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This summer, as Nasrin Jean-Baptiste celebrates her handbag brand Petit Kouraj's first birthday, she also gets to celebrate the launch of following her dreams. The London-born daughter of Haitian immigrants, Jean-Baptiste worked for over 15 years as a stylist because it felt like a realistic career to pursue. But over those years, she always found herself drawn to the design elements of her job, even creating custom pieces for her clients to wear alongside designer press samples and retail items. Now, with Petit Kouraj, she gets to design statement knit handbags full-time.
"When I think back, I always wanted to be a designer," Jean-Baptiste says. "At the time, being a fashion designer seemed so lofty—too out of reach—and there wasn't anyone that looked like me that might have made it feel like it was an attainable goal."
Despite how much the fashion industry has been inspired by and profited off of Black creators, the recognition and visibility given to those artists have been so nonexistent that many young Black designers are discouraged from following their dreams. This is why Jean-Baptiste finds the current movement to highlight Black voices and Black-owned businesses so validating. "Visibility is imperative to the success of a small business," says Jean-Baptiste. "One great thing I’ve been able to draw comfort from during this time is how collectively people have come together in solidarity against systemic racism in the effort to create lasting change."
Jean-Baptiste has worked hard to build a luxury fashion brand that is radically transparent and sustainable in its production practices to be a mover of such change in the industry. She sought out a woman-led organization in Haiti called DOT Haiti, which employs local artisans, to make her handwoven bags from organic cotton, leather, and rayon because putting money into Haiti's economy has been a huge part of her mission.
Her most recent partnership with her friend Christina Tung couldn't be a more fitting pairing, as Tung, like Jean-Baptiste, launched her own sustainable and independent fashion brand, Svnr, after years of working behind the scenes in the industry. Jean-Baptiste and Tung together designed a selection of summer handbags with Svnr's signature assortment of found and repurposed trinkets, stones, and shells that are now available on Petit Kouraj's website.
"The support my business has received over the past few months has been astonishing," Jean-Baptiste says. "Whether it's been through purchases, social media postings, or featuring Petit Kouraj on shopping lists, I have seen a profound effect on revenue and never been so busy. People have really shown up for Black-owned businesses, and I am truly grateful for everyone who took action and supported my business during this time."
Read on for our full interview with Jean-Baptiste.
Tell us about yourself and your business.
I launched Petit Kouraj in the summer of 2019, so it’s a very young business, and I’m learning as it grows. My degree led me to become an editorial fashion assistant and later a stylist in London, which I continued to do when I moved to New York in 2012. After over 15 years working as a fashion stylist, I started to feel stunted, as if there was nothing new to achieve in that space. I noticed I was more inspired by design and spent more and more time sketching ideas and dreaming about what my line would look like and stand for.
Petit Kouraj means "little courage" in Haitian Creole. I gave it this name as a personal mantra of encouragement—to remind myself that a little bit of courage every day will compound to a whole lot, and that’s all you need to pursue your dreams.
And if you had to sum up your business in five words or fewer?
Fun, unique, casual, statements, meaningful.
What inspired you to start your business?
It was the birth of my daughter, Daye, who awakened within me the need to overcome the fears that were preventing me from pursuing my dreams. I was always petrified by the idea of giving birth, and when I first learned I was going to have a baby, I was forced to directly confront that fear. The more I learned about birth, I realized a lot of my ideas about it weren’t based in reality. I was able to unpack the truth of the challenge ahead and see that our bodies are actually designed for childbirth.
I ended up having a great birth experience, which made me wonder, What else could I achieve if I put my mind to it? What else am I blocking that I am actually designed to achieve? And what else could I achieve without letting my fears overshadow my desires? Incrementally, I started to dismantle these questions and realized that if I don’t go after my dream of starting Petit Kouraj, I would be living a life half-lived and I would never be equipped to teach my daughter how to follow her own dreams.
