our DNA. Many of my dad’s friends were art collectors. There was always art and color around me. My dad is an educator so he ran school. I spent a lot of time there. I had a very easy, happy colorful childhood for sure.
You went to school for healthcare, and the Haitian school system is different from the United States. How is it different?
In high school, my sister enrolled me in a licensed practical nursing program, so I graduated as a licensed practical nurse. Then I went on to college to be a registered nurse. I also applied to FIT but they didn’t accept me so I said well if they’re not gonna accept me I might as well do something where I can get a job and I was already in healthcare, and I liked it enough, but obviously I wanted to [design]. My third year into registered nursing school, I dropped out, I walked away. I was doing clinical at Bellevue Psychiatric, I was on the 12th floor and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was just done with it.
So you came to the U.S. for college?
No I came here at 13. Actually my mom won the green card lottery, my sister was already living here and she applied for my mom, because we didn’t have a visa or anything, and my mom won.
Had you always been interested in fashion or was it something that kind of blossomed as you grew up?
I always knew I was going to work with color, if that makes any sense. I didn’t know what that would mean, but I always loved to paint, you know I had a very strict Catholic upbringing. We would have to draw the Virgin Mary and my brothers would draw her in blue, very pastel, and I would give her like red hair and purple dresses. So I always loved art and color, or I was going to be a dancer or a fashion designer and I probably knew that around high school.
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What was that moment when you walked out of the Psychiatric Clinic like?
So I finished the semester, and I failed my clinical. I don’t know if you’re familiar with how a clinical works, but you do a clinical and you do a lecture, and you have to combine them for you to pass. For class, you have to pass both parts so I passed lecture and I failed clinical at Bellevue, and I remember when my professor told me I had to repeat it. I just felt this weird sense of calmness, and I just knew that this was the last day I was going to be in this. So I ran down the stairs and ran to the train station, and I was like I’m never coming back. And that was it.
Oh my god, that’s crazy! So how did you start up Rue107, did you just start designing clothes?
I bought my first sewing machine as my high school graduation present to myself. So my first collection was right after high school, I collaborated with my best friend Hannah, and she was a model at the time. She was actually a working model, and she kind of brought me in to parties to meet people. She used to walk at Bryant Park fashion week when it was at the tents, and basically through her and her circle, I met Lemington Ridley who now lives in London. He took me on and taught me everything: how to sew, how to make patterns.
I stayed friends and worked with Lemington for at least 5 years. He really took me on, so the whole time I was in nursing school, I would work with him after hours. I interned at Araks, a high-end lingerie brand. I did a bunch of internships, and made clothes on the side for people, made jewelry, I styled, rework vintage, which is actually what I’m wearing! I made this dress when I was 23. I did a string of things before launching Rue.
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How did you develop Rue’s mission statement? It’s for women who don’t look like the typical models we see normally in fashion, so how did you start designing clothes for that niche?
It was very organic for me, I’m a size 4 and my sister is a size 20, which is funny because I’m like my mom and she’s like my dad. Growing up, I never had an emphasis on bodies in the way that it is here. I think I was a little bit naive to be honest, I didn’t realize it was that separate. It’s like one thing you’re doing it and learning basically on the street versus being a technical designer where you are taught to be aware of size and fashion industry or advertising norms. I didn’t know it was such a big gap. I just thought if a girl wants to be hot, a girl wants to be hot. I didn’t think her body had anything to do with it. In the beginning I had different girls who are my friends wearing the clothes. Some were bigger than others and it kind of took a life of it’s own in that way.
What’s the difference between body representations in Haiti versus in the United States?
In Haiti, fuller women are considered to be more beautiful, or at least that’s how it was when I was growing up. It might be changing. I went there in January and I definitely see a bit of a switch. It’s a lot more Americanized in that way, but before for the most part they don’t considered very very thin women to be like the standard. Growing up I felt very insecure about my body because I was very thin. And I remember when I would wear sandals, I would try to make my feet look fatter, because the cool girls were actually a bit heavier!
What was your reaction when celebs like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj wore your brand? Were you like freaking out?
Yes, that was very cool. The first person who wore Rue was Nicki. I got an email and it said “Oh we’re pulling for Nicki Minaj” and I had just launched the company. When I started, for the first year it was just like me and Lucy, who at the time was an intern. We were nobody! So at the time when we got the email we thought it was a joke. We’re like okay there’s no way, this is not gonna happen. I was like well okay, if this is a joke, we will lose a few pieces, whatever. So the stylist came and they pulled a few pieces, she was very nice and it was normal. And I didn’t think anything of it. I was like okay, nothing is really going to happen. And then two days later, I’m sitting at home on Twitter, and I see Nicki is trending, and I was like ok this is cool! So I clicked and Nicki had opened a concert in full head-to-toe Rue, and her stylist had tagged us and that was cool! Our website crashed and that was basically the beginning of that!
