For Bay Area Designer Diarra Bousso, Math + Art = Happiness

It’s a lesson she appreciates now — the value of failing at something and learning from it — but at the time, Bousso lost a lot of weight and struggled with sleep. “I was just a zombie,” she recalls.

One day, an aunt visited Bousso in her 51st floor apartment and noticed Bousso had taken the window guards out. “She knew it was time to get me out of there because the depression had gotten very far,” Bousso says. “She called my parents and said, ‘She needs to stop working and she needs to go home, because this is not going to end well.’”

A literal awakening

With the support of her family, in July 2012, Bousso went on medical leave from her job on Wall Street and returned home to Senegal, with a plan to rest and rejuvenate.

Instead, she got into a harrowing accident that left her in a coma. “I got to Senegal in July, but I woke up in August,” she says. Bousso, who shies away from discussing the details of the accident itself, suffered short-term memory loss, along with broken limbs and teeth that required numerous surgeries and six months of recovery. Yet when Bousso reflects on that time now, she’s grateful.

“I woke up from this coma and [it] was the biggest blessing ever. Because what happens when you lose your memories is you don’t realize you’re depressed. So I’m starting from scratch.”

a tall Black model wears a white and orange patterned dress against a blue sky
Model Athiec Geng wears DIARRABLU clothing and jewelry. (Nada Satte, Othman Essahat)

As part of her memory recovery, Bousso worked with a counselor who suggested she draw to help remember the day’s events. “I had a drawing book. I would draw things and talk about it and I’d remember it,” Bousso says. Soon, she started a Tumblr blog to post drawings, codes and inspirational quotes.

Since the accident, Bousso considers 2012, her (re)birth year. “Because I didn’t have any understanding of what’s real and what’s not, I would just dream boldly. I would be on Tumblr writing a paragraph on how I want to one day be an artist and have a show in Milan or how I want to travel the world and have an art company, or how I want to be free.”

Feeling free

With a newfound vision for her life, Bousso started making her Tumblr posts a reality. She quit her Wall Street job, where she’d still been on medical leave, withdrew her 401K and established her company, DB Group (for her initials).

Then she started traveling. “The goal for me was to find who I am and where I fit,” she says. Bousso used her trips to learn more about the fashion industry — visiting Paris during Fashion Week, checking out a textile factory while in Istanbul and visiting manufacturing companies while in China.

a photo of a slim Black woman in a dark dress and white jacket standing in front of a maroon building with Chinese lettering
An Instagram post from Bousso’s trip to China in 2014. (Diarra Bousso/Instagram)

Bousso captured her travels for Instagram, where she also began selling handbags she’d made — the first seeds of her fashion company.

When her travels eventually slowed, Bousso started contending with imposter syndrome. The majority of her friends were still in finance and headed to premier business schools, and she couldn’t help but compare herself to them. But Bousso’s inner compass had gotten stronger in the last few years. She stayed in Dakar and took a substitute teaching job at an elementary school, allowing her to make money and keep creating.

The experience ended up sparking something in her, and she applied to Stanford to study math education. “And this was the best choice ever because I did it for me,” she says. “After all these years of soul searching, I found out what I want to do. I want to do something math-related, but I can still be creative.”

Bousso arrived in the Bay Area in the summer of 2017 to attend Stanford’s Teacher Education Program. There, she met professor Jo Boaler, who “saw math the way I did: from a creative angle,” Bousso says.

On her own time, Bousso was creating a Fibonacci sequence, but for clothing patterns. “So each pattern is a sum of the past two patterns. And I showed [Boaler] what I was doing, with permutations and combinations for swimsuits.”

Boaler was thrilled by Bousso’s creativity, and suggested that she could also use her art to create a math lesson plan for kids. It was a huge “aha!” moment for Bousso.

“I regard her work creating lessons that incorporate design and fashion as really important for students everywhere,” Boaler writes in an email. (Boaler, Boussou and another colleague are currently working on a book of lesson plans that teach algebra through design.)

a group of five people, a family from Senegal, pose at a graduation ceremony from Stanford
(L to R) Bousso’s mother, Khoudia Dionna, sister Marieme Gueye, Bousso, her father El Hadji Amadou Gueye and sister Sokhna Gueye at her graduation from Stanford Graduate School of Education in Palo Alto in 2018. (Courtesy Diarra Bousso)

In 2018, Bousso began teaching at a public high school in San Mateo, using her design-based lesson plans. Outside of school hours, she was on WhatsApp and Zoom with her mother and the Dakar team, who were making clothes for the company (now officially DIARRABLU and no longer DB Group), to sell on Instagram.

“I was exhausted,” Bousso recounts. “I didn’t have time to sit down and draw patterns one by one by hand. So I started using equations.”

Working with a decimal tool she used in teaching, she started to graph her own patterns. “When you change the number, you get a new pattern. So I can get ten patterns for the price of one, in terms of time.”

Gaining steam with the brand, Bousso traveled to New York, and ended up in a room with Vogue USA fashion director Virginia Smith, who asked her to leave some samples. A month later, without notice, Bousso saw model Kendall Jenner wearing a piece from her collection in a spread for the magazine.

The Vogue feature brought a flurry of buzz and press, but Bousso still loved both teaching and designing. It wasn’t until 2021 that she shifted to DIARRABLU full time.

Livin’ la vida DIARRABLU

Back in her home office on the Peninsula, Bousso arranges some fabric swatch boards. Nearby, a wall is covered in framed DIARRABLU art prints: While resort wear is the bread and butter of the company, Bousso sees DIARRABLU as a lifestyle brand. In addition to clothing, the company has made handbags, shoes, swimsuits, jewelry, wall art and digital art. (Bousso’s longer-term vision includes luxury real estate, as well, with decor inspired by her clothing.)

a wall of framed art
Artwork by Diarra Bousso sits on the wall at her home in Hillsborough. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

“I want [DIARRABLU] to be the destination for the wanderer. Like the person that I looked at when I looked out a window on Wall Street while I was depressed and whose life I wanted to have. The dreamer.”

Like many designers of her generation, she is committed to making her products as responsibly and sustainably as possible. “People are being paid fair wages, we’re using responsible material, and we are not creating more waste,” Bousso says, before adding that the fashion industry is one of the most wasteful on the planet: “85% of garments actually end up in landfills annually.”

In light of that, all of DIARRABLU’s clothing is made-to-order. That also makes it easier for the line’s sizing to be inclusive; it goes up to 3X. “That was just common sense for me. Like, why would you release something and only make some people have access to it?” Bousso asks.

a group of Black women models in various sizes model colorful dresses
Models wearing DIARRABLU designs in a range of sizes. Size inclusivity is a tenet of the brand. (Nada Satte, Othman Essahat)

The made-to-order approach is also, in part, tradition. “My mom is very fashionable. Senegalese women, they all have a tailor who makes their clothes. It’s cheaper to get your clothes made than to buy them. And it’s just the culture,” Bousso says.

While Bousso designs her patterns wherever she happens to be — which is most often the Bay Area — the clothes are made by local artisans in Dakar. It’s a blend of technology and tradition that makes Bousso, who now confidently rejects the idea of claiming a single silo, very happy.

“When I look at the life I live now, I feel so fulfilled because of the work I do and because of how I chose to follow my dreams. And I’m so grateful that I got the opportunities to do that.”

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