INTERVIEW: MAI ATAFO – ‘I’M NOT IN A HURRY TO GO INTERNATIONAL’
Stylish, Eloquent and Suave are great descriptions of what the Ohimai brand stands for and he makes sure he portrays that in his dress, manner and speech.
In this interview, the Edo state born ICT guru turned fashionista reveals his take on certain issues concerning the fashion industry as well as his plans for his label, Mai Atafo Inspired.
What’s your take on the assertion that fashion in Nigeria is not where it should be due to issues such as proper distribution?
It depends on who says it. I don’t think proper distribution is the problem, I think funding is the problem, because if we had enough money to have our clothing line, then we should have our clothes everywhere and if we don’t have enough money we can’t have our clothes everywhere.
How do you manage such an issue like funding?
Until the bank decides to give loans to designers, I don’t think that we can start it by ourselves. People understand fashion to be something fanciful, not knowing that it is a proper business and could help to make a lot of money for the society, which we are not making at the moment, so until the investors decide to put more money into fashion, things may remain so.
Apart from funding, what other challenges would you say affect the fashion industry in the country?
Infrastructure. There is unsteady power supply, which means one has to use generators to work every time. It is a major challenge. Also, consumer behaviour is terrible. The fact that Nigerians don’t believe in Nigerian designed stuff is also discouraging, and when I say Nigerians I mean generally.
Do you think the consumer behaviour is due to the shabby designs produced by Nigerian designers?
I disagree with that. We have lots of good hands in the industry, we have a lot of good designers and I’ll say it’s consumer behaviour. Generally, we have more good than bad. The consumer behaviour I am referring to is one whereby when you pick something made in Nigeria, immediately you look for faults, and when you look for a fault, you find a fault. That’s our mentality and I know we can change, but what we need to do is step our game higher and higher and that’s going to cost more and more money. That’s the way it is, but because of the passion we have for what we do, we have to live with it.
What about the problem of lack of good hands, what effort are you making to ensure that up-comers in the industry are encouraged and well-grounded in the industry?
I think they are okay, but trying to ensure that people that are coming behind you are doing better than I am doing, is not my objective. It’s not the sole reason I am doing what I am doing. It is something I will do out of free will and which I want to start doing from next month, when I have fashion conversation, where I am going to talk to people. I won’t be teaching you how to sew, but how to run the business, because I don’t think sewing is so much of an issue, unlike how to run a fashion business, which I am still struggling with. But if I am being celebrated as being successful, they can learn one or two things. That is what I can contribute.
One problem fashion houses in Nigeria face is longevity. Popular foreign labels like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have managed to remain relevant even after 100 years of existence. What efforts are you putting in place to ensure that same is said of MAI in the next 50 to 60 years?
There is something I have always said; in another three years I don’t want to be here. I want to be a major percentage holder and let the other percentage holder run the business, I think that’s the way I can let the business run, but unfortunately, if you want to buy my business you have to run it to make money. It is a business thing, not your love for it. If you love it and things go wrong, you abandon it and move on. If you look at people that have run businesses beyond their name, they are very few in Nigeria, but at a point in time you need to let go and let people run it, but you have to get professionals to handle it and not just people that say ‘I like fashion
When are you looking at doing that?
When things are solid. Right now I can’t let people come in when I am not making any profit. I have not broken even yet, and I may not break even in the next four of five years. So there is no profit till you have reached a sustainable position, but the truth is, the government should be able to support us in whatever way we want, that’s one sure way to make it a success. Tax men are at my door step every day, telling me I am not paying enough, when I haven’t even broken even. My business can’t pay me my salary otherwise it shuts down, but the tax man wants his money and I have to pay him his money. So how do you grow bigger than you are when, when you go to the bank, all you can get is a loan of four million naira? That won’t even get me a place to sell clothes and produce some other things. It’s a governmental thing. When they ban clothes and seize goods coming into the country, we understand it is so that they can wear more Nigerian clothes, but they should make it possible that when we make our clothes over there, we can bring it in or set up something that will enable us take our samples there and they can bulk produce it and bring it in and have it distributed around the country.
Share with us one of your memories of fashion as a youngster.
I know I [used to] look forward to Christmas clothes every year as a young kid, because I liked clothes. It was my love for clothes that made me go into fashion. I can remember sewing my physical education shorts when I was in primary six.
