Originally from Ghana, he studied in Belgium and later decided to move to London. But Ali Abdulrahim, founder and creative director of Mai-Gidah, answers us now from Amsterdam, where he says to have found a haven of peace to grow his brand organically. The young designer’s undeniable international projection doesn’t neglect his cultural heritage, to which he turns for inspiration in all his works. Africa, his family and his life experiences are transferred to garments where design and functionality take on the same importance.
Not interested in trends, Ali rejects hyper-consumerism and lets his collections take shape respecting their own times. Mai-Gidah’s philosophy could embody what will presumably become the preferred production mechanism – or even the only feasible one. The Ghanaian designer fights the industry’s hectic pace through painstaking patterns, referred to as “the bones of garments,” on which he prints chapters from his life. Pleasant and tragic episodes in which the African continent leaves a strong mark. A territory with much to say in the industry, frequently silenced under the prevailing Westernized vision. A reality that, as Ali says, “we will overcome by re-educating ourselves.”
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Let’s start by the beginning. One of the first decisions you had to make when you founded your brand was choosing a name. Why did you opt for Mai-Gidah?
I wanted the name for the brand to be something that represented myself as well as referred to my heritage. Mai Gidah means ‘landlord’ in Hausa. It was the name my grandfather was given, and it was passed down to me. In Hausa families, you also get a non-official name, and mine is Mai Gidah, so it seemed fitting to call the brand like that.
You created your brand after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sint-Niklaas, Antwerp (Belgium). A decision that not many young designers dare to make due to the risks and high level of involvement. When did you show your project to the world? Did you always know that you would end up creating your own brand?
I think it was always in the back of my mind while studying, but when I graduated, there didn’t seem to be too many job options available. I’m always creating, so I started the brand because I felt like I really had to, I didn’t have a choice. But it’s a hard process and it takes a lot of work and money. You will doubt yourself and what you’re making all the time. Getting into stores and magazines is also tricky. Since founding it, I have received offers to work for other brands, but Mai-Gidah is so close to my heart that I couldn’t give it up. Perhaps if the right opportunity comes along, it could work.
Your collections could be considered as menswear. Or at least, this is the impression that your website and social networks give, where the models who wear the clothes are men. Who are you thinking about while designing and to whom are your garments directed?
I suppose they are labelled as menswear in conventional terms but anyone who feels like it can wear them. They are represented as menswear because it’s what I know best, and when I work from my point of view, that’s the strongest influence. When I started the brand, I presented the clothes on both men and women, but then everyone started doing it, so it looked gimmicky. At the end of the day, anyone who wants to wear the clothes can choose to – regardless of how they identify.
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Garment patterns are unique. It is not frequent to see menswear collections with such contemporary silhouettes and structures. How has the public’s response been so far? Who is your potential client?
Thank you! I do spend a lot of the design process toiling and drafting the patterns; they are such an important part of the design for me. It would be easier to use standardised patterns but it would not be as personal. I always see it as developing a signature. They are the bones of the garment and the brand, so it’s better if they’re more unique and thought-through. It is something that a lot of people pick up on and compliment the brand on. So that makes me glad.
The clients are a really broad spectrum. They are true individuals with a strongly developed style, and they look for something that would complement that. I’ve noticed they are also really into brands like Walter Van Beirendonck, Margiela and Courreges. I think they’re looking for something unusual and modern.
Geometric shapes, layering or structured silhouettes inevitably take me to architecture. What other artistic disciplines do you turn to for inspiration?
Haute couture highly inspires me. The craftsmanship and know-how always make me want to design something that levels up to that. Photography inspires me too. I went to Foam (Fotomuseum Amsterdam) just before the lockdown measures came into play and they exhibited this Ghanaian photographer called Eric Gyamfi. He makes very interesting works that deal with portraiture, self-portraits and his surroundings, but also paintings and architecture keep popping up. It’s never a conscious choice to be inspired but I enjoy going to see exhibitions and galleries, and I usually leave feeling inspired.
I am convinced that making each pattern takes a long time. Their appearance may seem simple, but they hide a huge workload behind, isn’t it?
You’re right! As I said before, when I start working on a new collection, I spend most of the time drafting the patterns. There are so many options when you’re working with a pattern that you have to make decisions all the time – I think that might be the biggest work. Do I add 1 cm here? Does it curve this way or that? How does it fit when worn? You can get lost in it.
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In your manifesto, you confess that each collection is a reflection of your experiences throughout life. Beyond aesthetics, garments are impregnated with feelings. What emotions do you reflect through fashion? Do you focus on positive experiences, or do you take a trustworthy approach in which the pleasant coexists with the traumatic?
They definitely reflect both positive and negative experiences. The clothes are never literal translations of these experiences or emotions. I don’t want to be able to put my finger on something and pinpoint exactly what it represents or means. But to keep people guessing would be great.
You were born in Ghana, studied in Belgium and now live and work in London. Places with very different cultures and lifestyles. How has each of these spots influenced your current work?
