By JEMI EKUNKUNBOR
He walked into the studio carrying two Mai Atafo branded shopping bags. Clad in a crisp white shirt, over a pair of black trousers, he looked dapper. His well groomed mustache added a notch to his already impressive image. No wonder readers of this magazine, polled their votes for him to emerge Allure Style Icon 2011.
Born Ohimai Atafo, in Ile Ife, the native of Ora in Edo State, grew up in Lagos and Benin along with six other brothers and two sisters. Growing up in a large family, one he described literally as a “village” helped him to become a people person, one that can cut across any social and economic strata of life.
His early education began at the University of Benin staff school. As a student, he was very competitive, played sports, acted in school plays all of which accounts for his athletic built and love for the entertainment industry.
After secondary education at Federal Government college, Ido Ani, the young Mai, proceeded to Edo State university were he obtained a degree in Agro Economics. This was followed by a Master’s degree in Information Systems and technology at City University, London.
On return to Nigeria in 2002, he joined British American Tobacco company and later Guiness Nigeria plc from where he took a career break to go pursue his interest-fashion! I’ve never met anyone so passionate about clothes. he talks about his love for clothes and his whole face lights up. His knowledge is deep. Though he is earning from fashion, Mai would not refer to it as work. fashion is for him is fun and he is having loads of it especially as Mai goes bridal.
Married to Christine, Mai here, shares with us a bit of himself, his pasion for clothes and of course his love for colours.
Was there something in your upbringing that pushed you towards loving clothes?
Funny enough, the love of fashion has always been very innate. When you live in a family house with so many people, there is always a kind of competition going with everyone trying to look good. I have the most interesting memory of everything when I was growing up as long as it has to do with fashion. Is it from waiting for Christmas clothes to being bought for you or to when I had to tell them I wanted to buy my Christmas clothes myself? I remember the first thing I bought for myself was my rain drops trousers! That was what it was called then and the shoe was called, oglings. So yes, I did everything that a young child was supposed to do from check out trouser to turtle neck shirt to Bobby Brown hair cut slanted to one side. Have I mentioned the heavily padded jackets, I did all that and I loved it. I find fashion as an outlet for me to express myself, so it was always fun. I absolutely love clothes. That is why you can never see me be in the same thing for too long because whatever trend it is, I try to adapt it immediately. So though I have my style, I always go with trend or ahead of trend.
A lot of people who are blessed to be ahead of trend get misunderstood. How do you handle that?
I take it in my stride. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to impress anybody. The first person I try to impress is me. As long as I know I’m not going there naked and I’m comfortable with it then its fine with me. It’s never a popularity contest and sometimes, I’ve realized that no matter how much you dress to please the crowd, you still wouldn’t please them. So what is the use? No matter who you are in life, someone is going to say something bad about you for no just cause. You just learn to deal with it. A lot of people yab me over my coloured shoes. Some say I wear too many colours. Sometimes, it’s funny that the same people that say it when you do it here, when they see people overseas do it, they accept it which is really strange. So, I’m not the first person to wear coloured trousers and coloured shoes in the world. Ozwald Boateng has been making coloured suits forever and he is still renowned for doing that up till tomorrow. Everybody knows him for that and everybody likes him for that. People are going to tease you which ever way. It’s your judgement, as long as you don’t look stupid. Fela used to wear some funny clothes way back. But you know what? He did it and that was his own style. Prince wears high heel shoes. Michael Jackson dressed weird, people complained but that was his style. But in the recent edition of GQ, a whole inset was dedicated to colour shoes. I started doing my colours since last year and now in March, you are having coloured shoes.
So what sets you apart?
I don’t know if I do anything consciously to set me apart. Winning the Allure Style Icon competition is interesting and it came as a surprise because there were some people on the Style icon list that I actually thought dresses well and I looked up to and prayed that I will have the opportunity to cloth some day. So, it was pretty interesting to say that I won. So, I don’t go out there to set myself apart. I just try to look good because I love clothes.
Does it put a hole in your pocket?
No, because I make clothes, that’s fair. I just make for myself. But my love of clothes is not just about me making and wearing clothes. I love to see others wearing my stuff as well.
But being voted Allure style shows you are doing something right and people are taking notice. How dos that make you feel?
I’m really very honoured. Coming from a humble beginning, if somebody recognizes you for anything at all, the first thing you say is thank you especially to all those who sent SMS to make me win. I’m blown away to say the least that people took out time to say this guy should be voted Style Icon of all the men in the country for a national newspaper. I am truly honoured.
Where do you go from here?
I don’t know. I think you guys have set me up. So, you are going to make me look thrice before picking what I’m going to wear. But if it’s what I’ve been doing that got me here, I guess I’d just continue doing it and that is having fun with clothes not trying to kill myself with it.
Earlier, you talked about colour and men’s fashion. More men are embracing colour how do you ensure that you don’t go overboard?
