Drawing from the designer’s West and Central African roots, Maison d’Afie brings a refreshed and refined interpretation to classic silhouettes. With a preference for customized breathable fabrics, the brand uses old reliable mediums of craftsmanship working with small groups of artisans in Cameroon, India and across mainland Europe, to create elegant streamlined dresses with unexpected eye-catching details.
But, there is immense power in a name, and Sarah Divine Garba is the creative head behind Maison d’Afie and named the brand after her mother a dressmaker in Cameroon and founder of “Afie of Douala” a dressmaking business she ran in the 1980s and 1990s. Born and raised in Cameroon, from a very early age, Sarah was exposed to her mother’s creative universe, filled with texture, colour, and prettiness. Playing seamstress in her mother’s Atelier as a little girl gave her an early understanding of cut, fit and proportions which she further developed working alongside her mother in her older years. Her childhood fascination for designers such as Jacques Fath, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Louis Scherer from whom her mother took references continues to inform her work which is now known for its mid-century silhouettes.
In this insightful interview with Sarah, we take an in-depth glance at what makes the design aesthetic, her latest collection ‘Ngondo’ and thoughts on the current African fashion industry.
Q1: Tell us about your brand Maison d’Afie?
Maison d’Afie is a women’s clothing brand committed to creating well-crafted classic pieces with a preference for breathable/natural fibres. We uphold quality over quantity and we spend the time required to do so.
Q2: Why did you decide to go into fashion design?
A career crisis in 2009 oriented me towards fashion designing. While trying to make meaning of my life, my childhood formative years in fashion came in handy.
Q3: What inspired you to want to create Maison d’Afie?
My inspiration dates back to when I was eight years old and prayed, asking God to enable me one day showcase my mother’s talent to the world. I had not figured out in what capacity at the time but I knew my mother’s work deserved a place in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle … and I wanted to manage her business.
Q4: What does Maison d’Afie mean and what brought about the name?
Afie is the shorter version of Affiong, my mother’s name and a Calabar name which means to have a flare with one’s hands. The brand is really an extension of the dressmaking business my mother started in the 1980s
Q5: Describe Maison d’Afie’s design aesthetic. What makes your brand distinct?
My focus when designing is to create pieces that can be explored in varied ways and that are both time sensitive and classic. So you will find very classic tailored pieces with contemporary design details within each of my collections. My Cameroonian heritage lends itself to add some cultural flavour to my work.
Q6: Tell us about the latest Maison d’Afie collection ‘Ngondo’. What are the key pieces?
The Sawa tribes of Cameroon are those that lie along the coastal regions of Cameroon. The main tribe being the Duala and their traditional attire called the Kaba, is a full maxi yoke dress dating back to British Colonial Cameroon. Ngondo is a festive period in Douala when these dresses come on full display and with this collection, I am exalting that culture and giving it a global appeal by adding design references from other cultures such as the French and Japanese.
The Sawas give a lot of consideration to their looks and appearance and are very stylish, so apart from Kabas, you’d find mid-century silhouettes in spring green hues flavoured with tribal themed embroidery. These garments appear simple and uncomplicated but nothing has been left to chance with the construction and fit. They are cleverly engineered to flatter my client’s form and to give her the assurance of the quality she is accustomed to.
Q7: Who is the Maison d’Afie woman? What does she like to do? What is her style and personality?
I design for a busy lady with a discerning eye for quality and a very practical approach to life. With a family to cater to, a career to build, and an active social life to maintain, she spends both her time and finances sensibly. She isn’t a frivolous spender and expects her full money’s worth from her purchases so designing for her requires a certain amount of compulsiveness and an obsessive attention to detail. I strive to create pieces she can have a long-term relationship with and repeatedly fall in love with each time she uses them.
Q8: How do your Cameroonian heritage and the brand’s location, influence the brand’s identity and seasonal designs?
I use designing and fashion to communicate various facets of my identity. I was born and raised in Cameroon and so a lot of my childhood experiences play out in my designs. I have lived and worked abroad and gotten to experience other cultures and lifestyles but there always seems to be a golden thread, seamlessly woven through all of our cultures whether, Sawa, Bahia, Fulani, Ainu or Slav and my challenge is to identify that thread and highlight it in my work.
Q9: How does Maison d’Afie stay ahead in a fast-paced fashion industry?
We do not try to stay ahead or try to keep up with trends, we endeavour to be acutely connected to our client to enable us to understand her sartorial needs and tailor our designs to meet these needs on time. This requires that we do not only engage with her through social media, the internet but also in person, which is vital to get a genuine feel of her pulse.
Q10: What has been your challenge as a designer in Africa?
Exposure and reliable craftsmen.
Its been a struggle trying to get exposure through the media, and major publications. This inadvertently has retarded my distribution plans. Trying to develop and maintain a sustainable business with ethical practice, and produce garments that enhance the value and reputation of African designers as well as break the perception of inconsistency all while maintaining competitive prices have equally been trying.
Q11: Most unforgettable experience as a designer?
There are several, but one of the defining moments for me was my first sale which incidentally was a customized wedding dress. It was so gratifying to be part of a total stranger’s wedding in such an intimate way and her excitement and joy when the dress got delivered to her reinforced my belief in this chosen path.
Q12: Within the context of the global fashion industry, “African Fashion” is often characterised by African prints & fabrics. How do you differentiate yourself in an international market and transcend the “African Fashion” stereotype?
Fortunately, I come from the land dubbed “Miniature Africa” there is such a rich diversity of culture, landscape and ethnicity in Cameroon that it will take a lifetime for me to explore all that we have within our borders
Being an African designer shouldn’t limit the scope of my work; I am here to narrate my story through dressmaking and the most authentic way I have found to do so, is by telling the stories I have experienced and being from a dressmaking home, with a multicultural background, I certainly have experienced a lot more than batik printed fabrics. All these experiences help inform my work.
Q13: What are your thoughts on the current African fashion industry?
Although I may not be able to remark extensively about all 54 nations within the continent, I would say that at the moment, the industry is led by designers from a handful of countries, who have the willingness and zeal to elevate the profiles of their brands and in doing so, elevate the profiles of their respective countries; however, everything seems a little disjointed and confusing with more and more fashion weeks popping up yearly. It almost appears to be a showcase of who’s got more clout than the other and I am not sure that’s beneficial to our nations or the industry.
I believe that specialization should be the way forward as it offers substantial economic advantages. This, however, calls for nations to each perform thorough self-assessments that will enable them to understand the competencies and resources that lie within each of our borders. In doing so, we will be able to focus on our strengths and create clusters of skills across the continent which will enable our nations to generate economic growth- This will perhaps require a pan African fashion and textile board of sorts but most especially, it requires that our government leaders push policies that encourage the growth of spatially coveted economic activities.
Q14: What do you think of the state of the fashion industry in Africa? (Are these the best of times, the worst of times? Or are things somewhere in between?)
We are still going through the optimism of knowing that we can grow our economies through small consistent actions but also slowly realizing that there is a lot of work to be done to unite our fragmented ecosystem. I would stay positive and say that we are moving towards the best times.
Q15: What does the future hold for your brand? Any upcoming projects or runway showcases?
I am now bracing myself for the challenges ahead. Looking to showcase my work in major fashion capitals and/or having some physical presence in these capitals, collaborating with other talented creatives to break the stereotypes and glass ceilings and simply ‘”harassing” editors, stylists, wholesale buyers and anyone that can help push us one step towards our goals. I am taking this one step at a time and ensuring that we remain agile and prepared for unforeseen changes.