When the opportunity came to interview Mai Atafo, I grabbed it with both hands. Long before this time, I had a special interest in the designs Mai churned out. Not only are his pieces exquisite, they are well thought out and they reek of class, this tells a lot about the maker. Mai Atafo is strong, driven and a sucker for excellence.
Prior to the interview, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wondered if Mai will be playful, serious or a mixture of both. Minutes into our conversation, I began to get a better understanding of him. Mai is a combination of many things; he is candid, friendly, focused, and very ambitious.
Quite often, the difference between a successful person and a failure is not that one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk – and to act.
For Mai Atafo, fashion designer extraordinaire this saying holds true. Mai’s success in the Nigerian fashion industry stems from a decision to explore other opportunities other than his lucrative job as Marketing Manager at Guinness Nigeria. His decision to take this plunge was born out of a passion for fashion, style and a quest to see what that industry had in store for him.
Many years after, Mai is glad he took that leap, though it hasn’t taken him to the financial heights he aspires to, he is happy he followed his passion; his designs are recognizable as well as appreciated.
“I think I’m more financially well off now compared to when I was with Guinness but am I where I want to be financially with fashion? No I’m not; I’m very far from it. We don’t make as much money from fashion. I’m not financially successful; I’m successful as a fashion designer. I’ll like to be a Dangote of fashion, there’s nothing wrong with that at the end of the day”.
Despite his strides in the industry, Mai wishes he was more prepared for some the challenges he faced, he advises- “You should have a business plan, understand what you’re going into, and understand how you’re going to do distribution, how many collections you want to do in a year, your target audience. I didn’t have that business plan and I was going to start a business. That’s a recipe for failure. It’s one of my biggest regrets.”
Designs by Mai Atafo Inspired are versatile as they are contemporary. Keen observers of Mai’s design will quickly discover that he has a bias for the color blue; he unashamedly admits to having a special preference for blue in designing his clothes for men. But the color blue isn’t the only thing he takes a special liking to; his bridal line-“weddings by MAI” is very dear to his heart. The collection which was launched in 2011 continues to evolve. According to him, “the last collection was inspired by music, Nigerian music to be specific and how the bride dances on her wedding day. So I designed dresses that can enhance that particular experience for them”.
Mai says because he makes clothes from scratch, he has clothes and designs for every size including plus size. As far as male style is concerned, Mai believes that every man should have a black tuxedo, “that is the epitome of being a gentleman”.
It’s every designers dream to dress his favourite celebrity or icon, Mai wishes to dress his friend Genevieve Nnaji whom he’s never dressed. When asked which international icon he’ll love to dress, he confessed that he had never thought of it but after a few seconds of pondering he decided he’ll like to dress Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in “Sex and the City”. Not Sarah herself but the personality in the show.
At some point we all desire to raid a fashion and style icons’ closet, David Beckham was the only name that Mai proudly spoke of with envy and gusto, “I think he’s a fantastic dresser. His dressing is very eclectic; today he is wearing suits tomorrow its jeans and t-shirt and he’s looking really nice. He does everything from his hair to his nails; his a total package when it comes to dressing. I like the way he dresses that’s why I’ll like to raid his closet. Apart from raiding my own closet” he chuckled.
Apart from ensuring he turns out great designs, he’s also had to engage in other activities such as being a mentor at the reality show “the fashion protégée” along-side top designer, Lanre da Silva Ajayi. What did this entail we asked?
“Oh, they just told us that we are mentors and told us to sign the lines and we’re happy to do anything for fashion. We don’t even know exactly what we’ll be doing; whether we’ll be fighting each other or playing with each other, separate teams or the same teams. But yea, I’m looking forward to it” Mai responds.
For upcoming designers, he advises: “Fashion designing is not just fashion and designing clothes and putting it together. Fashion designing is a business like owning a restaurant or a hotel or running a pharmaceutical company or running a bank. So if you want to do fashion designing, know that you’re going into a business; once you’ve figured that out you’ll be fine”.
“ If I meet someone now that says, Mai, I can sell a hundred suits in a month, that’s why I want to go into fashion, I’ll hire the person immediately without even thinking about it twice.”
Mai, the brain behind a number of celebrity’s suits swag, including Banky W has said to expect his collections to have an “epitome of gentlemanness and sactoriousness”.
The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. Mai disclosed that his long term goal is to be the most successful fashion designer in Africa and be in Forbes as such. With a will as strong as his, you can do anything.