Brooklyn, NY

Byas & Leon: A Little Bit Of Haitian Aesthetic In NYC

Ann Brown

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Rony Byas and Harvey LeonPhoto courtesy of Byas & Leon

Brooklyn-based The Byas & Leon Shoppe is more than a boutique -- it’s a community. Co-owners Rony Byas and Harvey Leon are native New Yorkers — born in Queens and Brooklyn, respectively. Both are also of Haitian descent and they celebrate their Haitian heritage in the products they sell, in the environment of the store, and the community outreach they do.

The Shoppe also highlights other Black artisans and promotes sustainable wares.

Byas and Leon go way back. They met in Rosedale, Queens, when they were both 11 years old. “Rony had already been living there for a few years, and I moved to Rosedale from St. Albans, Queens. The rest is history, as they say,” Leon explains with a chuckle.

In 2013 the two childhood friends went into business together and launched a line of button-down shirts, hand-cut-and-sewn in Haiti by Haitian tailors. It was not only a business venture for the pair but also a way for them to employ people in their ancestral homeland, Haiti.

After a successful run of their shirt line, Byas and Leon opened a brick-and-mortar shop in January 2019, and they expanded their offerings to include other Black-owned brands that were dedicated to ethical and sustainable fashion.

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Photo by Alexander Stavila @sashaonthebooks

“We'd already been operating as a Fair Trade apparel design/production company since 2013 --employing tailors in Haiti and paying them what we like to refer to as a ‘thriving’ wage -- enough funds with which to truly have a higher standard of living,” says Leon. “As we evolved and grew, we felt a strong desire to expand our mission. So the Byas & Leon Shoppe is a manifestation of that desire to take ethical/sustainable fashion further (incorporate vintage, zero-waste brands, hand-made locally produced goods, etc.) and also to create a communal space.”

Brooklyn was the perfect place to do this. “It had to be Brooklyn -- one of us was born there, but more importantly, it's the place where both of our parents touched down when they came from Haiti, ready to start new lives and contribute to the American dream,'' recalls Leon. “Thirty years later, their sons ‘came into’ Brooklyn as well, ready to cement our own legacy and strive for the American dream in our own way. Poetic, yes, but there was no denying the symbolic significance of building in Brooklyn.”

Byas & Leon has become a hub for handmade clothes and accessories from fair-trade, zero-waste, small companies, along with an offering of curated vintage items. And, of course, designs by Haitian artisans and craftspeople.

“The simple answer to why we highlight Haitian designs is that we do so because we're Haitian, with one of us having actually lived in Haiti for a few years. We both very strongly feel a spiritual resonance to our people and culture and heritage -- and so it makes all the sense in the world to uplift and empower our people to the furthest extent of our power,” Leon stresses.

Due to the current turmoil and tragedy in Haiti, the pair has paused on shipping directly from there. “We have paused on the production of our own line in Haiti --the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 threw everything out of whack as you can imagine, and the enormous sociopolitical turmoil since culminating in the recent and heinous assassination of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has caused us to put our operations there on extended hiatus,” says Leon.

The two fashion entrepreneurs are also passionate about offering a sustainable fashion line.

“Why? Because the bitter pill we must all eventually swallow is that the Earth's climate is in chaos. Not only is this global hyper-capitalism/consumerism wrecking massive environmental destruction, but it also reaps a massive toll in human suffering as well; with both increasing exponentially by the year,” expresses Leon, noting the excessive nature of the fashion world. “The fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits in this, and we decided long ago that we would plant a flag in opposition to it -- perpetuate the concept and practice of ‘slow fashion’ wholeheartedly.”

Byas & Leon is very involved in the local community and hosts regular community events -- from photo walks and art exhibitions to comedy nights, picnics, and book readings.

“We strongly believe in the expansion of consciousness, particularly when it comes to our people. Our official statement, if you will, is that the Shoppe is an ‘Afro-diasporic focused cultural hub.’ And to that end, it is absolutely important to create a variety of events/programs, such that the members of our community can safely share, connect, and perpetuate knowledge and love amongst each other,” explains Leon.

Having an NYC-based business has been an exhilarating experience. “NYC -- Brooklyn in particular -- is where the vibes are! Truly though, physically being in proximity to the tastemakers and connoisseurs and artists and creators, etc., greatly heightens and invigorates our own capacity to create,” muses Leon, though he does acknowledge the challenges of being an entrepreneur in New York City. “It's a constant reciprocation of creative energy and we love it. So that's definitely the most blatant (and arguably the greatest) benefit to having a business that's physically in NYC. I daresay, it's the only benefit/plus actually, because the biggest (and most blatantly felt) minus is just how expensive it is to have an NYC business. The rent, the taxes, the fees, the cost of materials...all through the roof and climbing.”

To deal with the expense, the two also have other jobs. “Rony and I both have full-time jobs and were deemed ‘essential workers’ from the beginning of the pandemic...and that is truly the thing that allowed Byas & Leon to survive it,” says Leon. “And the Byas & Leon community is amazing! They did their best to purchase little things from us here and there, which we truly love and appreciate them for.”

Byas & Leon also received monetary compensation from a large collaborative project between Black-Owned Brooklyn and VH1. “But at the end of the day, it came down to making sacrifices in our personal lives and using our incomes to keep us afloat. This is only slightly less true now since we were legally allowed to re-open (around June 2020) it's been a struggle to bring business back to a certain level, a reflection of the United States itself struggling to bring life and the economy back to some semblance of normalcy as the pandemic rages on,” says Leon.

Another reason for Byas & Leon’s staying power is its business approach. “We strongly believe that one of the major keys to all this is not to ‘sell’ anything. To elaborate, the focus should never be to sell a particular thing such that you make money but rather, to show people a different way,” Leon explains. “We're not selling you a vintage shirt, we're showing you that there is value in acquiring a garment with a story. Much value in going forth and adding your own stories to it, and paying it forward to someone else for them to do the same. We're not in the business of selling vintage clothing, we're in the practice of expanding consciousness.”

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Ann Brown has been a freelance writer for more than two decades. She studied journalism at New York University and has her B.A. Born in New York City, Ann lived in Praia, Cabo Verde, for nearly a decade. She created “An American In Cape Verde,” a Facebook community. Among the topics she writes about are: business, travel, entertainment, and lifestyles.

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