Published November 12, 2005
BOBIGNY, France – French streetwear designer Mohamed Dia boasts more than 20 tattoos, but his favorite is the one between his shoulder blades. Written in Chinese, it reads: "Destined for success."
In reality, this son of Malian immigrants, born and raised in the drab Paris suburb of Sarcelles, was guaranteed anything but a glittering future.
The youngest of five children, he spent most of his childhood in government care after his parents divorced. By the time he was 15, he was doing jail time for car robbery. Now 32, he runs a business with a turnover of $17.5 million in 2004.
Dia knows he could just as easily have turned out like the hundreds of youths who have burned cars and ransacked public buildings for two weeks to protest their daily lot of discrimination and bleak prospects.
"I understand the kid in the street who is fighting back against a system that means nothing ever changes," Dia said while sitting in his company headquarters in the northeastern suburb of Bobigny.
"I am not saying violence is the way to make yourself heard, but sometimes, slamming your fist on the table helps a lot."
Growing up in high-rise tower blocks built for immigrants from France's colonies in north Africa, Dia had few role models. His first visit to the United States at age 19 changed all that.
"I was impressed by the black community, seeing black people on television, seeing black people involved in society, and when I saw what goes on in France, I thought to myself there was a big gap," he said.
In France, few members of ethnic minorities have made it to positions of high responsibility in politics and the media, he noted.
"We have nothing to identify with, we have no heroes," Dia said. "In France, we don't have the right to dream. We don't have the opportunity to move up, outside of soccer and music."
Music gave him his big break. Dia started making clothes for his friends, part of France's vibrant rap scene in the 1990s, and his bold t-shirts, tracksuits and hooded tops quickly created a buzz among inner city youth happy to have a homegrown label they could identify with.
Only three years after he launched his M.Dia label in 1998, the designer made his American dream come true by signing a license deal with the NBA that gives him the right to use its logo for clothes sold in Europe.
Shortly afterward, he launched another line with former Fugees musician Wyclef Jean in a bid to crack the U.S. market. M.Dia is now sold in 500 stores in France and 250 in the United States.
Dia, who spends six months a year in the U.S., is angry about the stereotypes of violence that plague the French suburbs — stereotypes likely to be reinforced by the dramatic images of burning cars plastered across world media in recent days.
He is pessimistic about the future, saying it would take a U.S.-style equal opportunities policy to erase decades of discrimination — a concept that meets strong resistance from France's political elite.
"Kids today ... don't want to be handed money and told to shut up. What they want is to exist in this society," he said.
Dia hopes that his example can provide inspiration to kids who dream of a better future. Last January, he staged his first catwalk collection in the same venue that has played host to industry heavyweights like Givenchy and Chanel — a symbolic act of defiance.
"I wanted to show people that when the minorities of this country give themselves the chance, they can succeed," he said.