Mai Atafo is a big name in fashion. He has been big for close to 10 years. And he has dominated the fashion scene all these while. His real name is Ohimai Atafo, but he is popularly known by his unisex brand name Mai Atafo. He is the Creative Director of Weddings By Mai which he officially launched in 2011-Under this label he makes wedding bridal and evening party dresses for women and suits for men. He is a well known Nigerian bespoke designer who rose to limelight after launching his brand Mai Atafo which has been successful, both on the local and global fashion scene. His aim throughout his career has been to uniquely showcase the personality of a confident and elegant Nigerian gentleman.
He is a trained IT specialist with a Masters degree in Information Systems and Technology from the UK. After returning from the UK in 2002, he worked in various positions in the corporate sector until 2010, when he resigned to pursue fashion full time. Atafos clothing label has gained popularity while attracting top clientele.
Over the last few years he has come up with very many breathtaking collections. His designs have wowed very many men and babes who he designs for. He specialises in designing for the male folk and the babes. But not many people know his story. Only few people know that he had a regular 9 to 5 job before he left to float his label. The rest is history. In this interview with City People Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE, Mai Atafo reveals his success story.
You’ve been at this for a long while now, at what point is your brand?
I am at a point at which I am ready to go retail for ready to wear, where I should be able to fulfil the demand for a wider range of people not just those that know me personally, but for those that don’t know me but know the brand. That is very, very financially heavy, because you will be talking about rent, generators, manpower (which is one of the biggest issues that we face in the industry).
It’s really big. I keep saying this, people appreciate fashion. They like to go for fashion shows, they talk about fashion designers but our industry still suffers as a business. People don’t seem to get it. If you tell them I want to spread around the country, they don’t still get it. So we suffer. Like my own business has been self funded. Uptill now I have not had investments from anybody so it really makes it difficult to want to spread. My brand is at a point whereby I want to do ready to wear. I want to have shops across and round the country.
How far are you from your dream when you started?
I think I am very close, because I was very modest when I set out. To be honest, when I started doing this, I was still doing my regular job. At that time, it was my creative juice coming out. And I thought let me explore what this is. At the time I took a break from the corporate world to now go into this full time, I just thought let me take a shot at it.
I will never be this young again in my life. At that time, for me it was still a good balance of 40% business and 60% creativity. Since I left corporate world it has now more or less 70% business and 30% of I want to fulfill my passion. What I have come to understand is that this is 100% business. Passion is already there, anyway. It has to be 100% business. So, like I explained when I set out, I was modest, I didn’t have this big vision of what I am doing right now.
All the things I have done right now is not what I set out to do, nothing about let me have a strong bespoke men’s suit line or wedding line that caters to everything in the wedding aspect. All these were not part of the plan. When you start thinking business you start doing those things that guide you towards that direction
How far have you been in business?
I have been in business now for over 6 years. Initially I did it part time but for a few years now, I have done it full time. When I used to work in the corporate world I had a 9 to 5 job. I was working in Marketing. So, I worked as Senior Brand Manager (Guinness Nigeria) for 4 years plus before I took a break from that to do this.
How easy was it for you to leave your good job at Guinness to do this?
I know. I will say it was more of an emotional decision, than a functional or sensible decision. It was more emotional. The only functional aspect of the decision was, I thought… There was a point in time in my job, I knew that the next level for me in terms of career in corporate world, was that it was going to demand more of me. And for my business, the next level was also going to demand more time off me. It was a case that if I stay on in corporate world I was going to kill my passion for business. And I had worked in Marketing for 10 years. Let me go and have fun with this thing, you see, I said fun, I was not even thinking business.
Now, if it doesn’t do well for me the way I want it to do for me, I will pack it up and look for another job and the least job I would end up doing is coming back to do the job I was doing because I had 10 years experience in Marketing. And I was bloody good at what I do, permit me to say that.
So, I knew I would definitely get a job again. I think that was even the strongest part for me because I knew I could go back to the market and get a job. I just felt there are many things I could have done by myself which is what I am doing today. Apart from the clothing line, I compere shows. I compered one of your shows for you.
I also do content for TV and Event. I am the Fashion Editor for Genevieve Magazine. Television programmes and all that. Fashion TV shows. The opportunity is enormous and with my strong marketing experience it will help. As a marketing person, you are a business person.
How were you able to build the brand Mai Atafo into the big brand it is today?
For me, to be honest, its kind of easy. Its because I can easily tell you what I want to do in 2 years time or even in 5 years time. I know the PR stunts to pull, I know the particular awareness I need to create. I know the kind of activity to do to get people to be interested in the brand, and to create the attraction in the people.
I know all that. But I couldn’t do that when I know that my back is not ready for it. The back end has to be ready for it. So, in terms of how to build the brand to be strong and to be solid in this country I am really good at that. I can build any kind of brand to be a household name. The kind of luck that I have is more or less goodwill from my time in the corporate world where I got to meet a lot of people, from those in the media to those in entertainment who have helped me surge and push my brand to where it is. So when I started making female clothes, I started making clothes for Omowunmi Akinifesi, I did that for 2 years. It was the biggest relationship.
That was fantastic because she believed in me and believed in what I could do. And I believed in her and listened to her. The truth about it is that everytime she went on the red carpet, she was stunning. She got more awards nomination for being the lady of style. She got invited to more shows becuase of her style. Everywhere she went, she told them my clothes was made for me by Mai Atafo Inspired. And that was how the label Mai, Mai, Mai kept becoming popular and everyone was like who is this Mai? And that was the first stunt that got us through the door. That helped me for the period.
And then I started making things for other celebrities. They kept calling. And I kept making it for them. And everybody was calling Mai, Mai. And after building your brand then you must have people that are credible talking about it. Then the next level was when I did the wedding line. That was a major stunt. I had a wedding reception to launch the wedding line, so it was not a fashion show. People were blown away. Once you win the heart of a person you’ve won the person.
Building a brand which is something I have learnt in my 10 years in the corporate world working with a brand like Guinness or British American Tobacco where you have to work with brands like Benson & Hedges, Dunhill, these are premium international brands and you can only learn right.
Do you specialise in Male or Female clothings?
I do for males. I do for females. For males I do predominantly Bespoke suits-tuxedo, casual crested jackets, be it a sports jacket, be it a smoking jacket, whatever kind of suits or coats, I do for guys. Top and Bottom waist coats. I also extend that to weddings. I do things like cravats for you. By default I do shirts. I do polo suits too.
For the females I do wedding gowns. That is the biggest out of my business right now. I do bridesmaid dresses. I do everything that has to do with clothings for a wedding. Alittle of everything-male & female I can take care of everything. That is why my line is not called Bridals. It is called the Weddings By MAI. On the other hand, for ladies I do red carpet dresses. That is where I started from for laides. I do more glamorous dresses. Things that ladies wear to dinners in the evening and all that. I had to put that in the fore front. It doesn’t mean I don’t do trousers for ladies. I do. But I am known for red carpet dresses.