Monique Péan is driven, talented, and as gorgeous as the gems she incorporates into her eco-friendly designs. But while she is equally at home in the pages of Vogue—the magazine awarded her its coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Prize in 2009—and Forbes, which named her one of 40 Under 40 up-and-comers to watch in 2010, Péan admits that some people in the fashion industry have questioned her career arc.
Most artisans don’t begin their professional careers as financial analysts at Goldman Sachs, as Péan did after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics, philosophy, and political science. “When I started, I didn’t know how things were done, so I’m always trying to do the impossible,” she says, noting that more than a few collaborators have thought her ideas wouldn’t work.
Her collections tell a different story. Mixing unexpected shapes and textures with brilliant stones and classic cuts, her pieces reflect her passions for environmental responsibility and artistic integrity.
Péan, 31, was raised in Great Falls, Virginia, the daughter of a Haitian economic developer and an American painter. Her father took her on dozens of trips to places like Brazil and China to help with outreach, while her mother introduced her and her eight-years-younger sister to indigenous artisan communities around the world.
By age 16, her sister Vanessa had set up a foundation to fund scholarships at Centre D’Etudes Secondaires, a high school in Haiti, one of the countries she had visited. But tragically, Vanessa was killed in a car accident in 2005. “Within a few weeks after her passing, we had raised $50,000,” Péan explains. “She was an incredibly impressive, wise-beyond-her-years teenager who wanted to make a difference.”
“[Her death] made me pause and think about what it means to lead a successful life,” Péan recalls. She left her job in finance and started working with her hands, taking a trip to the Arctic Circle and launching her name-sake collection in 2006 using found fossils. Sourcing those ancient, natural materials, she explains, was “like picking up shells on the beach.”
Péan now travels once a year to a far-flung locale, where she works with indigenous artisans to learn their eco-friendly sourcing methods. (“They live off the land and use every single part of the animals they hunt,” she says.)
A recent trip to Peru yielded two collections, Inti and Sut’ana, based on Peruvian culture and Incan architecture. At once modern and inspired by history, the pieces would seem at home inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In addition to running the Vanessa Péan Foundation, which continues her sister’s work, the designer has bridged philanthropic partnerships with Charity: Water and Trees for Life. “I work harder now than I ever did at Goldman Sachs,” she admits. “To me, a successful life is getting up every day, doing something you love, and, most important, making a difference in the world.” 800-754-9436