Mai Atafo remains a giant who has created a grand influence in the Nigerian fashion industry. Motivated to remain visionary and make ground-breaking fashion innovations, Atafo defies the impossible to continue to gain knowledge that would sustain his brand’s relevance. Over the years, the eponymous brand has created hundreds of unique, impeccably cut, and clean outfits, and these features have become a key part of their brand identity. With a Global Following and A-List Clientele, Mai Atafo redefines couture excellence, proving that fashion knows no boundaries. In this exclusive interview, Mai Atafo shares some key secrets to success in the fashion industry.
From Brand Marketing to Couture Excellence: The Journey Unfolded
FAB: You have had an impressive career journey, transitioning from market research and brand management to becoming a renowned fashion designer. What motivated you to make this shift and pursue a career in the fashion industry?
Mai Atafo: I still insist that it’s not a fascinating story because I worked in brand marketing, and what I do currently is still very much brand marketing. The product has just changed from alcoholic beverages to fashion, and I now have to do the function of being the creative director, which is being in charge of designs and things like that. So, it’s still like running a business, which is why I always say that I don’t think there was a drastic change. The product changed, but it’s still the same effort you put into trying to ensure that what you create sells. But in this case, you are in charge of the creation as well as the marketing of the products and the whole brand positioning. That is why I still believe that nothing has changed in general.
FAB: Fashion Conversations, your free fashion mentorship initiative, showcases your commitment to empowering the next generation of creatives. What did you see in the Nigerian fashion industry that motivated your Fashion Conversation, and have you seen any impact that this initiative has had since it started?
Atafo: I have actually seen positive changes that the fashion conversation has generated in the last few years because I get to meet some of these people, and they tell me how much their businesses have changed from the point that we engaged until now. It almost feels like everybody who has made a name for themselves in fashion in Nigeria has gone through Mai Atafo’s mentorship one way or another, and that is a good thing.
I decided to take this initiative because, when I started, I had a lot of questions and nobody to answer them. The people who had the answers to the questions didn’t want to answer the questions because they felt like it was a competition. So, I felt that those who were coming would also have questions like mine. What better way to help them than to answer the questions I had years ago that these guys have now? I see it as empowering myself, the younger Mai Atafo, but in this case for other guys.
An individual never makes an industry; you need people to make an industry, and if you want the industry to become something that is viable tomorrow, that is really strong, and that stands firm, we need to build an industry. Building an industry means having a lot more people in it who are doing what is right. Fashion Conversation is about building the industry, building those that would challenge me tomorrow or even be better than me tomorrow. I think that makes all of us even better at the end of the day.
Mai Atafo: One of the key things I try to do is let people know that you care for them and that you trust them to take care of what is yours. It is almost like inviting somebody to your home and having them take care of your children. In this case, my business is my child, and I am trying to ensure that I am transparent enough to love those that work for me. It is easy to compensate them, work with them, and show them that they are a part of something that is important to you. It’s never the hard stick and cane methodology.
For me, it’s more like creating an extended family of people who genuinely care. I think that it is an easy thing to do because for those that do not, you can actually weed them out in little or no time because it gets very clear. If you’re not a member of my family because you’re not showing the same characteristics that we are, it shows that you are that black sheep, and that is very obvious. In summary, take care of those that work for you, and they in turn will take care of your business for you.
An individual never makes an industry; you need people to make an industry, and if you want the industry to become something that is viable tomorrow, that is really strong, and that stands firm, we need to build an industryMai Atafo
Atafo Spring/Summer ’23: A Standalone Show Celebrating 12 Years of Excellence
FAB: Recently, you hosted your first standalone fashion show for Spring/Summer ’23. What was the significance of this show, and how did it allow you to connect with your audience on a deeper level?
Mai Atafo: The show was more than the fact that we were showing a collection. That was where the new stuff really came out, for bridal and for men’s wear. It was to show everyone what the house offers, so they could see the brand in its own length and breath, and also to mark our twelve years in business. It is a significant milestone because when we turned ten during the pandemic and we couldn’t do anything, this was also a chance to celebrate.
