Coming up on another edition of The Cover, we welcome African fashion designer, businessman and bespoke tailor, Mai Atafo, who gave details on the berserk business of fashion.
With all the wahala of dealing with customers, to the daunting dilemma of how to get your business up and running, Mr Atafo does not hold anything back, on this month’s episode of The Cover.
Recently returning from his endearing discussion at Harvard Business School, Mai Atafo sits down with Accelerate TV to talk about nepotism and favouritism in the fashion industry, as well as what it takes to be a successful fashion designer in Africa. With an educational background in Information Systems and Technology, he made the drastic decision of diving head first, into the uncertain industry of African fashion.
But less than a decade into a stellar career, that many can only dream of, Mai Atafo has fought his way to the top, earning the respect of his peers in the international fashion industry, as Africa’s number one wedding designer and bespoke suit tailor.
Coming from a large family of nine children, Mai wanted to stand out from a very young age. Spending a lot of his youth in Lagos, Mai attended the University Staff School Benin and later, the Federal Government College, Ondo State. After discovering his infinite love for fashion, Mai went on to enrol at the illustrious Savile Row Fashion Academy, to further train as a bespoke tailor.
Since his return to Nigeria, Mai Atafo has created unforgettable pieces for the best of the best. So, as he continues to set the trend in fashion, strap in, because we’ve got so much in store for you, on an all-new edition of The Cover.
Read excerpts below:
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN THE INDUSTRY?
“I’ve been in the industry now, going on nine years, full-time. But there were a few years when I did it part-time, because I had a full-time job back then.”
CAN YOU TALK TO US ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF FASHION, AND WHAT IT TAKES TO RUN A SUCCESSFUL FASHION BRAND IN NIGERIA?
“Anyone can be a fashion designer in Nigeria, you don’t need any permission or a certification. You don’t even need a location to work from, you don’t need a tailor to be a fashion designer, and you’ll be accepted as that.
People do not actually take this as a business, and do it properly, where you have a proper business plan, and you have it laid out and get the things you need to do the business. So, that’s the one side that I think is wrong, in the way it (business of fashion) is perceived.
The other difficult thing is that, because the industry is not structured, you don’t get access to capital easily. Then you have the tough things like infrastructure- which is ridiculously expensive.
On the flip side, the running costs to do a business in Nigeria is ridiculous, because we all know what the power situation is- it’s really bad. So you have to be able to have enough capital to buy yourself alternative power sources, then you have to run that generator.
All this cost is on you, that’s why the cost of production in Nigeria is really expensive.
Again, Nigerians are the most difficult customers in the world. They want couture, one-off pieces made for them, but don’t want to pay anything for it. So, trying to marry that, and run a business in this country, good luck.”
THE NIGERIAN FASHION INDUSTRY – DO WE HAVE ONE?
“We do have a fashion industry, a very big and lucrative one. I think the key thing there is, do we have an organised fashion industry? And the answer is, no.”
SO, WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF AN ORGANISED FASHION INDUSTRY?
“I believe an organised fashion industry is one where there are set down rules on how to engage within said industry. I’ll touch in a few topics here:
Nigeria today, if you’re bringing an international artist to do a show, you are going to pay some money to COSON (Copyright Society of Nigeria) and the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria.
But any, ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’, can just wake up tomorrow and do a fashion show in this country, with no allegiance or alliance to any sort of standard. That’s number one.
Number two is that because we do not have a very structured environment, the money doesn’t necessarily go to the most creative people, but the people that use back doors to do things, like bringing in second hand clothes to sell, or bringing in very low quality fabric from other parts of the world to sell to Nigerians.
I also think that if the fashion industry was organised, we would be able to generate profit for the country’s GDP, and the government would see it as important.
I don’t think the government actually does anything for fashion in this country, other than using it as a source of entertainment, and ‘point of reference’- when it’s doing very well. But, when it comes to, ‘what are the programs out there to support fashion designers?’, they are not there.
And don’t get me started on the Bank of Industry and their one-billion-dollar thing for fashion designers. You can’t actually get raw cash from that, only equipment. So there are almost no handouts or grants to help fashion designers grow.
I believe if you have an organised industry, put in place by a council, then that would project the best of what the country has to offer, in terms of fashion.”
TALK TO US ABOUT FAVOURITISM AND NEPOTISM WITHIN THE NIGERIAN FASHION INDUSTRY, AND HOW IT AFFECTS THE BUSINESS OF FASHION.
“In terms of favouritism and nepotism in the industry, whoa… does it exist? The funny thing is that a lot of things exist in this industry. I, for one, refuse to be boxed into that arena of people who feel that they need to be liked or cool, or have fancy drinks every Tuesday, to be part of a certain kind of clique.
If you work hard, your work will speak for itself, because, at the end of the day, when they need to celebrate the people who made the industry what it is, you will be celebrated, regardless of if you speak with a boujee accent, or do drinks on Tuesdays and cocktails on Wednesdays.
Does it help you get ahead? Sort of. It helps if you’re one of the cool kids in the fashion industry. But, I think the most important thing is, own your craft, work really hard, and let your work speak for you. I know a few people that weren’t liked, were not supported, but their work spoke for them, and now they are some of the biggest designers in this country.”
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAY TO ASPIRING, PASSIONATE PEOPLE IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY, TRYING TO BREAK THROUGH?
“If you’re aspiring and passionate about this thing called fashion in this country, then that’s only step one. Passion can only take you so far. You need to go and learn what it is to be an amazing fashion designer- I’m still learning.
