The words “the medium is the message” coined by Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan seem apt for Nigerian designer Mai Atafo. He truly is the best medium and model of his work.
When we meet him, the always-immaculate Atafo is dressed in a clean cut black suit, white shirt, yellow tie and socks. His minimalist, unpretentious – and rather understated like the man himself – eponymous shop is located in the heart of Victoria Island, Nigeria. He strides in to meet two new clients in search of the perfect bespoke suit. They have come to the right place.
Pieces of clothing featuring traditional Nigerian design mingle with modern eclectic prints on the racks in the open-plan shop floor. The Mai Atafo brand is known for its Savile Row masterpieces. To the uninitiated, Savile Row is a street in central London known for its bespoke tailoring, and Atafo is a Savile Row Training Academy-certified tailor, of both men’s and women’s suits.
After listening to the new clients and their brief, he asks: “Why do you want this style?” An understanding of what the client is looking for sets the premise for the ensuing four weeks that will go into producing a unique, bespoke suit, typically costing anywhere upwards of N200,000 ($1,000). This level of perfection and attention to detail has earned Atafo an enviable reputation amongst his peers in Nigeria’s fashion industry, and beyond.
Fashion had not always been Atafo’s calling. When he was younger, music was his first love. He was told that as a two-year-old, he only walked when he heard music, and resumed his crawling position when it stopped.
“Until I was 10 years old, all I ever wanted was a guitar, but unfortunately my parents never got it for me otherwise I would be making hits instead,” says Atafo.
His dream of becoming “the next Michael Jackson” was not on the tarot cards though. The sixth of seven siblings, he thankfully also grew up with a keen eye for fashion.
“To me it was more important to look good than to eat,” he says.
After acquiring a degree in Agricultural Economics and a master’s degree in Information Systems in the United Kingdom (UK), Atafo decided to stay on in the West. After five years, he decided it was not for him.
“I decided one day that I am more than a statistic, I am more than yet another African looking to make it in the UK, so I took a chance and decided to relocate back home.”
He secured his first job in the research department at British American Tobacco where he stayed for four years after which a stint at Guinness Nigeria PLC followed as an Innovation Manager and then later as brand manager. While at Guinness, Atafo decided to start his fashion career on the side.
And what was Atafo’s trigger?
“My sleeve length is 27 inches which is quite long because the average length is 25 inches, as a result, I struggled to get clothes that fit.”
So he decided to get his own clothes tailored; a practice from secondary school. There was another impetus. A friend was getting married and the groom’s men decided to upstage the bridesmaids. Atafo designed a range of African print-inspired waist coats and matching trousers in lilac and purple that were an instant hit and after replicating the style for five subsequent weddings, Atafo decided to go with his heart and enter fashion, full-throttle.
“I saved money that was equivalent to my one year salary and decided to take the chance. I said to myself, if in one year it doesn’t work, the worst that can happen is I will be a brand manager again.”
That was never to be – he has only worked for himself since.
Five years on, his brand is the recipient of top accolades in the highly-competitive Nigerian fashion industry. Developing the brand was not without challenges though, especially in light of the perception that it is more acceptable to pay higher prices for bespoke pieces made in the West than for those produced locally.
Even though Atafo holds the certificate from London’s elite bespoke tailoring school, he says he still encounters variables of this perception.
“I remember once a customer came to me with a $4,000 Tom Ford suit from the ready-to-wear range. However, the suit was ill-fitting and I was going to charge less than $1,000 to have it tailored and yet the customer complained that the price was way too much.”
Atafo believes it is still a long way before luxury African brands are fully acknowledged. However, he is in no hurry to open up shops abroad. Far from the contrary, Atafo is a proudly Nigerian brand, the name ‘Mai Atafo Inspired’ is born from what influences him the most – his strong Nigerian heritage. He is on a mission to create the first African bespoke brand for the international market, and be a cut above the rest.