On the other hand, it was the first time that we would invite customers to a show that we were hosting where more than sixty percent of those that were sitting were actually customers. They could see the brand with a different eye and perspective. It also made them feel like family and part of the whole thing. It was actually a very great experience for them because they don’t even get invited or have the chance to attend fashion shows, but all of a sudden, they are sitting in one of the biggest fashion shows of the year. I thought that was good. In terms of the significance of what we did and in terms of connection to our customers and what has happened after, many of them engaged with the brand almost immediately after the fashion show.
FAB: If you could collaborate with any artist, designer, or even a historical figure, who would it be and why? How do you imagine such a collaboration would push the boundaries of fashion and create something truly extraordinary?
Mai Atafo: If I get the chance to collaborate with anyone, it would be a visual artist—not necessarily anyone in fashion, but somebody that can take fashion from a state where it is of form and a physical attribute to make it non-physical and digital in a way that you can really engage with it. When you see garments online that you plan to buy, you have not seen the garment; you have only seen the visual, and based on the appetite the visual gives you, you want it. Literally, you’re buying the picture and film with the hope that when you get the picture and the film, it is what is delivered to you, and you can wear and look as good as that picture.
When I think of how we can make these beautiful creations come to life in a digital format, I think that it would have so much visual appeal that people would want to engage. I think that is the kind of person I want to collaborate with. An amazing photographer, a great storyteller or filmmaker, or a great artistic director who has a strong mind and can communicate with people’s souls with just the power of a picture or a movie. Stay up to date on the newest in the world of Fashion, Arts, Beauty and Lifestyle; Follow FAB on socials.
The Spirit of African Fashion: What Sets Nigeria Apart on the Global Stage
FAB: What do you believe sets Nigerian fashion apart and makes it a force to be reckoned with on the global stage?
Mai Atafo: I think it is the sheer creativity that we have. I think we are super creatives, and secondly, it is the fact that the determining factor of African fashion garments is not necessarily in the style or in the design; it is the expression of each individual person’s heart in what they are creating and showcasing. Art is something you cannot copy, but we are lucky that in Nigeria and Africa, we can have arts that are in sync, and when we express it, we can say this is African, but we do not know why you feel it is African. You just know or feel that it is African. I think that is one great thing about African fashion.
There is a way we do things that is kind of unique to us, and we love it that way. Other people might not get it, but we get it. Sometimes they don’t get it, but they like it, and it makes us unique at the end of the day.
If we can understand and harness it in such a way that we can tap into it every other time, that would be great. I don’t think we even know it. I think it’s spiritual.
FAB: Would you say there is a way the global fashion industry has influenced your work, and what are the opportunities and challenges that you’ve faced as an African designer on the international stage?
Mai Atafo: My thing is a cross-pollination of European and African styles, and I do a lot of European things myself. The response is two-fold: first, they are not so impressed because they make things like that, but as the journey continues, they realise they have not seen my kind of adaptation before. Taking, for instance, the “traxedo” that we made. It is a hybrid of a traditional outfit and a tuxedo shirt. When I come up with such things, we make them, and you wear them, it actually feels super elegant.
The challenges are not great because, at the end of the day, I’m just expressing what I believe is my unique voice. I don’t think I have been showcased anywhere or received negative challenges. It has been more about acceptance than anything else. It is more about people trying to understand what you have created and trying to be a part of it, either by buying you or promoting you to the next level. Less challenge but more appreciation, to be honest.
Mai Atafo: About the fabrics, I think first of all it is about a good understanding of fabrication because, apart from the things I get from overseas, I still buy fabrics here in Lagos, and they work for me too. Have you tried it out and seen how it worked or did not work, so you know what you can use it for and not use it for? Then again, people want to make things, and they assume they come from fabric. Sometimes those fabrics are made by the designer. What I mean is that you actually get a plain piece of fabric, you rouge it or pleat it for it to have an effect, and you now decide to embellish it. Now, another designer sees that and thinks that it is a fabric that they got from the market, not knowing that it was actually genuinely created from scratch. That is the number one reason a young designer complains about fabric accessibility.
