Fashion designer, Mai Atafo, talks about fashion and style with KORE OGIDAN
How did you get into fashion designing?
I have always loved clothes, so much that at a point, I started making my own clothes to wear. I would have an idea of something I wanted to wear but owning such pieces would be a problem – either I couldn’t find them or afford them. So, that prompted me to start making my own wears. Over time, people started seeing what I was wearing and they asked where I got them. I always told them that I’d designed them or had them self-made. They would get fascinated and ask for references and I’d connect them with the tailor that did the sewing. When the enquires began mounting, I started thinking that I could actually do fashion designing as a side business and that led me to become a fashion designer professionally.
Before this became a full-time business, I worked in the marketing department of Guinness Nigeria PLC and British-American Tobacco for over eight years. I was actually fulfilled working in the corporate world but fashion designing was a part of me that I had to explore. I did however study Agricultural Economics and Extension at the Edo State University, Iyamho, Edo State, and I have a Master in Information Systems and Technology from the City University, London.
It is interesting to know that I didn’t get a formal education in fashion designing. The knowledge was innate and I got many lessons online. I only spent a total of four weeks in fashion school and that was three years ago in Milan, Italy. That’s the most fashion sit-down class I’ve ever had. There, I also learnt to sew, and although I don’t always do, I actually can sew. Prior to Milan, I could only design, I couldn’t really sew.
What kind of fashion defines or influences your person?
Although I am more particular about European culture when it comes to my fashion sense, it doesn’t mean that I don’t wear clothes from other cultures. I like our African traditional outfits too; the likes of kaftans and agbadas, which I also make. Don’t forget that I’m not just a designer, I’m also a consumer of clothes. Anything I like to wear, I like to make. Interestingly, because I can make whatever I’d like to wear, it’s hard to purchase clothes made by other designers in Nigeria. Of course, I appreciate the other brands, but because I can make my own clothes, there’s really no need to wear the clothes someone else makes. I sometimes patronise American brands as well. It is obvious that I am quite dynamic with my fashion sense, though I may have my preferences.
Did you have fears about leaving a steady paying job for one that had no guarantee?
Definitely, I had my fears thinking that the business wasn’t going to ‘click’ as much as I hoped. However, I had a contingency plan that if it didn’t work out, I would go back to paid employment and continue living my life as if nothing went wrong. But the truth is that, that was the wrong notion. I entered the world of fashion because I liked it but doing it as a business and trying to make money from it is another ball game. The aim of going into any business is to turn profits and my plan of entering the fashion business, even though it was a hobby, was to make money. You must have a plan on how to make profit from the business; you can’t just think you’d make money from a business by trying out random things. There must be a plan. And fashion is a booming business; so, it was not too hard to make money from it. Some people don’t make money in the fashion industry because they don’t run it as a business. You must enter the industry with the mind of starting a business so that money can be made. For me, my knowledge and experience in the corporate world influenced and helped me row my boat in the right profit direction. Sometimes, I marvel at how much of my corporate knowledge I haven’t used in pushing my business forward.
What were the challenges you faced starting out?
The major challenge I faced was the issue of infrastructure. Also, there were no guardians to help me as a newcomer. There were no grants; no one was giving money to try things out and there were hardly mentors. Honestly, you don’t even know what you’re doing, and you can’t keep winging it, otherwise you’ll crash fast. Entering the fashion industry is not the problem; the work is in sustaining it. You don’t need much to start a fashion brand.
What are the challenges you are facing now?
There are things you want to do but can’t (do) because there is no money to execute them. It seems you must be ubiquitous to thrive in the industry but there aren’t just enough funds to spread as wide. People don’t really believe in fashion. They just wear brands and act like they care. Clothing is one of the important factors of life but sadly, the government hasn’t put anything in place to help fashion designers. This is the reason I have just one outlet. I am willing to expand if I have the resources to.
Which country would you say has the best fashion culture?
That’s quite a difficult question to answer but I’ll say it is between France and Italy. The Brits are not bad, either. Breaking it down, I’ll say Italy has more style for men but in terms of looking clean and dapper in general, I’ll give it to the Brits. For women’s fashion, I’ll say that both the Italians and French have the caps. I’m torn between the two; so, I’d give both of them credit.
Which is easier to design, male or female clothes?
For me, it is easier to make clothes for men. With male clothing, I don’t have to think; it just comes and I am done within a short time. However, I enjoy making clothes for women more than I do men. Women clothes are more fun to make because they challenge me. I always have a hard time with every wedding dress I make but once the bride wears it and is content, I breathe a sigh of relief. Making clothes for men is different from making for women. Women have a more emotional connection to their dresses, while men have a functional relationship with their outfits. A man will ask for breathing room in his suit while a woman will typically want it as tight as possible.
What’s your experience designing costumes for television/movie projects
I designed the costumes for the leading couple in the movie, The Wedding Party. Mo Abudu reached out to me to be a part of the project and I jumped at the idea. I like being involved with projects where the costume is a key part of the story. It’s nice when the clothes are an active part of the show. We actually started the trend of crown and capes. Banky W is one of my closest friends; so, it was easy making clothes for him as had been done in the past. For Adesua Etomi, we discussed her costume and she liked the idea. She had her natural hair and was thrilled with being able to wear her hair that way without perming it. I have also designed costumes for Adesua Etomi in Gidi Up and Richard Mofe-Damijo in Hush.
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Fashion designer, Mai Atafo, talks about fashion and style with KORE OGIDAN How did you get into fashion designing? I have always loved clothes, so much that at a point, I started making my own clothes to wear. I would have an idea of something I wanted to wear […]