MIA (Made in Africa) LDN is a clothing project, showcasing handmade formal wear from some of Africa’s finest tailors. The line was founded by 24-year-old trainee solicitor and Nigerian born, ‘Andre the Designer’ whose frustrations with men’s trousers led him to create his own bespoke design, “I spent some time in South Africa, whilst I was out there I was in need of a suit. One of the things I found quite annoying about men’s trousers was that there always seemed to be a trade-off between waist fit and thigh room. I was frustrated with always having to ‘go up’ a waist size, the lack of shape and the quite often, lazy designs.” As a result, Andre approached a South African tailor and asked him to design a trouser that was high waisted and slightly cropped and which, importantly allowed for the extra thigh room and style he desired. “The design was both stylish and practical – I could wear them as part of my suit or as part of a casual outfit.” It was here that Andre had designed the first pair of MIA’s flagship trousers as motivated to share his design with the world he pitched the idea to his tailor. “I suggested we take the design back to London and see what happened, and so we made our first batch and returned to the UK”.
Andre was inspired to think bigger though, as he now echoes the words of his first collaborative partner his South African tailor – GallanT, “Your vision must be bigger than you”. This inspired the collaborative approach of MIA which now encapsulates the brand as a whole.
It is the goal of MIA to collaborate with at least one African tailor in every African country. Collaboration being the key aspect of the MIA brand, “we take a collaborative approach as our aim is not to ‘colonise’ the creative talent of our chosen tailors and designers but to showcase their skill and designs.” There are two sides to the MIA experience: Firstly, the Retail side which uses the MIA flagship trouser but with each tailor adding their own unique touches to make it their own. “For instance, Gallant Tshepo adds both the middle trouser button, as well as 2 extra buttons at the hip, before extending a waistband from the middle to the hip to attach to those two buttons.” MIA has also recently on-boarded a Zambian tailor, Rency Malaika and hope to move to Nigeria next.
These collaborations allow MIA to capture the designs and prints that represent each tailor’s culture and industry best. The other side of the MIA experience is the Bespoke Tailoring side, “If the customer seeks a tailored design then along with our tailor partner we pitch our ideas to the client and collaborate with them to create their bespoke design”.
MIA LDN Flagship Trouser
With this model, the aim is clear, “to dispel preconceptions about African fashion by showing the world that Africa can compete on the formal wear front and on its own terms.”
By working directly and collaboratively with highly skilled African tailors, MIA is able to provide an authentic product and service. “We are essentially cutting out the middleman. As members of the diaspora, we are given regular reminders that we are not British in the traditional sense. One of the best things we can do is to channel the reactionary energy from such reminders towards embracing the fact that, whilst being British in our own way, we are in a unique position where we are intimately connected with our heritage and are able to go directly to the source. This makes the experience more authentic – truly made in Africa.”
When locating African tailors to collaborate with, recommendations are MIA’s starting point. “The tailors we look for and collaborate with are very much up and coming and just need that extra push and platform to help them to further develop.” GallanT and Rency Malaika are both young designers aged 22 and 23, “they are at a stage where what they are creating now may be different to what they create in the future so one thing we look for is a willingness to learn, that raw drive and creative flair so that we can play our role in helping to expose them to a wider platform whilst they work on their own brands”.
As well as creating an empowering platform, MIA’s motivation for collaborating has a practical element: “there is not really a one-stop shop for tailors in Africa. Our goal is to work with highly skilled tailors and discover some of the best in each country. That way we get to a point where people can go to our website and filter through countries and tailors to order easily.”
GallanT Collection – Zambia
Doing business in Africa
For their Zambian collaboration, MIA visited Zambia for their cover shoot. Speaking on the practicalities of doing business in Africa, Andre notes “in this current age with instant communication and the many forms of online messaging it makes communication a lot easier. Not more than 10 years ago such technology wasn’t quite as widespread amongst much of the continent.” However, Andre acknowledges some differences when building partnerships in Africa “Understanding the difference in culture is important and patience is a big thing. It’s important to acknowledge the differences in lifestyles and working styles whilst acknowledging that my partners are entrepreneurs in their own right with their own brands and businesses e.g. acknowledging that they are not in front of a computer all day or always switched on which is the norm in the west. It’s all about bridging the gap and finding that middle ground.”
Whilst in Zambia, Andre and his team didn’t just focus on their shoot but used the trip as an opportunity for networking, “we networked not only with our tailors and the individuals we needed to but also with others in Zambia’s creative industries like bloggers, photographers and other models in order to build a rapport and learn more about the market and industry – we feel strongly about collaboration in all aspects.”
MIA LDN Zambia shoot
Although Andre is the founder of MIA he works with and oversees a dedicated team. “I have a team which includes our head creative director and stylist, Jade who runs most of our shoots; social media manager Charnelle – a former intern of ours; Nsikan, who, amongst other things, helps with fashion merchandising; and Mark, who assists with business development.” Having a supportive, capable, and engaged team has taken a lot of pressure off of Andre who balances his day job as a trainee solicitor with MIA, “I’m grateful. It’s hard work but it gives me a great creative outlet.”
Collaboration runs beyond African partnerships though as MIA aims to partner with other startups, “in anything we do we try and give a platform to as many creatives and small businesses as possible. For example, we work with a marketing consultant and a Black-British owned accountancy firm and have also built a growing network of photographers and bloggers. We prefer to collaborate as it allows others to build their own personal brands.”
In the short term, MIA is focusing on having a successful Spring/Summer 2017 launch whilst the long-term goal remains “to be in collaboration with tailors in every African country and to become a one-stop shop for both retail and tailored services.” Andre also speaks of future plans for an app in addition to their website being an online portal for African tailors. “By us doing the groundwork now in building relationships within the fashion and creative industries throughout the continent, we may even get to a point at which other brands and businesses come to us for introductions and recommendations to allow them to meet their own collaborative needs.”
So what advice does Andre give to others in the diaspora about launching a successful brand and business?
“We at MIA have still got a long way to go, but I’d advise anyone searching for inspiration to think of a problem or anything that irritates you and create an innovative solution for it.” Andre points out that this is something the diaspora could particularly capitalise on, “as minorities there are loads of things or spaces that don’t particularly ‘fit’ for us. Finding solutions to these gaps in the market is a great start”.
Secondly, “definitely have a plan (I spent a lot of time planning) but if you have an idea it does get to a point where you should just go for it.” Andre was initially going to put off launching MIA to do an entrepreneurism course at Cambridge, “but I’m sure we’ve probably made more progress than we would have had I done the course – you learn and progress as you go along.”
Thirdly, “get comfortable with networking and understand its importance. You are building contacts and potential opportunities every day” but, Andre warns “don’t expect every connection you make to materialise into an opportunity. A lot of opportunities come about unexpectedly – through a casual chat or a brief mention – so just keep connecting and see what happens.”
And finally “don’t sell yourself short. People will say your dream is too big but if you can’t see the end goal and can only visualise it this is a motivation in itself”.
With many more collaborations to come and huge plans for the brand and platform, MIA LDN’s journey will be an exciting one to follow!
Andre and the MIA LDN team would love to hear from you. Comment below!
This post is part of a series of interviews with founders and designers within the diaspora using their brands to promote African culture and development.