The second part is craftsmanship. If there’s one thing that this fashion house is focused on, it’s actually tailoring and craftsmanship, which are at the core of everything that we do. That over design. If it is well tailored, it will fit right and make the wearer feel incredible. We always try to push and achieve impeccability, which has led me far and wide. It has led me to get someone who owns a training institute in England to come to Nigeria twice to train me and to travel around the world to learn. When I was in school in Italy, I went to other fashion design houses to understand how they do what they do. It is all these things that have come together and created a bouquet of experiences for me to be able to give that impeccable garment at every point in time that we bring it out here.
If we’re going to start mixing Italian influences and Bridgerton influences in one suit to create something that is unique, stands out, and fits better, then I would look into it. You pick things from different parts of the world that you think fit well with your brand and the people that you serve. Training, retraining, and cross-training to ensure that we are at the top whenever it comes to tailoring and craftsmanship is paramount for me and for the house in general.
Uniting Music and Fashion: The Synergy We Seek in Nigeria’s Industries
FAB: Do you think we are doing the work that is really needed to promote the synergy between the entertainment and fashion industries in Nigeria?
Mai Atafo: I don’t think we are, to be honest. The reason is because one is quite superior to the other in Nigeria. In Nigeria, the music industry is way superior to the fashion industry, to the point where when they collaborate, it’s almost like they are doing you a favour. So you cannot match your agendas together because these artists are paid millions of dollars to perform on a global stage. I cannot afford the millions to pay these artists to wear my brand, but the big international brands can afford it because they have contracts with them and it’s part of the deal to wear their thing. Burberry and other international design brands make a lot of money. They make the kind that Shell makes, or even more than that. They have the upper hand, I think that is why the synergy is not as great as we can see in terms of moving the fashion industry to the next level.
Our fashion is not evident as part of the culture that is inherent in Afrobeats. You see that when you’re trying to make the connection. We can associate baggy trousers, a face cap flipped to the back, oversized tops, and Timberland with hip-hop because they have moved their culture into hip-hop as a total package. Now it has changed slightly because people now wear suits to rap, but they still dress the way I described when they perform. Initially, rappers used to dress like rock stars, if you remember Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. When they started to push what they were comfortable wearing—the jeans, the track tops, the track bottoms, and all that—it stuck. They moved it with the culture, which we haven’t done here because the music industry is superior to the fashion industry, and maybe there is no strong culture that we are proud of.
I hope that it changes in the near future. I pray that they try to sell the culture alongside their music so that they can all be one. That way, for you to enjoy Afrobeats, you feel like you have to wear a kaftan. That would be a win for us in Nigeria. The closest we have to that is Fela. If people come out with Fela’s outfit, you know that we want to burst some Afrobeat. I think that a strong collaboration can definitely happen between music and fashion. It is a conversation I’m very open to having with more of the music guys to see if we can cement our culture as part of the message that they deliver when they jam their songs around the world.
From Dreams to Reality: Mai Atafo’s Luxury Bridal Line
FAB: In 2011, you expanded Atafo by launching a bridal line. Is there some peculiar vision for the brand’s involvement in life’s big moments, and is there a particular way you strive to create luxury clothing for your bridal clients?
Mai Atafo: I think bridal is more like a fairytale; you sell them dreams, and they come to engage in them. When they engage in it, they sit in the driver’s seat, and you follow. It is as luxurious as they want it to be, not as you want it to be. You can only share with them the directions, and they will decide to pick or not pick. All we do is entice you to come into the car, and when you come into the car, I will give you the driver’s seat and the keys for you to lead the journey. We just steer you left and right as the journey takes you to the point of delivery. That is what we do. As much as we are the designers and we own the garments, it’s more about bringing your customer’s dream to reality. Some people want luxurious stuff, and some people don’t. Our job is to bring it to life regardless.
FAB: Is there any project we should be looking out for from Atafo anytime soon?
Atafo: One of my great mentors always said, “Do what you say, don’t say, just in case you do not do”. We are certain that we will have another fashion show this year, and we hope it’s going to be a remarkable experience for everybody who witnesses it physically or online. Be the First to Experience the Exquisite Spring/Summer Issue of e-fab; Join the Fab community now!