Africa’s fashion industry is taking a new face, going beyond the days of imported Italian suits to recent times where people can walk into a fashion outfit, and have a fashion designer tailor a bespoke suit for their taste and physique – with designs that would leave even respectable fashion designers around the world gaping with awe. At the forefront of this new trend in Nigeria is Mai Atafo, a man whose name has become synonymous with trendy and bespoke fashion.
Ohima Atafo was born in Ile-Ife, Osun State, and spent some of his early years in Lagos. He moved to Benin City and attended the University Staff School Benin. For his secondary education, he attended the Federal Government College Ido-Ani, Ondo state.
After this, the next move was to go to university. Already, Atafo had picked an interest in fashion. “I got into fashion out of love of clothes. Since I was growing up, I always loved wearing clothes. I did home economics in secondary school so I used to sew aprons and stuffs with my hands, and fiddle with my mom’s sewing machines. I broke a few needles, made myself a few knapsacks in secondary school but I never thought it was anything because I enjoyed doing it,” he said in an interview.
While in the university, his friends were quick to spot his interest in clothes. He would help them go to major markets like Onitsha to get clothes. As he started understanding the quality of clothes even better, he would spot some nice designs which he could not afford to buy and this became the motivation to create them himself. This was in itself, another level of self-development for him.
After completing his first degree, he went to the City University of the United Kingdom for a Master’s degree in Information System and Technology. On one end, we could say that he was studying for a graduate degree in IT, and on the other end, he was exposing himself to more fashion in the UK.
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When he returned to Nigeria in 2002, his first job was with British American Tobacco Nigeria where he joined the marketing department. After 4 years there, he moved to Guinness Nigeria as Brand manager.
Taking the fashion bull by the horn
While at Guinness Nigeria, the opportunity would surface for Atafo to return to his first love – fashion designing.
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“I started by making asooke waistcoats for weddings for a couple of friends. Usually, the brides had their colours sorted out but the guys could not afford to get a new purple or lilac suit, so I thought we could still do something with the colour of the day. I specially ordered lilac and purple asooke with which I designed the waistcoats. Everybody looked good on the day and people really liked the outcome. I did it for about six other weddings and that was the beginning of Mai Atafo Inspired,” he recalled.
His unique physique was another reason to design clothes. Given his height and arm length, Atafo had difficulties getting suits and shirts that could fit him. He always had to make adjustments to get to his size, and gradually Mai Atafo inspired became a thing.
“I could hardly get a perfect fit. If I got something that suited my sleeves, I wouldn’t get the body right because they would be really massive; and if I got the perfect body fit, the sleeves would be too short for me because I have long sleeves,” he recalled.
With time and effort, the clientele started expanding to include celebrities like Banky Wellington, Omowunmi Akinnifesi and the likes. Atafo got a gig to style top celebrities and performers at the reality dance show “Celebrity takes two”, and this cemented his move into the industry. By the time he launched a wedding line called “Weddings by Mai” in 2011, he had gained enough grounds for the perfect fit wedding dresses and tailored bespoke suits to create a media frenzy.
“I want to be the best suit tailor in Africa. I’m not a sucker of going international because those international are trying to come to Africa, so let’s be the champions of Africa before going out to the rest of the world,” he said.
Mai Atafo received the City People Fashion and Style Awards as the hottest new designer Male, in 2009 and special recognition in 2010. He was also featured as the Fab Magazine Fashion brand of the year 2010 and the Mode Men magazine fashion designer of the year 2010. His classy branding and perfection-conscious designs continue to attract recognition from different corners.
To mark his 40th birthday, Atafo launched “Follow Mai Heart” campaign in partnership with Moet and Chandon. He has been a key player in several fashion shows including the Heineken Lagos Fashion Week, and the fifth edition of the ARISE fashion Week 2018 where he showcased his collections.