I first heard of Jovana Louis Benoit when interviewing celebrity Chef Cynthia Verna. Having spent eight years of my adult life in Haiti, I was surprised I hadn't run into her. "She lives in Vietnam," Verna explained. "Part of the diplomatic mission from Haiti to Vietnam." That explained it: Vietnam has been and continues to be an important investor in technology and communications in Haiti. When I represented the Center for the Facilitation of Investments, part of the Ministry of Trade and Commerce in Haiti, we hosted many Vietnamese investors associated with NATCOM, one of the island's larger telecommunications network.
Finally, I met Jovana via WhatsApp messenger, where she flooded my app with photos of her creations: drapy, silk gowns with oversized prints and mottos. I noticed two things: she had an eye and she was definitely designing for the Vietnamese culture, but there were hints that paid homage to her island nation home.
She's dressed an impressive number of celebrities and Miss Universe contestants, and in September, she launched her first flagship boutique in Hanoi (pictured on the left). Now with a line of bags and jackets to complement the gowns, I wanted to know more about what makes Jovana Louis Benoit tick. In a series of email questions and answers, she filled me in, never holding back, reminding me of the flood of images she once sent me via WhatsApp.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jovana Louis Benoit.
JJ: Describe the cultural mélange of Haiti and Vietnam… JLB: Besides being geographically so far, Haiti and Vietnam have so much in common in terms of culture and fashion, I find it so beautiful to mix and match colors as both countries always use such a variety in the clothing and styles. You have the tropical flavor of Haiti available right here also in Vietnam. JJ: What was your first major accomplishment as a designer? JLB: I just recently launched my brand and opened my first boutique in Hanoi. This has been a major accomplishment that I had been waiting for and am so proud of it. JJ: Your style of mixing Caribbean and Asian influence is distinct, but how do you keep it fresh? JLB: I actually have to also add the French influence in there. When you take these three different styles you tend to come up with lots and lots of ideas. I have a long way to go before I can run out of fresh new ideas with so many things – such as the art and music from these three parts of the world – to inspire from. JJ: Where did you refine your craft? JLB: I have been in fashion from a young age – I learned working with my aunt back in Haiti. I actually moved to Paris to pursue fashion, but when the opportunity came to move to Vietnam, I followed through and this is where I was able to refine my craft. JJ: Who, as a designer, inspires you? JLB: While I want to be original, I have so much respect for the great Coco Chanel, and more recently Karl Lagerfeld. JJ: What’s the story behind your boutiques, where are they and how many are you planning? JLB: I just opened my first boutique in Hanoi on September 10 of this year. It is a place where women can come in and not just buy an outfit, but get style advice. We can make “sur mesure” (made to measure) if need be. I am planning to follow with stores in U.S., Europe, the Middle East and other countries in Asia in the near future. JJ: What’s your number 1 priority in life? JLB: I wake up every day and aim to be a better person. I want to play a positive role and bring happiness to everyone I interact with. I feel that the world just needs to get along and stop the negativity and bickering. Let’s just focus on the good things. JJ: How do you unwind after the end of a long fashion season? JLB: I’m a very simple person to please – all I need is good music to dance and I feel great! I spend some time doing yoga and I enjoy teaching my daughter to design. When I’m done, I dress up elegantly to feel good and dance the night away. JJ: Describe the sites, places, flavors and sounds of Hanoi that most inspire you… JLB: The Hanoi old quarter is a wonderful place for me to just walk all day and night! The Temple of Literature is also a good place to sit, read a book and contemplate. The Vietnamese old ladies selling things on the street and smiling at you is also such an inspiration and great feeling. I can never get enough of it. The flavors of Hanoi that I enjoy are the Pho (noodle soup) and Bun Cha. JJ: Describe Haiti in five words… JLB: Haiti is mysterious, resilient, cultural, unique and most of all it’s home! JJ: Share with us about your family and diplomatic station… I’ve been married now nine years to a wonderful man, Lesley Benoit, who is the Ambassador of Haiti to Vietnam and we have a 5-year-old little princess who happens to love fashion just like her mom. We have been in Vietnam for five years and have made it our second home. My husband is also very much into the arts and culture. He is one of my sources of inspiration.