You went on to study Agriculture Economics, ICT and also worked as the brand manager at Guinness, so when exactly did fashion come in?
I have always been doing fashion, just that I was not making clothes, and by the time I was working in marketing in British American Tobacco, I had already started making clothes, but not commercially. It was when I went to Guinness I actually started the whole thing and decided to fully move into it. It’s one of the things I have a passion for, like I have a passion for music, hosting and putting content in shows, and I do everything I have a passion for right now and I want to do more of them, so fashion is an outlet for me to be happy. Like I tell people, I could stop doing this tomorrow and start up something else, because I think I have lived the life in the fashion world that I thought was interesting. If I have a very interesting business proposal tomorrow that I think I would be happy with or something I’m passionate about, I could easily take the job. I enjoy marketing too, but I had to leave it for fashion, I totally enjoy marketing. I miss it so much, it’s ridiculous. If I get an exciting marketing offer in a fashion brand tomorrow, I may leave my fashion brand to do that.
Apart from fashion and designing, what else do you do?
I compere, I host shows and events, I might do voice-over for shows and events. Very soon, I am going to set up my PR firm, I enjoy doing that too. I do my PR myself because I have the experience. I have worked in the industry for years, so I know how it works. That’s why I can do all those things.
Let’s talk about your career as a designer, your most recent work, Weddings by Mai, is over a year old now. How has it been faring since its launch?
It is doing quite well. What we are doing right now is to step the game up, to be a bit more international so that we can offer services to clients out of the country, rather than just sticking to Nigeria. I want to start taking at least the walls of Africa seriously. I’m not in a hurry to go international.
How soon do you intend to expand internationally?
It’s not a matter of years, or an objective I set for myself. It depends on the way my business goes, because it costs more to do that, so I am not in a hurry to go over there and spend money. If the business is buoyant enough and can afford to do that, I will, if not I won’t.
Still talking about Weddings by Mai, shortly after its launch, there were speculations that it had a similarity with Kosibah. What is your reaction to this?
I did get that a lot, the funny thing is that people are short minded and don’t see things through and through, so when you put lace on top of wedding gowns, they say it’s Kosibah. The funny thing about it is that I’ve made over a hundred wedding gowns, and the lace on the wedding gown is almost a requirement from every church, so unfortunately for any designer in this country who is designing for a bride getting married in a Redeemed or Catholic church, you need to make something that will cover the bride, and they don’t accept shawls; it has to be a one piece which you will take to the church for inspection and bring back. Unfortunately for bridal designers, the bride knows exactly what she wants to wear, its not about what you design. She has been dreaming about it for the past 10 years, then she comes to meet me and says this is what she wants and I say no because it looks like Kosibah’s design? Prince William’s wife had lace on her dress, how was it Kosibah’s design? So when you listen to the people in the public, you should be ready to get criticized constructively and also non-constructively, anybody can say anything. Everybody has freedom of speech. It was one of those things I laughed about and for every single time I put out my work and for every time people sang the praises of it, I get more orders, and if that is what it takes to get more orders, I will just keep doing that.
How do you cope being a designer and a fashion editor?
It’s now becoming very demanding. It used to be a lot of fun and still is. I am the fashion editor of Genevieve magazine and that means more work, so all I do is work, work, work, with little time for any other thing. I don’t know how I do it, I just do it.
When you started wearing coloured shoes, did you think it was going to become such a trend?
No. I did what I liked at a point in time, I didn’t know it was going to be a trend or was an emerging trend. I still do not wear what people wear; people wear strong colours that I can’t even deliver on, but people still relate everything to me. I didn’t know it was an incoming trend, I just wore what I like. I actually started with coloured shoes, and ordered some shoes I saw in GQ magazine. I wouldn’t say I started it in Nigeria or all around the world, but I did what I was comfortable with doing and I am glad that people now do it.
Personally, I am shocked to hear you say there are colours you can’t deliver on, considering your status as Style lord. Does that imply that you have restrictions with your fashion?
