Mai Atafo: Designer with a Midas Touch
His gait, full beard, and clean-shaven head make him seem overpowering to some, but behind that facade lies an easygoing and pleasant personality.
The creative director of eponymous fashion brand Mai Atafo has built a premium lifestyle brand using his experience in marketing and branding and his love for fashion to create a synergy for the perfect success story. Firmly rooted in the Nigerian creative space, Atafo exudes a sartorial elegance that makes him a model for upcoming fashion brands in the country.
The designer has had an interesting career in the fashion industry that spans different facets of clothes making — from making the wedding outfits for the highest grossing Nigerian movie, The Wedding Party, in 2016 to being a part of the most anticipated wedding of 2017, between Adesua Etomi and Banky Wellington.
But, speaking with Atafo in his studio, it is evident that following one’s dream, not hype, is key to his success.
Atafo’s recognition as a Nigerian fashion icon did not happen overnight. It was a product of a series of gradual movements that inched him towards eventual fame and success. “I was already doing fashion for three years before I left Guinness, so I was combining both before I left. It was when I resigned my job at Guinness [in 2010] that I decided to also take a role in Genevieve because I thought it would be a nice opportunity… At the same time, I had a job in Spice TV and I was working on my brand… I just wanted to get my hands into as many pies as possible and build up my repertoire and experience.”
Not to be distracted from his goals of creating a space for himself in the fashion industry, he had to dump some of the pies: he resigned his job as a Brand Manager at Guinness Nigeria for a job as the Fashion Editor of Genevieve magazine. But he didn’t get the position at Genevieve on a platter of Gold. Atafo says, “Every step I take is very very calculated…I made several advances to show Betty Irabor what I could do if I was a fashion editor. It wasn’t automatic the way it looked like on Instagram. She probably knew me as a fashion designer but that was all she knew.”
There are risks that come with resigning from a plum job, but the allure of chasing his dreams was too strong to shoo away.
Atafo kicked off his business making Aso-oke waistcoats and everything that came his way. While doing this, he studied other prestigious brands, using their business strategies and learning from their mistakes in a bid to redefine his brand. “People always think chasing your dream is a creative thing. Chasing my dream could be me deciding to be a journalist; it shouldn’t be creative and arty before it can look like you’re chasing your dream.”
But Atafo is not only armed with his dreams; behind the dreams are the latent passion to be distinguishable in the industry by being the best waiting to be tapped. And he’s well aware he has to bring these qualities to bear on his designs. “No one will do that except you show them that you can actually do something. You have to make yourself valuable. In terms of chasing my dream, I’d literally done this thing for three years before I went full time, so that’s putting your toe in the water before putting your feet. But people didn’t see that. They just saw ‘Mai Atafo the designer’. But no.”
He sets up his first atelier after he left Guinness. Although the environment looked “scruffy” on the outside, walking into space made all the difference.
It was not smooth sailing, however. The exterior of the atelier pushed away customers and there were other entrepreneurial risks he had to grapple with. But he saw them as risks worth taking. “I just think when you understand what the elements of risks are as an entrepreneur, that is how you make something out of nothing. The risks were enormous but they have calculated risks. But that doesn’t mean you won’t still fail.”
Atafo got his second factory in Yaba but only used it for three months before he had to move all his employees to Falomo, Lagos. “Then, when we were in Falomo, they had to break that Falomo Shopping Centre [and] I had to move to Lekki. I lost money in that whole transaction too. You realise that the only thing that is consistent with the word ‘entrepreneur’ in every single definition is a risk. As an entrepreneur, what we do every day is wake up and manage risks. You wake up with: “I have failed.” Now, how do I be better? What am I going to do to have customers walking in through the door? Or I have invested a million naira in my rent. Huge risk. If I’m not going to make money out of that, I’m going to fail. So, you doing that upfront is a risk.”
Regardless of the level of success he enjoys today, like many other Nigerian fashion brands, Atafo still has to deal with production headaches. Being a jack of all trades was not part of his plans but there is an acute shortage of specialists in the different sections of clothesmaking. Hence, there came the need to understand the different aspects of his trade. He enlists in the Savile Row Training Academy to hone his skills. The London-based academy is renowned for training aspiring tailors to the highest attainable standards. “I went to school to study so I [could] understand what the rudiment of my craft is. All these things are out there on the internet, you can find out how people run their ateliers and how they run their production. For a suit, there’s a breakdown process and you can create your own breakdown process where you take a measurement, do a pattern, cut the suit, someone does the chest, the padding, then you move to somebody else to do something else; it’s not just one person. In Nigeria, somebody does everything but I don’t do that. I’ve broken down my process so that not everybody does everything. What happens with that is that the skill set you require has just been brought down to a certain level, so you don’t need a jack of all trades anymore.”
With all of that sorted, Atafo has a new dream: he wants his brand to have global recognition. That may be a tall order but he thinks the internet has made this aspiration much easier to attain. Soon, his ready-to-wear designs will be available for order on a dedicated website. “You can be online and you’re around the world. You ship globally, so you’re around the world; you don’t have to be physically there. I like to say I’m a very Pro-African brand, so I like to do things within the continent or for people that are within the continent. My first lines of contacts were Africans in Africa and Africans in Diaspora.”
In an industry where many brands struggle to survive and stay relevant, Mai Atafo is one of the few brands that have successfully dabbled in different areas of fashion. His “Weddings by Mai” line is highly-regarded and his bespoke traditional line is very much distinct. This way, he has been able to set himself apart from the crowd.
Atafo has a busy schedule, but he creates time for his family too. Managing a full-time business and family may prove difficult for some, but Atafo has found a way to make it work. “Luckily for me, my wife does actually work with me. She comes in and is nice enough to volunteer to work for us. She sees me and she sees my work and it’s not relaxation time or that kind of time but it’s time together at the end of the day. I do close late but, every morning, I try as much as possible to see my daughter before she goes to school, sometimes I drop her off at school. In the weekends, I’m filled with events, but I try as much as possible to delegate a day in the weekend to make time to play with her. Now that she’s turned 4, she’s started knowing a lot of things, she’s now more aware of stuff. During the Christmas holiday, I shut down for three weeks and it was just with family. She saw me a lot and we played a lot. So I kind of understand her to a large extent and know what she likes and what she doesn’t, and I think she understands me too. So, we can do weekends together without her mum and we are cool like that. I think we try to strive for a balance for now. It’s not been too bad.”
For aspiring designers, Atafo says immediate success is not guaranteed. He believes talent and skills are a prerequisite for success. Besides those, there must be a firm knowledge of how fashion business is done. “For people that are coming into the industry newly, I think the stakes are higher; you can’t do what I did in 2010 and just say I’m going to follow my heart. It will take you longer, you’ll probably suffer, you’ll probably have sleepless nights because the market is now saturated. As at when I was entering, there was a detailed City People publication that counted 300 designers in Nigeria; that was in 2010. In 2018, I’m very sure that number has multiplied by four times.”
“Now, look at the market. A lot of people are buying Made in Nigeria stuff; a lot of people are making those stuff for these guys, so the market is huge. You can’t just wake up one morning and say I’ll follow my passion and I’ll go into fashion and this is what you’re doing and you expect that you’d be a superstar tomorrow. I’m sorry it won’t work like that.”
“The fashion part of your business is really, to me, just twenty percent. Everything after that is what makes a business.”