Dressed in an over-sized utility jacket and jeans, Mai Atafo is uncharacteristically dressed down and the off-duty Mai is just as striking as his suave alter-ego. With just over half of his collection done, Mai is in understandably high spirits. Known for his impeccable work ethic, it comes as no surprise that two weeks to showtime, Mai is right on track.

His methodical approach to creating and his attention to detail are refreshing. In an industry that thrives off the thrill of last minute, to see a creative pace himself and put thought into every detail, it’s clear that we are in the presence of someone who has mastered his craft. 

In the studio

Two statuesque fit models. Jazzy and Natasha, strut through the studio in a series of outfits as his team work together seamlessly to finalise the looks. The whole process is like a well oiled machine, the cohesion and the collective understanding of Mai’s vision is evident.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

The first look is a deep grey 3 piece suit, which Mai tells us, is the only formal look for women in the collection, something that could be worn to the office or in a corporate setting. The charcoal grey suit hangs perfectly off the model’s [Jazzy] frame, a refreshing diversion from the usual silhouette for female suits; not consciously sexy but sexy nevertheless. As he adjusts and pins, the story of Mai’s collection unfolds. ‘’I source my fabrics both locally and internationally. Most times, when I travel, I'm on the lookout for something good.For this, I don't think I thought through the colours like I normally would, I just let my first two fabrics lead me, in particular, a special print which had green and blue in it.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

He explains that halfway through the collection, he does introduce other colours into the mix but ultimately, it was an organic progression. Mai’s favourite colour is blue and given the chance, every collection would have elements of blue. ‘’I was very proud of myself, I didn't put blue in my last two collections so it was a good time to bring it back. Then I introduced a shade of brown so I do think this time, I let the fabrics lead my decision on the colour palette. But, I do love blue and if given the chance, I would do everything in blue.’’

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]
The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

There is a heavy theme of embellishment throughout the collection which, at first, seems uncharacteristically Mai but to the avid Mai Atafo fan, this has been building up through his last two collections. When Mai plays up the feminine side of his female collections, he plays with embellishments but with this particular collection, he steps it up a notch with a heavy dose of handmade embellishments which also hark back to the bridal couture elements that Mai is so well known for.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

Mai Atafo enthusiastically explains a duality that he wanted to maintain throughout the collection with men and women having something different but in some aspects, still very much the same and appealing to both the masculine and feminine side in each of us. ‘’Normally, I start with menswear and complement with womenswear but for this collection, I began with womenswear. With this one, I had a thought in my head about what I wanted the womenswear to look like; I wanted women to wear jackets, pants and suits. For someone who specialises in suits, I've never done a collection of women in suits all through. I started thinking of the type of pieces I could make that were feminine, but not overtly so, what kind of palette would I use for women that can be seen as feminine but that guys could still wear. Every piece that you see a lady wear, a guy has a suit in that very same fabric.’’

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

To properly execute his vision, Mai created two collections in one; menswear and womenswear, each with their own name and identity but mirroring each other in a symbiosis that ties Mai’s over-arching theme together rather nicely. ‘’It's quite interesting that the womenswear collection is called Feminine AF and the menswear collection is called Beaumond: A Playboy's Wardrobe. Once we started planning out what we wanted for womenswear, I started looking for things that I had not done before so if you see a certain jacket length, the likelihood is that you will see it only once in a particular style; all the jackets for women are different. All the jackets for the men may be similar in terms of length and cut but we made sure that for the women's collection, no two were the same.

That's why we called it Feminine AF because even though a woman is playing in a guy's zone, she's still doing more. She's wearing six different styles of pants whereas a guy would probably only wear two. Even if you call the suit game, a 'guy's' game, a woman will come along and kill it even more than the guys. That's how to whole collection came together for me. I used the womenswear to inspire the menswear.’’

Mai Atafo reminds us of his versatility as a designer, jack of all trades and master of all. “At the end of this collection, there's also going to be some dresses and it's the first time I'm putting the whole brand on one runway; menswear, womenswear and bridal. I usually always separate them but I thought now would be a good time to put everything on one runway.” For someone who began his fashion career later in life, his ability to swerve between brands with ease and flair, establishing himself as a force in each one, is a testament to the potency of his artistry. Though he had a natural aptitude for style, Mai sealed the deal by studying at the Instituto di Moda in Italy and drafting in Saville Row tailors to train both himself and his staff, empowering his entire workforce to be nothing but the best.

Feminine AF

Mai’s Feminine AF collection is a modern take on power-dressing, a collection for the modern woman who believes anything a man can do a woman can do better and that attitude leaks into every facet of her being including her style. It’s not performative, it’s a lifestyle.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

As Mai speaks about his inspiration for the collection, there are feminist undertones to his words. In creating his collection, Mai seemed quite preoccupied with the power of a woman and reinforcing the space that women took up through his pieces. The importance he placed on women and suits seemed like an overt statement about the place of the modern day woman. I wondered who he thought the Mai Atafo woman was and for him, what she embodied. “I literally think it's any woman that realistically believes in being a feminist and her motto in her head is 'anything a guy can do, a woman can do even better'. She's not just saying it, she's living it, she's living it so hard that she doesn't even need to say it.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

I've done projects with women and worked with women before and the first thing that came to my head when we started interacting was 'Oh, what a hardworking person' , 'What an intelligent person' not 'woman'. Woman was always secondary or tertiary. I just saw someone who could get the job done so I know that there are many women out there that when they decided to be it, they can be anything but it's definitely a thing of choice.’’