Fashion is personal to everybody. Some people say Alexandra McQueen doesn’t understand what he’s doing while others think that it is the highest level of art. Fashion is very subjective. As for me, I will never combine some colours that some people wear in the name of colour blocking. I understand it and appreciate it but I will not wear it. There are some things that trend that I have never worn and will never wear. Those Vivienne Westwood rubber shoes that guys wear I won’t wear. I think it’s cool and I appreciate it but I will never wear it, but that’s just me as a consumer. It’s like buba and sokoto, I admire it on people but I don’t like it, you won’t find 10 of them in my wardrobe.
Talking about your wardrobe, what does it look like?
I have a lot of everything in my wardrobe. To be honest, I don’t know if I have more of one thing on the other, but I think my shoes are more than my blazers. That’s hard to believe right? But I think it’s because people see me all the time in blazers people don’t believe I wear shirts and trousers, they think I wear only jackets.
Let’s go back to your designs now. What will you say makes your designs different?
I’d have to tell people to tell me. I love what I do so much that when I create the design, I just go by how I feel and I put it down. I think right now, a lot of people are doing colours, I would have said colours, but lots of people do colours. For my new collections, I got some people that have ordered suits from Tom Ford and bring it to me for fittings, so I will say my fittings are pretty interesting and I will say I play up with fabrics and I don’t tie myself down to a particular type of fabric.
Talking about fabrics, the collection you displayed at the just concluded AMFW featured waist coats with Ankara. Is that a trend you want to adopt now?
If you know my work you will know I don’t work a lot with Ankara, but it kinda like just worked. The inspiration for my work was a week in the life of an African rich boy, so ideally, if someone from a foreign country had to see it, he would want to see things that make it African, and since Ankara is African inspired, it was the right fabric to use at that time and of course, it had a lot of colours I needed to do my work so I had to use it for the waist coat and some shorts. That doesn’t mean I will use Ankara always for other things, it was just something that came up and it worked out well.
How do you get inspiration for your designs?
I design functionally so I think of what I want to do, who I am making it for, what occasion I making it for and I make it for that function. Because I also do styling, I may have thought of it from the styling perspective and asked myself what this person will look like if they wore this, then I work towards that. I can also get inspired with the fabric, I try to also think about [whether] there is a gap in the market for something and I try to close the gap.
So what are you working on at the moment?
Right now, am trying to do a ready-to-wear line for young people, playing with the whole urban culture and seeing if I can nail it and I think it is interesting. I just made myself a pair of boots recently, like military boots, and I’ve been rocking them and they look really nice. Ideally, they say they are for younger people, but I don’t think so. I even travelled with it, it felt really comfortable and cool, I mean it’s all fun.
When you started out couple of years ago, did you imagine your label was going to be this big?
No, I didn’t. The first celebrity that I styled was Pasuma Wonder and I think some things also talk about the way you work. If at the end of the day, people appreciate your work, they will call you to do stuff for them again. I didn’t go and meet any of them, I pretty much sat down and they called me and they ordered my stuff and I give it to them to wear. And to that, everybody that comes to this place to buy is as important as the ones you have mentioned. They are all very important.
You mentioned David Beckham and Kim Kardashian as celebrities you love.
Yeah! David Beckham has a very interesting sense of style that ranges from anything to anything. He can simply be wearing a shirt and jeans, and still look really hot and Kim just has a lovely body, she has an African woman’s body to be honest, and I like people like that.
Whose wardrobe do you envy?
David Beckham’s wardrobe.
We all know Mai as a stylist and designer, who is Mai as a family man?
I take my family very important, and I try to be there as much as I can for my family, even when work is very challenging, I don’t like to talk about my family, I’ll leave it there but we are a very happy family.
Share with us some personal beauty routines you observe.
I think keeping clean is really important for a guy, cutting your hair, shaving, using deodorant or perfume. I think all that is important and a lot more that most people think isn’t important. I mean I use hand lotion and sanitizer; some people think guys shouldn’t do all that, but I think anything you expect of a woman, expect of yourself.
You mentioned clothes as one of your weaknesses. At a certain point do you think you will outgrow it?
I don’t know! I like clothes and that’s why I am doing what I am doing at the moment. I just don’t make clothes for myself as much as I want to, I have to attend to customers and stuff, that’s why I am where I am, but I absolutely love clothes. I think if I outgrow it, I’ll probably stop making clothes.
What do you have to say to upcoming designers who admire your style?
I tell them to study that passion, and drive their passion as far as it can take them, and also lock it up with economic sense.