People always say guys shouldn’t wear colour but right now, it feels like the trend. If you are happy and comfortable in it, you should do it but as a person, I have boundaries. I probably wouldn’t do a deep purple over a deep green with a fushia pink against yellow shoes. There are things that you can do to make you stand out.
If you have one colour splash in your combo, I don’t think it is bad. If you have red trousers and you are wearing a white shirt and a black jacket, I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. I think that is absolutely fantastic. If you decide to wear a black trouser and white shirt and red shoe and red belt, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I won’t wear orange shoes but I can wear orange in some shades. So I’d say spice your dressing with a bit of colour but not for you to wear red jacket, red belt and red shoe. If you are dressing for a music video, it might be okay. But there are a few balances. These days, your socks can be as colourful as you want it. It’s just a flash. Your pocket square can be colourful. That will be nice.
Who has inspired you in this direction?
There are loads of people who dress well that I look and steal and copy from. In Nigeria, you have people like Eyimofe Atake. I like the way he puts his clothes together. Tony Elumelu is fantastic in the way he comes out in his formal suits. If you go overseas, people like Tom Ford is fantastic and David Becham is the one I really look at; the way he dresses from his jeans to his clean cut suits. John legend plays with colours and dresses really well too. You can find Kanye West in that same area, dressing up really well, playing with coulours and getting a bit more edgy with things.
When you came back, some years ago what you met was it pleasing?
It was. When I came back, I was in the corporate world marketing So, the entertainment industry was more entertaining to me. It used to Wow me because people were doing what they were supposed to doing. And with fashion, people are getting to the point where they are pushing boundaries, getting edgier at what they do. People really understand the red carpet culture, they want to stand and be photographed, they are aware that these photos will probably sell some magazines the next day and they want to see themselves in the papers looking good. After all, we all have a little bit of vanity in us. You may stand there looking good but others will hate you fro it. But in the words of Tuface, if no body talks about you, then you are a nobody.
Is the Nigerian red carpet really as it ought to be?
It’s funny but when you say red carpet, it could be a reception in which case, it is bigger because you are expected to stay there and mingle. But if it’s red carpet welcome, it’s just to welcome them. But I understand where you are going that it is really over flogged. Red carpet really, is just to show that you are honouring people. If I were marrying again, I’d probably put a red carpet to welcome people because I’m very happy that they are there.
With your clothing brand, what is your cutting edge?
I started off making clothes for the love of clothes and now, I do more red carpet dresses for ladies and for guys, I do suits, shirts, jackets etc. As I’m evolving, I’ve started my other brand which is bridal. It’s called weddings by Mai. We’d be doing the formal launch soon. The most glamorous dress you can make is a wedding dress. It’s more challenging to make a white dress wow. If you see anything on any red carpet and you think it’s really nice, make it white then you see what comes out of it. So now, that is where I’m going to be sitting down for a long time.
What dreams do you have for the future?
I’ve always had big dreams. I’d love to cover the length and breadth of Nigeria. I still believe that there are so many people who want to wear things but they can’t get them. And I think that we are not feeding half of the country. We all sit in Lagos as designers and there is a whole of the country to conquer. So if I can have four shops in every state in this country that would be a huge achievement. So the potential here is enormous. That is a dream for me to make fashion a business rather than entertainment.
You talked about vanity earlier. What’s yours?
Clothes! I love clothes it’s my biggest weakness.
Any particular brand you like?
No, I don’t go out to buy brands. I buy anything that works. When I see a very nice suit, I go and make it but when I see things that I don’t make that catches my fancy, I just buy it immediately. I love clothes and it remains my biggest weakness.
How much have you invested in clothes especially those ones you see in shops that make you lose your sleep?
I don’t know. When I was working in England, I’d buy a shirt and keep the receipt and start saving towards it because you have 30 days to return it. If I can afford it, I keep it if not, then I return it. Sometimes, It’s very painful to detach from it. So I’ve done crazy things because of fashion. I’ve even stolen my brother’s clothes just to look good
Which Nigerian designers do you like?
A few of them are my friends and I really respect them for what they do. Frank does amazing wedding dresses. I respect him for that. The Okunore twins make fantastic suits. Mudi makes you believe that everything is possible. If he can start from Anthony village and move to Kenya, South Africa and Ghana, then, he is such an encouraging person. I met him a few times and he always has an advice every time I meet him. Tiffany Amber is good and Deola Segoe is the queen of Couture you can take it from her. What Jewel by Lisa has done with Ankara is fantastic. The list just goes on. And of course, the younger ones are coming very fast.
Which one celebrity would you like to dress?
David Becham and Kim Kadashan. I’d be honoured if Tony Elumelu calls me one day and says he would like to wear my clothes.
For accessories what do you pile?
Shoes. I used to collect very interesting cufflings. I lost them at a point but I’ve started collecting again. My new interest is broaches.
Men are not particular about broaches?
Yes, but I wear broaches.
You seem to do a lot for fashion. What won’t you do in the name of fashion?
I won’t sag my jeans. I have a waist so I put my jeans on my waist.