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

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a young Black woman in an orange sweater stands smiling in a house filled with plants
DIARRABLU founder and creative director Diarra Bousso stands for a portrait at her home in Hillsborough on May 5. Bousso created her own algorithms to design clothing and other products. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

In her home office on the Peninsula, Senegalese fashion designer Diarra Bousso holds up a laptop, describing how she comes up with the prints that bring her DIARRABLU resort wear line to life.

“My process mostly starts from parametric equations,” Bousso says. “Like, you can either draw a circle or you can graph a circle.” Bousso prefers the latter.

As she talks, I get flashbacks of algebra class. (Bousso has also taught high school math; her lesson plans using fashion design are used by teachers across the country.)

a laptop screen with a design app open
Diarra Bousso demonstrates how she designs a pattern. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

“So this is like a sine polar curve, and it has variables called A and B. But just changing those variables, you get different shapes,” Bousso says as she uses the cursor to slide one variable’s tab to the right and a new pattern emerges.

Bousso screenshots the pattern in the Desmos graphing calculator app she’s been using and, seconds later, we’re in the prototyping phase. This involves a different, proprietary app. “I’m super proud of it. One of our engineers built it and I get to visualize what this [pattern] would look like on DIARRABLU pieces,” Bousso says, as the freshly designed print appears on a caftan silhouette, one of the line’s signature styles. “It’s all math.”

an animated graph and blue and orange caftan
A demonstration of the Diarrablu design process (Courtesy Diarrablu)

At 33, Bousso is certainly the sum of all her parts thus far: the mathematician, the artist, the designer, the traveler, the educator, the star student, the blogger. She’s also the survivor of a life-threatening accident that ultimately reset her life path. After years of doubting her artistic side in favor of pursuing a career in finance, Bousso has found her sweet spot as a “creative mathematician” — a title she learned about through one of her mentors, Stanford professor and author Jo Boaler.

When Bousso claimed that title, “it was like the first day I felt my identity had a niche. This is the name of what I’ve been doing my whole life, I just didn’t know.”

Math versus art

Bousso grew up in Dakar, Senegal, in what she calls a typical Senegalese family — her parents were very dedicated to her education. Her biggest inspiration, she says, is her father, El Hadji Amadou Gueye, who was the first person in his family to go to elementary school and later earned his MBA in France. Her mother, Khoudia Dionna, “was the best of her class,” Bousso says. “So she was all about academic excellence and she would be the one tutoring us after school.”

Bousso, who has two sisters, says she wasn’t very outgoing with other people, but “I was very talkative to myself. Like, I would have full on board meetings with myself in my room with different characters.”

Despite being a creative child, Bousso got the most praise in school for her math skills. In Senegal’s education system, after middle school, kids pick either a science track or a literature and social studies track; it was obvious for Bousso to go the science route, she says, “even though I wish they never did that separation.”

Being selected for national math competitions gave Bousso validation, and a sense of self: “Besides being a weird kid, I also could be a cool numbers kid, and I really liked that identity.”

an old photo of a young Black girl wearing a white dress carrying a parasol
A childhood photo of Bousso in Dakar, Senegal. (Courtesy of Diarra Bousso)

Bousso’s GPA — one of the highest in the country at the time — got a teacher’s attention and, subsequently, a nomination to the United World College program in Norway, where Bousso spent her last two years of high school studying with teens from all over the world. She then received a full scholarship to Macalester University in Minnesota, where she studied math, economics and statistics — “the jobs my dad told me when I was 11 had a future,” Bousso recalls. Her creative side was still tugging on her, but she only casually indulged it. “I took some art classes on the side, but I didn’t feel confident, because I felt like I had real artists in my class and I thought I was a fake artist.”

All in on the numbers

In 2011, Bousso’s first job out of college was on Wall Street, trading mortgages.

“In my head I’m like, ‘oh my God, my family would be so proud. I’m in finance,’ which is what my dad did. Like, I’ve made it. Life is good,” Bousso remembers.

But within a few months, Bousso says the sparkle of her new life started to fade. On the weekends, she’d unleash her creative side, taking pictures of New York City life for a blog she started, then dread going back to work on Monday.

“And it slowly started getting deeper,” Bousso says. “I started asking myself very big existential questions, like, ‘What is the purpose of life? What am I here for?’ I got really depressed and I was very embarrassed about it because I [had] never failed.”

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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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