Once you learn the craft, you need to think of how you are going to commercialise this thing- it is a business. I’m tired of people saying, ‘I love putting colours together, I want to be a fashion designer’, or ‘since I was small, I’ve been making dresses for my dolls, I want to be a fashion designer’.
I don’t think that’s it. That’s not good enough. I want to hear people say, ‘I want to make money from this craft’, ‘and I can make some pieces that you’ve never seen before.’ And when you make that piece, people buy into it, and that’s the beginning of your story.
It’s like the music industry, all you need is your one hit. What you do after that, is all left to you. If you decide to flop after- sad. If you decide to do a Davido after your one hit…”
WHY DO WE YEARN FOR THE CONSTANT ACCEPTANCE AND APPROVAL FROM THE WESTERN WORLD? IS IT HELPING THE AFRICAN FASHION INDUSTRY, AS A WHOLE?
“I don’t know if it is just about fashion, I think it’s just about that colonial mentality, with the average Nigerian (or African). We were ruled by these people, so we feel like they are superior to us.
I say this, and people are going to argue with me, but honestly, till tomorrow, if you walk into a place with an accent, you are given one more second to talk, than the person who speaks in a Nigerian accent. Or if you’re light-skinned or white, people will give you more of a chance than if you’re dark-skinned. I think it comes from that – and the sad thing, is that it works.
No matter how many people wear my clothes here, and we rave about it, if one guy wears it overseas, it’s a knockout- it does work. So, in my own opinion, rather than disregard it, try to use it to your advantage.
But, on the flip side, it is quite sad, because I believe that some industries have broken the mould. Like the music industry has totally broken that. No one cares about what’s coming from overseas, we care more about what’s coming out, over here.
Years ago, the radio stations were more foreign than local, but now, we don’t really care if you’re not playing 50 Cent or Jay Z, just as long as you’re playing, Wizkid, Davido and Tekno, we’ll be okay.
So, can we flip that into fashion? Can we find out what they’ve done right and do it in fashion? Can we produce garments that are uniquely ours? And please, when I say uniquely ours, don’t mention, ankara.
When I say, uniquely ours, there’s just something about the garment that is just us- African, Nigerian- something that the world has not seen or understood yet. But now, they like it so much, that they are adapting to it, and they want more of it.
We can sell this thing around the world, for them to buy. Once they do, we are just exporting our talent. In a nutshell, if you think that being worn abroad will make you sell more, then use it to your advantage. But the core is, let’s get our game to the point where they (the world) are looking for us.
Like I said, it doesn’t have to be ankara. I want to be the best suit tailor from Africa. So, when they are talking about suits around the world, they will say, ‘ah there is this dude in Africa that cuts a damn good suit.’ It doesn’t have to be agbada.
Ozwald Boateng- the first black guy on Savile Row- is Ghanaian. Yes, he grew up in London, but he is Ghanaian. So it’s not about where you are from, it’s about what you do with it.”
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO ‘THE NIGERIAN ELITES THAT HAGGLE THE PRICE OF AN ORIGINAL MAI ATAFO, BUT SPLURGE ON GUCCI AND PRADA?
“I think that when people appreciate other international designers, over Nigerian designers, and over and beyond that, want to bully designers into a cheaper price point, it is ‘see finish’. Do you all understand what ‘see finish’ means?
And I think that’s where the previous question comes into play. Because at the end of the day, Michelle Obama is wearing Maki Oh, and Lucy Liu is wearing Jewels by Lisa, and someone else is wearing Lanre da Silva-Ajayi, (and they are wearing it proudly overseas) I doubt that same Nigerian will come with the effrontery and tell you, ‘I want to buy yours cheaper’, after buying something overseas, at a more expensive price.
At the end of the day, we must stand our ground. It comes from a cultural perspective, whereby we have to respect the client- calling them aunty and uncle and all that. But if you stand firm on what you are doing, they will come, and they will pay the price, as long as it is quality.
I will give a good example of, ‘Deola Sagoe’.
We all know- roughly- how much those things cost. I don’t think anyone tells her, ‘eh-ehn, I’m not going to pay you that thing for the komolẹ, I’ll pay less’, and she will actually stand in front of you and say, ‘pay less’.
In as much as it may come across as being snobbish, maybe, if you have to be snobbish to feed your family, then you have to be. In the immortal words of Karl Lagerfeld, ‘I may do commercial, but I don’t fly commercial’. That’s rude to be honest, but it is, what it is.
So, if we as fashion designers are making the kind of money that lets us live next to Mike Adenuga in Banana Island, I doubt someone will tell you no, that they will pay you less than what you are worth- for that garment.
We need to first, get the game right.
Shame on those people, that want to price us down. Shame on you. It’s quite sad that we also go overseas to get our look to the highest level, we are appreciated there, we know that we are doing as well as the guys internationally, but you don’t want to pay the same, or slightly less, it is actually a big shame.
I am actually going to make it my mantra this time around, I mean, I am already doing that to some people. If you don’t want to pay, you don’t want to pay, you don’t have to wear me, you can go somewhere else.
My name is Mai Atafo, fashion designer and bespoke tailor, and this is my Cover- it has been an exciting time.
I said something at Harvard Business School, and it is something I always want to leave with people. Don’t always wait for the narrative. Narrate.
Speak, let them hear what you have to offer.
By Timayo Ogunro