An American-in-Paris Reinvention
Nigerian-born, Austin-raised expat and serial reinventor Ajiri Aki — founder of the Parisian brand Madame de la Maison — shares her tips on entrepreneurship and building a business
This year has been a whirlwind for Paris-based tastemaker, entrepreneur, and author Ajiri Aki. The founder of lifestyle and tabletop brand and online store Madame de la Maison recently celebrated the publishing of her book Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life, which offers perspectives, advice, and travel tips about France and the French art of living. There was an ambitious book tour and tons of press, including a shared feature on Black design tastemakers in The New York Times, which all helped her book land at No. 4 on Amazon’s “General France Travel Guides” list.
There have been business deals too. Aki created a set of recently launched French garden-inspired customizable holiday cards for Alabama-based stationer Dogwood Hill. She’s working on an interior hardware collection for Modern Matter, a high-end maker of 100% brass hardware (to be released in spring 2024). She just launched her Notes On Joie substack publication. And she recently returned from her second retreat to Gordes in the South of France where she teaches her fans and followers about embracing French art de vivre.
All this comes after Nigerian-born, Austin-raised Aki, 43, pivoted between various professional ventures tied to her passion for style. She has adeptly managed successes, failures, and serendipity to guide her forward. Now, she’s doing what she was probably always destined to do. After a day trip to Paris in college, her real introduction to the French capital came while pursuing a graduate degree in the decorative arts at the Bard Graduate Center. She had been intrigued by the Paris of the 1920s and ’30s and how people of color could live there and thrive so freely. Aki wrote her thesis on French designer Jean Patou and hoped she could stay in Paris and work. It didn’t happen and she returned to New York in 2010.
“I was kind of defeated, I was sad,” Aki recalls. “I remember flying back crying, thinking, like I failed. I’m not going to get to live my dream of living in Paris.”
She had, however, previously worked in fashion as an editor and stylist. Thanks to some connections with the owner of a Paris-based video production company with offices in New York, Aki found work, including covering New York Fashion Week. It was here that she was introduced to a “dashing Swiss German man” named Thomas Buchwalder, who later became her husband. This serendipitous marriage brought her back to Paris in 2011 where they are raising two children.
A string of less fortunate events followed — from creating and then closing down her own production company to launching and then shutting down a blog for expat moms in Paris. Aki has started to enjoy exploring Paris on her own, especially during these down times when she strolled the city, exploring neighborhoods, museums, shops, and flea markets. She felt lost about her professional direction and was trying to find her place in a foreign city. Throughout it all, and remembering her Saturday dinners with her family and friends growing up in Austin, she worked to establish her own community, meeting and befriending people during her walks or at cafés and, eventually, hosting dinner parties.
Aki recalled with regret that her late Nigerian-Jamaican mother, with whom Aki went to her first garage sales, never used her fine china. As such, Aki made it a point to use exquisite accouterments for her tables. In Joie, she writes that “using ‘the good china’… has become a metaphor for living our best lives and sharing experiences and rituals that we find beautiful and that bring us moments of joy.” The sum of these experiences resulted in the creation of Madame de la Maison.
Aki’s Madame de la Maison website offers antiques, used table linens, Aki’s own linen home accessories, and her linen caftans for sale. All are largely inspired by Aki’s cultural immersion and flea market finds. Aki’s company also offers a variety of services including sourcing trips for antiques, custom retreats, and styling for shoots or brand collaborations.
Needless to say, Aki found her way. But it took time, patience, acceptance of slowing down, and a fortitude to keep going. Along her journey, she learned some truly valuable lessons on life and entrepreneurship, which she shares with TheCovey.
Lesson 1: Take Advantage of Downtime
Aki believes everyone should embrace downtime because it allows you “to just be.” It allows your mind to be free and thus open to new ideas.
“I spent a little too much time pining [away] for my life back in New York and [during the] early social media days where I could see everyone doing stuff, and I just wasn’t a part of it. I regret my attitude during that early time because… I really could have spent it exploring [Paris].”
The downtime of being a flaneur, “someone who loafs about, who roams without a purpose on purpose,” and having her first child led Aki to start her expat moms in Paris blog. Though the blog shuttered, the experience taught her how to build a website, learn photography, hone her writing skills, spot serendipitous opportunities, and go for it.
Lesson 2: Explore New Paths… &
Be Willing to Pivot
Upon her return to Paris, and amidst her professional explorations, Aki decided to write a book about Jean Patou. At the same time, a friend approached her about collaborating on a Where’s Waldo–type of book about Karl Lagerfeld. Aki called an agent in the US about her original book idea, and the Lagerfeld project came up in the discussion. She never secured a book deal on Patou, but she and her friend did get one for Where’s Karl?, which was published in 2015.
Similarly, Aki had to make an operational pivot for Madame de la Maison. The company had both a styling and product rental business but Aki decided the rental part of the business needed to go. “I’m more passionate about creating and finding beautiful objects,” Aki explains. “I’m less passionate about the logistics of lifting a million heavy boxes and carting them from one side of town to the other.”
Lesson 3: Be Open to Discussing Your Ideas
“I think a mistake that people make is being too secretive about their career [ideas] and desires… like sharing might put them out there in a way for somebody to steal,” Aki observes. When, in fact, discussing your ideas might introduce you to the person who can give you what you need to push you in the direction you want.
This is how Aki launched her linen goods. She had reached out to a woman she had worked with, another expat, saying she wanted to discuss her business idea and valued some feedback. The other woman was excited and explained that her husband’s family were linen farmers in Normandy and that they’d surely be open to meeting with Aki. “What are the odds?” remarks Aki. “I went off to her husband’s family’s linen farm and learned everything from soup to nuts about linen and fell in love with it. They gave me contacts for all these different factories and manufacturers in France. I contacted all of them, went and got samples made, went to trade shows… and I found a supplier for my table linens, my tablecloths, and napkins.”
Lesson 4: If You Don’t Know Something… Learn It!
Aki knew her now-defunct blog needed enticing photos but she could not afford a photographer. So she taught herself photography using an SLR camera and online resources, and expanded this talent to Madame de la Maison. And many of the photos in Joie are hers.
Lesson 5: Start Before You Are Ready
After having mastered photography, Aki shot the original images for Madame de la Maison in a chateau that belonged to a friend’s aunt. She constructed her website but was hesitant about the timing of its launch. “I had been waiting and waiting. But then I heard Marie Forleo [entrepreneur and inspirational speaker] say ‘start before you’re ready.’ and I was like, I’m just going to put it up live. I emailed all my friends in November, right before Christmas, that I launched this website.” The actual launch took place in a restaurant Aki frequented, and voila — Madame de la Maison was born.