My name is Joanna and this is my story.
This was my first day in high school, a high school in the Montreal-North neighbourhood. A place where street gangs are next to the children playing in the yard until 10p.m. - predominantly immigrants from Haiti. My neighbour was a beautiful teenager and she lost her boyfriend because of gang violence. I was only 12 when this happened, and it was on the news everywhere. Montreal-North wasn't a safe place, and this is what I heard all my life.
I didn't have the right to go out because my mother didn't want to, so I stayed home and I watched American TV and read magazines. This was the beginning of my introduction to the world of fashion and the beginning of the 21st century, where sex sells. Around me, I saw young women leave school to become strippers. The only thing I knew is that I didn't want to become like them, that was my mission. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be something else.
I always liked fashion, I wanted to be a designer. I didn't know what it was to have a clothing store or even to work in the fashion industry. We were taught in high school to do a DEP. No one told me that you could be an entrepreneur in the fashion world. At that moment, being a black woman did not mean anything, I was in the midst of other black youths. Colour did not matter at that time.
It was my first day in CÉGEP. I studied fashion marketing. Nobody, even my family, understood that I wanted to work in fashion as a Public Relations Specialist. At the time, fashion marketing wasn't a typical program for people of colour around me. But MTV and Teen Vogue magazine introduced me to something else. I was one of the very few black women in the program, and I felt like I was the spokesperson of all the black kids, since the majority of the others were white and lived outside of Montreal. All they knew about black women was what they saw on TV.
Aug. 9, 2008
Fredy Villanueva was killed by a police officer. I remember when I want back to school. All the white girls were talking about that story, and since I was the only black girl from the program who lived in Montreal, I was still the spokesperson. This was a very sad moment. It was also the beginning of me proving that to these girls that I was the best, no matter where I was from. I can have a chance in life. I saw how they looked at me, but I did not care. I wanted to prove that, Yes, I'm from the North and that I can be better than anyone here.
I won a big prize for a contest at the school. My concept was that Véronique Cloutier - a celebrity from Quebec - did a capsule collection with the retailer Aubainerie. I won. My idea was very good, because a few month later, Cloutier and Aubainerie used the idea. With the prize that I won, I went to Europe for a month. I knew that my life would change for the better.
I found a job as a sales and marketing assistant. It's not the colour of my skin that was the problem; it was the fact that I am a young woman who has too much ambition. Who does not like being told what to do because my ideas were the best for me. I did not like that I was not paid enough to share my ideas with my employer. And I really did not like the fact that I was an assistant. I was good at my job, and I wanted more.
The fashion industry in Montreal was very white. Like everything else. You could count on your hand how many black women work in the industry. I never really liked the fakeness of this industry. But still I knew that I was a part of something big. I started to throw pop-up shops and events related to fashion with my friend at the time, another woman of colour. Our names were out there. I was finally doing something and leaving my mark as a young black entrepreneur.
I left my job to open a shop - a men's clothing store with my partner Harold. I was 25 and I was the owner of my very first boutique. We opened the shop on Oct. 12, 2013. In the first week since the opening, I now had a colour: I am a black woman and my partner is a black man. We have so many beautiful stories and also stories that make me so upset. Like this one time, when two white women came to our shop to look around. They loved the visual. They loved everything until we told them that we were the team behind the concept. The look on their faces. They were so surprised, and then decided to ask us why the name of the store was in English. We had so many questions that certainly were not asked to white entrepreneurs. We did not care, because we did our project and it worked. Our clientele was growing little by little, but our colour was also an issue. But we still did not care. We were shop owners.
I am lucky to have a business partner who thinks like me and understand me. As an entrepreneur, you have to have the right person with you. I know that I am a black woman, but I don't care - because if I want to do something, I will. I have the privilege to work in the field that I love. I learned that undertaking projects, you really need to have a vision and to be passionate. It is important for me to fulfill my dreams. If I have an idea, I do it. There is no reason not to do it. If you fail, it's okay and then you learned. That is what life's about.
Joanna Chevalier is the co-owner of a men's clothing store in Montreal. Her passion for the fashion industry has seen her break barriers placed before her and build a successful business in an industry where she never saw herself represented.