They’re all great places with their individual cultures, and to be able to tap into them is the best position to be in. I realise I’m quite lucky in that respect. That also makes me feel like an outsider most of the times – that’s not necessarily negative, but the point of view from an outsider is usually more interesting I find. Also, I’m currently living in Amsterdam, where I moved at the beginning of the year, so it’s gotten even more mixed up.
Ghana is where I’m from but when I left, there wasn’t the option to pursue a career in fashion. It’s all changing rapidly now there, which is fantastic. Belgium is a completely different place, and I’m so lucky to have been able to study there. London is such a melting pot of different cultures. It attracts people with dreams and new ideas, so it was the perfect place to start my brand. It’s competitive but also supportive.
Now, in Amsterdam, it’s different again: the pace of life feels more calm compared to London but it’s still such a melting pot of different people and there’s a big community of expats. Because it’s more relaxed and more human-sized, it felt like the best place to be at now. It fits my current rhythm of life. It leaves the most space to grow organically with the brand.
The Antwerp Six (Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee) revolutionized the fashion scene in the 1980s. And they all graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Do you have special devotion to any of them?
I respect all of them, of course, they made such an impact. I feel most connected with Dries Van Noten. I respect how he’s managed to stay an independent brand and still have major control of it. He is incapable of making something ugly I think, it’s all so beautiful. Walter van Beirendonck, of course, too. He’s such a visionary when it comes to shapes and ideas. He has always remained true to himself and has not given into the trappings of commercial success for money’s sake.
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Quality, craftsmanship, experimentation and innovation are the four pillars sustaining Mai-Gidah as you’ve confessed in previous occasions. A combination that requires several basic techniques to achieve a consistent result. How do you approach each of these four aspects when creating? And how do you get them to converge harmoniously?
I suppose experimentation and innovation come first when I start to create and work on the next collection. I look at what and how I can change what’s currently out, and how I make it fit my aesthetic. Then comes craftmanship as I try to figure out how to make what I had in mind. The quality is super important but it comes together with all the other three. I choose the best fabrics possible and, as everything is hand-made on a small scale, we can really focus on quality compared to churning out quantity.
Sewing and tailoring have been around you since you were a child. How has your family influenced you in your current conception of fashion?
I had to think about this question because my initial answers were not really… But then I realised their influence is visible in almost everything I’ve done. I made a collection called Mother’s Braids, which was inspired by my mother. After that collection, I followed up with Bah Bah, which was an ode to my father. It featured garments that were very inspired by the Boubou, a West-African garment worn by men – it’s a large tunic that represents family and heritage. So coming to think of it, my family has really influenced my designs.
Which fabrics and materials do you use in your garments? Where do they come from and how do you get them?
I take a lot of time to source fabrics and go to actual fabric wholesalers, and online too. Many of the fabrics I use are overstock, so I try to lessen the impact on the environment. I try to find more sustainable ways of sourcing fabrics. We already only produce on demand, so we don’t hold big stock and don’t have an excess of garments at the end of the season.
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Let’s discuss colour, which one is your favourite?
Blue-grey – sea grey. There is this really specific grey colour with blue and green shades that I always keep referring to in my colour schemes, so I assume that must be my favourite. I recently noticed that I keep going back to that colour. It looks like a really natural tone to me, like sometimes clouds and the sky could be that colour, or the water in the sea and rivers. It just feels so rich and saturated to me. That would have to be my favourite colour.
Design and practicality. Your garments are characterized by combining both, so you can wear them daily but without going unnoticed. How do you find the balance between beauty and wearability?
It’s a necessity, really; I’m making clothes so they have to be practical. Otherwise, whoever wears them will be uncomfortable. I would be a terrible designer if I just made uncomfortable clothes. In this day and age, I don’t think a designer or fashion label can afford to be just focussed on one thing. Clothes have to tell a visual story and be easy enough to wear.
Europe has been one of the great epicentres of fashion throughout history, hosting many of the most important events and presentations in the industry. However, Africa still seems to be a territory to explore. Do you think African fashion has reached its peak? What route should it take to spread and become visible throughout the world?
That’s quite tricky given the current changes in fashion. Obviously, clothes and fashion are not something new in Africa. We have a rich tradition of expressing ourselves through what we wear, and that in essence is fashion. There are so many examples in museums and galleries, but I suppose they are represented as folk garments instead of fashion. Maybe we need to re-educate our Euro-centric view on African traditions to notice how both cultures influence and inspire each other – in the past, but also now.
I guess the fashion industry itself is different from Europe, America or Asia, but as the global industry is currently under big pressure to change, it’s difficult to say how it will impact Africa. Will we still have global fashion events and fashion weeks? And how will big brands react? What happens to the budgets and supply chain? There is a big potential market in Africa, and I think the customers there are getting interested in buying less European designers and become more interested in African styles and designers. I prefer not to think of borders though. I feel like everyone inspires and influences each other, so it would be better for everyone to focus less on what divides us but rather celebrate what we share.
Finally, where would you like to see your brand in five years?
In five years, I’d like to be designing the next collection. I’d like the brand to be thriving and growing organically. I hope the industry as a whole will have developed a better, more sustainable way of working by that time.
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