Gender politics has become such a pertinent issue in Nigeria with young women refusing to be caged like their mothers were or tow a line that was not created by them or does not benefit them in any way. It's a loud and unapologetic rebellion and a complete reworking of what it means to be a Nigerian woman. Mai wants to create clothing that embodies empowerment and ability. His pieces are coats of armour for today’s woman who refuses to be limited by socially constructed boundaries. It's his take on power dressing without losing the essence of femininity. It's a difficult balance to strike but Mai manages to achieve it and this collection will certainly define this moment in time.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

'’I want people to feel empowered. Funnily enough, it's a different thing for the girls and the guys; the thought processes are the same but the expressions are different. For the women, it's to feel really confident like they can really go for it and for the guys, it's to be able to tap into their inner-feminine side that can also be very masculine.

Like I say, it's only a real man that can wear pink and wear it right. If you're not a real man, you can wear pink and feel emasculated but a real man can wear pink and rock it regardless. When I call the collection 'a playboy's wardrobe', there are some things you see in there and be like 'oh I'm scared of this' but someone that is louche, finds that easy to do. Someone that is about that life, who likes fashion and who has the money for it finds that easy to do because he doesn't want to do the typical every day.’’

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

The collection features metallic suits for both men and women, the male shirts are made of mercury and the male models have more feminine elements than the female models which is not intentionally done but the message it passes is clear. “With the metallic, the men have shirts that are made of mercury which is more metallic than metallic if that's even possible. In my book, it feels like the guys are being more feminine because I'm taking it a step further with that.

Even though we usually see things like that on women, seeing it on guys is going to make you stop and give it a second thought and think 'yeah, I can pull that off'.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

Often the conversation surrounding gender fluidity in fashion can be quite extreme and though Mai is a part of that same conversation, his approach is far more subtle. ‘’They are going 'Hey guys, wear a dress' and I'm not saying that. Being gender fluid is not necessarily about men in dresses, yes you're probably looking more 'feminine' but there's also a cultural aspect to it.

I'm from Edo State and the chiefs in my state wear skirts as their traditional outfit. They wear white skirts and these are chiefs; that is power of the highest order. It fits into more of a ceremonial context. For the most part, I think people push gender fluidity in fashion to drive home a point but do it because you're comfortable doing it.

There are some guys who do it and they look so comfortable, it looks like it's a part of them. In terms of fashion, that type of dressing appeals to a niche but my take is more wearable.’’

Mai proves that you can still channel masculine and feminine energy whilst wearing ‘menswear’. His approach to the gender debate however, is more subtle and infinitely more accessible.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

Beaumond: A Playboys Wardrobe

The menswear collection, interestingly enough, is inspired by the businessman who is also a Casanova. A man who walks into a room and commands it and whereas the elegantly styled businessman would lean towards a 3 piece suit, this man is suave and relaxed with an open collar and a hand resting lightly in his pocket. Equal parts vulnerability and confidence; a complete ladies man but a man’s man too, a potent combination.

“I think the word 'metrosexual' has been over-flogged and the meaning has now been diluted, its not as powerful. I prefer to use the term 'rakish' and 'louche' so that people get where I'm coming from. Even when we use the term 'playboy', the thing that comes to the average African's mind is someone that loves girls too much but the idea of a playboy in the 30's and 50's came from people who were already certified amazing in their crafts, be it aristocrats, athletes, actors or politicians.

They also loved life and spent money the way they wanted to spend it. Not necessarily lavishly, but interestingly, but also enjoyed the company of women. He can watch football with the guys but also sit down with a group of women, gist and sip cocktails without his 'masculinity' being compromised.

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

They weren't spending money to show off, they were spending money to live life. Now, playboys are the other way around where they spend money to show that 'I am this.'

For instance, JFK was the ultimate playboy; he dressed well, he had a wife and yes he played but he was also the President, which is the highest level. A modern day playboy would be a Harry Styles, Idris Elba or ASAP Rocky because they are great in what they do, they love fashion and they're more than just one thing. And yes, they're ladies men! Even though they're three different characters, one string can tie them together.

I would call D'Banj an African playboy, women love him and he lives well in the company of women but he does have a wife. When all is said and done, he's a family man and a respectable person; he has it all.’’

The aesthetics of allyship, how veteran Nigerian designer Mai Atafo is marrying gender politics and fashion [Credit: Pulse]

An afternoon in Mai’s presence is a revelation, a bewitching experience. Whereas his public persona may be intimidating and the man himself seem just out of reach, the reality is far less daunting, endearing even. Playful and refreshingly light, Mai makes his way through the session with quick quips and playing about with his team and friends who drop by the studio. He’s at ease, totally in his element and doing what comes so naturally, one might be mistaken for feeling that they’re not in the process of creating something everlasting, something bigger than this very moment.

Celebrating his 8th year in this business, I wonder how the Mai Atafo brand has endured. ‘’I think the secret to my longevity is authenticity. Even though it may feel like your authentic card may not be the most easily accepted but at the end of the day, stay true to what you do. People will always come around and recognise the effort as long as you stay on top of your craft and on top of what you do.

I'm authentic in my communication, in my designs and how I bring them to life and it's pretty much an extension of me in a very fun way. What I show on the runway is not a total reflection of the depths of my creativity, it goes way beyond that, what you see is always

the tip of the iceberg, there's always more to offer. As long as you do you, you will be fine because all I ever do, is me.’’

As I prepare to watch Mai debut this very collection on stage tonight, as he closes the first night of Arise Fashion Week with this Autumn/Winter 19 collection, I am struck by the magic of fashion. How 5 minutes on stage can be prefaced with months of gruelling work and we, the audience, are none the wiser. I am awed by the craft, the love in every stitch and seam and the commitment to creating pieces that transcend the stage and spark a more profound conversation.

When I think about why I first fell in love with fashion?

This, this right here, is all the affirmation I need.