It was on a birthday/research trip to Haiti that I discovered DOT Haiti, the workshop where I currently manufacture the handbags. Finding them in the middle of nowhere in Haiti’s capital with no road signs or internet service was certainly an adventure, but as soon as I got there, it was like the universe rose up to meet me and showed me the perfect, most meaningful way to start my business. It ticked all the boxes: I could design my bags in Brooklyn and have them made by wonderful artisans in Haiti, led by a female-founded operation. It aligned with my values and strengthened my resolve because I no longer was just doing this for my daughter and me. In my small way, I was now able to positively impact the people of Haiti.
How have social-distancing and stay-at-home orders affected your business? How have your priorities shifted?
In a strange way, I’ve enjoyed this unprecedented time. Owning a small business and having always worked freelance my whole life, I’ve learned to become comfortable with the insecurity and fragility of the fashion industry. There is always something not going to plan, and I have learned to expect the unexpected, so the shutdown became another thing I had to adjust and react to. In many ways, it has also been difficult. I’ve had wholesale orders canceled and direct sales slowed. Just before the pandemic hit, I discovered I was pregnant with my second child, so these past few months have been a complete emotional roller coaster. But it has also given me the opportunity to slow down and refocus my intentions and reaffirm my goals. While it’s been hard to execute amid severe morning sickness, a global pandemic, and a civil rights uprising, I’m even more encouraged to keep forging through for the new family I am creating.
What are two to three of your favorite brands you like to support?
I live in Brooklyn, and I’m surrounded by a super talented and inspiring community. I like to support them because, to be honest, they make the best stuff. I love to shop at my friend’s store Sincerely, Tommy in Bed-Stuy. Kai Avent-deLeon’s carefully curated store is not only a stunning hangout, but she also stocks unique pieces that aren’t commonly found elsewhere. I also love my friend Yara Flinn’s brand, Nomia. She designs beautiful, elegant clothes with great color combinations and the perfect masculine-feminine balance.
What has been your proudest moment as a business owner?
As someone who has carried the dream of creating this bag line long before I found the courage to start it, I can honestly say I don’t take anything for granted. Everything is a small victory, and I'm proud of all the opportunities that have come my way. I am proud every time someone makes a purchase on my website, knowing that I make bags that move people to spend their hard-earned money. I am proud when I see my bags stocked alongside some of my favorite brands like Jacquemus, ACNE, and Comme des Garçons.
I'm proud that large international retailers such as Moda Operandi supported my brand when I first launched and that my bags have gained attention as far afield as in Japan. I’m also proud to support ethical sustainable platforms such as Fashionkind and have my bags stocked by a company that supports my values. But mostly, I am proud I partner with an amazing woman-run organization that empowers local artisans in my native land of Haiti because I know every purchase is supporting my community back in Haiti.
Shop Jean-Baptiste's Favorite Products
"This is the bag that started it all. I have always loved net bags. They are nostalgic to me—you would think I grew up in the '70s or something. My love for them led me to imagine what it would be like with fringe added. I spent ages trying to find a manufacturer to make it for me until a friend of mine simply asked, 'Why don't you just do it yourself?' It was so obvious, but it didn't even occur to me at the time. So I started making a sample, and it came out exactly how I imagined it in my mind. It was that moment when I knew, without a doubt, that I was going to launch this brand."
"What I love about this bag is that it’s more versatile and functional than it looks. The net expands and retracts so you can fit a lot in there. I enlarged the handle to make it neatly fit over your shoulder, so it’s easy to carry as an everyday bag."
"This is my best seller and the second product I created. It’s perfect for a day-to-night look and adds a casual statement to literally anything it is paired with. I purposely designed this line to be neutral in color and allow the beautiful movement of the fringe to shine. This subtlety gives space for the wearer to add their unique identity and fashion sense to it, which is my favorite thing to see."
"I partnered with my dear friend and professional badass Christina Tung of Snvr to create a line of bags that perfectly sum up our aesthetic. The line is named after beaches in my native Haiti, and this version of my signature net bag is adorned with cowrie shells."