Beyonce was wearing the nude bottoms in the “Flawless” video, so that was also really cool. I didn’t think they were gonna use it, but she looked amazing. I still can’t show it to my mom because when she turns around, she looks naked but she’s not. It’s this black and nude mesh combo that we do and it’s completely see through!
How would you say you differentiate yourself from other designers?
I think it’s getting easier. I just moved into the Garment District, and it’s one thing to see it and being on the outskirts of it, but now that I’m here I see a lot of people around in the factories. Everything is here and you really learn to appreciate what you have in terms of the way you see color and the way you see things. I never cared to blend in and I definitely don’t care to now, but I just kind of felt like being a little bit off.
I have a hard time in verbalizing it, but I just know it’s different and it feels different. Being here feels even more different, seeing just the way the business side is done and the way we do things. It’s very organic. I don’t have any big financing behind me so I think we are very in touch with our customers in terms of we are a very niche business. I have a week to week business. I don’t have season, we move to the beat of what our girls need.
I must tell you, last year was probably my hardest year in business ever. The business almost came crashing down completely. When I thought about moving here, and my studio was in Harlem and I was in my own little world. I thought oh my god I’m doing this big move, I have to do more like what everybody’s doing. And I felt this weird pressure to do more black and more grey and things that will sell. And honestly, it was a nightmare. Nothing sold. So it was a very dark time last year. And I remember at one point thinking okay, we’re almost out of business, I might as well do what I really want to do and be who I really am, and I just shut down the website and did a whole new website. Launched the year with completely fresh things, stuff I really wanted to design. And from this time last year, we have grown over 300 percent. So I think we all have it in us, you known between the spiritual work and the technical work of just being an entrepreneur and getting confidence of satisfying your customer, somewhere along the lines you just think “Wow I’m actually fucking free, this feels good.”
If you had a dream celebrity to wear you clothing, who would it be and why? Who is someone in the public eye that you think aligns with Rue107’s goals?
In my own perfect world, she passed on already, but I think it would probably be a tight fit between Josephine Baker and Nina Simone. They’re not alive so I don’t know. I connected with Nina very early in my teenage years, and have just always felt, as Wendy Williams would say, a friend in your head. And Josephine is so sexy it’s ridiculous.
Where are you looking to take Rue107 in the future?
I want to become a full lifestyle brand. We are actually working on our first line of home-goods which is really fun! You know, I’ve gotten to this point where I feel free and I feel good, and we really want to celebrate that part. You know like when a girl is done with school and she’s entering the workforce or she’s gotten her first raise or her first apartment. I think cash is a bit of an issue sometimes, actually a lot of the times, so you know doing wallpapers and curtains and just really cool things that are inexpensive but really bring that Rue punch. That’s what we are working on now. I’ve thought about making accessories, so really again, just solving a problem and making our customers life easier. So if she has a Rue dress, she doesn’t need much. If she has a Rue wallpaper, her apartment looks awesome.
If you could give advice to someone looking to getting into business for themselves, what advice would you give them?
First thing would be, and you have probably heard this before, but I think it’s very very important to think about what problem are you solving, and how are you of service to that customer. Honestly, there are a lot of talented people and there are a lot of amazing people, but once you are running a business, you are of service. I think for me, healthcare really helped me with that. Just always being in the service mindset, no matter what you are doing.
What does “Black Girl Magic” mean to you and how does Rue embody that?
Black Girl Magic is very trendy right now, but it has always been my essence. I came here at 13 in the heart of Brooklyn, I lived in Brooklyn for almost all my teenage years and half of my twenties. Black Girl Magic was in every corner. All of my friends are creative, a lot of people were just trying to do their own thing. Now it’s like we’re seeing it, you know I have Rue, my friend is a dancer for Beyonce, another friend has a line of lashes and is a celebrity makeup artist.
We were all in that struggle, we were all struggling together. It’s really nice to see it blown up this way, and black girls just celebrating their magic and entering industries that are honestly very hard to break into, like fashion. Oh my god, there’s no other black designers in my building! You really learn to like appreciate it and the impact you can have on other little girls who might not think it was possible.