Building an African Fashion Brand: The Uncomfortable Journey of a Cameroonian Fashion Designer

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Article by: bird story agency

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When her parents enrolled her in a vocational school, Augustine Mabiama thought they had blighted her future. Years later, as a recognised brand in the growing African fashion industry, she sees that decision differently.

Augustine Mabiama posing for a picture in Nakuin Couture store in Douala, Cameroon. Photo: Nakuin Couture.

Patrick Nelle, bird story agency

In one corner of a busy fashion house in Douala, Cameroon, designer Augustine Mabiama is in the middle of a photo shoot, using a makeshift photo studio equipped with an 18-inch light ring and a smartphone on a stand.

Showcasing a whole range of outfits of different styles and colours, Mabiama checks the lighting quality of the images. Making a few adjustments to the clothes in preparation for the next shot, she walks back in front of the camera, poses for a moment, and then walks back around the light ring to check the image.

This is all part of a slick and professional routine. Mabiama is the founder of Nakuin Couture, a fashion house that has cemented her reputation across the country. The chosen pictures – with herself as a model – will go through an editing process, and in the coming days, they will land on the Nakuin Couture Instagram page.

“Social media marketing is key”, Mabiama explained, as she navigated the middle of racks and shelves inside a busy showroom.

“I recently bought this shooting set and this iPhone for the purpose of promoting my creations and the brand” she explained, showing off her newly acquired gear.

Mabiama's story of founding a Cameroonian fashion powerhouse is also a tale of escape from convention.

Born and raised in a middle-class family in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, Mabiama was expected to fall in line with other young people from her social background, who would traditionally follow an educational curriculum made up of sciences and humanities and then join the local corporate world.

By the time she was 12, Mabiama had completed her primary school and was very enthusiastic to start secondary school.

Thinking that she would follow the same path as her siblings, Mabiama discovered that her parents had made a surprising choice for her - they enrolled her in a vocational and technical high school, to follow a garment industry curriculum.

Mabiana recalled being very upset by her parents’ decision. At the time, there was a largely negative perception of vocational school curriculums.

“There was a widespread social bias in vocational and technical teachings. The students there were viewed as failed students. I mean, students who had proven unfit for traditional sciences and humanities curricula, and who had been reoriented there as a remedy to their failure”, she explained.

“Today that perception has largely evolved, but back in those days, youths exclusively dreamt of careers such as well-paid corporate executives, not of less socially rewarding jobs like tailors or hairdressers/beauticians,” Mabiana added.

The decision deeply pained Mabiana and led to many tearful moments. She questioned whether her parents actually wanted her to have a good future.

Reluctantly, she made the effort to be a good student. After seven years of secondary school, she graduated, and considering the debt her beloved parents paid, she looked forward to embracing what she considered a “normal” university curriculum.

She applied to Yaounde’s University School of Economics. Unfortunately, the school no longer accepted students with a technical vocational background, so she wasn’t admitted. Then she heard about a local programme enrolling students and sending them for studies in Italy. However, her attempt to take that route failed due to an issue with her passport.

Months passed and Mabiana despaired. Then one day, as she was watching the news on television, she learned about the opening of a new university in Yaoundé, the Cheick Anta Diop School of Arts and Crafts. The school proposed a fashion design curriculum.

Mabiana gathered her resolve and made the leap. It would change her life.

“I said, okay. I will go into it, but I will do things differently. I will bring something to the industry,” she said.

In 2009, Mabiama obtained her fashion degree from the Cheikh Anta Diop School of Arts and Crafts. She immediately started to work from home, creating and making clothes for clients with an old sewing machine. Her brand, Nakuin, was born from this modest beginning.

Models posing for a photo dressed in Nakuin Couture fit in Douala, Cameroon. Photo: Nakuin Couture.

Her initial profits were allocated to the purchase of more robust production equipment. To promote her products, she invested a lot of resources in organising fashion shows and attending expos and fairs.

As her brand became increasingly recognised in fashion circles in Cameroon, Mabiama realised she would need a retail outlet. Having resettled in Douala, she opened the Nakuin Couture boutique in Bonapriso, an upper-middle-class neighbourhood located on the southside of Douala, in 2014.

Thanks to a sound marketing strategy and entrepreneurial flair, Mabiama is today recognised among the most iconic Cameroonian fashion designers.

However, building and maintaining her brand hasn't been without its challenges.

The local garment industry is struggling to cope with a flood of some US$50 million in second-hand garment imports, according to the Cameroon National Institute of Statistics. This has decimated the domestic manufacturing base and made it increasingly difficult for boutique operators like Mabiama as skills and resources exit the sector.

“There are persisting problems affecting the garment industry growth. Difficulties in finding skilled workers and finding raw materials like good quality fabrics on the local markets. There is also a lack of access to finance and many other things,” Mabiama said.

However, the fashion entrepreneur believes that for every problem, there are solutions. Her answer is to keep standing out in a difficult environment through constant learning and training, she explained.

“I attend training sessions and seminaries in various fields that could help me. I take every opportunity to travel, to discuss and exchange with people. Recently I hired a professional to receive some training in community management,” she said.

Cultural entrepreneur Patricia Bowen is a longtime and loyal customer of the brand. She saw Mabiama’s work for the first time during a gala night in which some fashion designers had been invited to showcase their creations.

“I was stunned by her ability to play with tones and colours on each of her creations,” Bowen said.

Another feature which impressed her was the quality of the finishing.

“The final touch and the finishing of her garments are simply exemplary,” Bowen added.

Freddy Manyongo is the founder and organiser of Mboti Week, one of the most important fashion gatherings and shows across Cameroon. For him, having a vision is what made Mabiama stand out in her field.

“Augustine Mabiama is certainly one of the most prominent stylists in today’s Cameroon. What makes her stand out with her brand in a tough local environment is that she has a vision. We have plenty of fashion creatives, but only few have a clear vision of what they want and where they are headed as designers,” he said.

“It’s not something common for a designer to have your showroom which has been successful for more than ten years,” he further explained.

“She was the only designer to have a yearly big show for each of her collections.”

While Mabiama believes she still has a long way to go, she is optimistic about the road ahead.

“There are challenges, but there are also opportunities. I hope to open more boutiques in the near future, and expand. Why not expand the brand across Cameroon and outside?”

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