As authentic African products gain more prominence in the international fashion scene, Mawusi, a Ghanaian-inspired clothing and accessories line, stands ahead of the pack with a range of products for the quirky, free-spirited woman. Ayiba’s Joy Mwaniki spoke to Jane Odartey, the woman behind Mawusi, about her journey of self-discovery, comfort, and confidence.
What inspired you to start making Ghanaian-inspired products? How did you get into crochet and knitwear?
I grew up in Ghana and then I came to New York. I learned how to crochet in Ghana — I actually taught myself to crochet. It was really interesting; just the simplicity of it and what you can make from something so simple. When I came to New York, I wanted a particular skinny scarf – I am very crazy about my fashion sense, I do my own thing [Laughs] – and I couldn’t find it! Then I thought, “Wait, I can make myself one!” and so I did! After college, it was hard for me to find a job because I majored in English literature [Laughs] so I started making things because I was getting stressed about not having a job and worrying about money. I gave away one to my friend who said, “Hey! Why don’t you make a business out of it?” but I didn’t think anyone would buy it. But she urged me to try it anyway and so I did, and that was the beginning. I realized that I had something.
What does Mawusi mean? How does it differ from what is on the market?
Mawusi is my mother’s name and it means, In God’s Hands. I gave it my mother’s name because my mother is my favorite person in the world. The name means something to me.
Most of the designs come directly from my mind. I am not into copying anybody. That’s just my own personal style. I am not interested in what is trending, I make my own interpretations of things and what is behind my brand is the idea of finding your presence and enthusiasm in daily living. I really believe in this because one of our problems as human beings is that we tend to live too much in the past or in the future, and in so doing, we ignore that which we actually have, the present, which is very significant.
As I said before, I am trying to look for myself, so one of my biggest interests is my own personal definition of things. That’s what I try to bring to my work– looking for something that is unique to me. It’s about presence, and making things that are beautiful and that will encourage you to be happy in the moment. When I’m wearing something that I love, it makes me very comfortable and easy for me to approach other things; I can be present and be myself. So that’s what makes Mawusi different, because when I design, I’m designing for something that is very different in and of itself. It’s not for everybody. I’m not interested in becoming popular or trendy. What I am interested in is designing for people who understand what it feels like to buy something that you love and enjoy, something that can motivate you out there and encourage you to be true to yourself.
Tell us about your Fall/Winter Collection: Sane Momo. What is the philosophy around it?
I am on Instagram and Twitter, mostly for Mawusi, and I noticed the hashtag, #ThrowbackThursday and I could never participate in it. Every time I would try, something would hold me back. I would think, “Why Throwback Thursday? Why not this Thursday, which is here and beautiful? Why go back to a Thursday that does not exist anymore?” At that time, I was also getting ready for a new collection. It came to me that maybe I could do something with it, with why we are so interested in the past. The past is something that is already accomplished. Something that we already lived, we can never go back. The future is an expectation, but you don’t know. The past is comfortable in that you know. What the past means to us is comfort, confidence, and foundation; it is a stepping stone. For the Winter collection, I decided to go with something very comfortable and very warm. I started looking for patterns that had comfort and give that homey feeling because the past is like home; you are familiar with it, unlike the present. So, I found a Granny Square Pattern. I don’t know if this is true for all Africans, because in Ghana, we don’t have Granny Squares. But in America, the Granny Square is the definition of home and comfort. It’s even in the name; your grandmother is always someone you can confide in and who is always there for you. So, I came up with the pattern and started making designs. I incorporated playfulness, which is my style. I think we take life way to seriously, and this is why we can’t live in the present. In order to be present, you need to understand the playfulness of things. The design takes the concept of comfort and gives them my idea of what playfulness is. I love color, as do most Ghanaians; that’s our thing. When we come, we want you to know that we are there! [Laughs] It was a lot of work to put all these concepts together.
What is your favorite item in the new collection?
It’s really hard to say, because I love everything! My secret is that I make things for myself, so my whole collection is for me. I don’t make anything that I don’t love. If I make something, and I don’t love it, I can’t do it. So it takes forever but unless I am happy with it, it’s not going to come out.
What’s your manufacturing process?
Everything is homemade, and by homemade, I mean that it’s made by me. I’m doing my Master’s now and I don’t have another job, which is killing my mother because she wants me to get another job. I have an interest in fine art photography. I make everything myself; I design, I crochet, I model, I do the product photography, and I sell it. So, it’s a one woman process. I do everything in my bedroom which is my headquarters.
What challenges do you face in your multi-faceted role as designer, model, photographer, and online marketer of Mawusi? Have you considered recruiting talent?
[Laughs] Well, because I am alone, if I’m not motivated to do things, it won’t happen. That’s the challenge with it. But, the good thing about it is that I love all the things that I do, and the things that I don’t like are obvious. For example, contacting the press; I need to get my work out there, but I don’t enjoy it, so that’s a problem. I truly wish that I could work with other people but at this stage, I’m still very small, and I am still learning what my brand stands for and what it represents. In the future, I would like to work with other people, and I am more interested in working with other Africans, because I feel like we don’t have the opportunities. I know a lot of bright and talented people who can excel; at one point, I was one of those people on the street selling water on top of my head. To get into university, you needed to be top of your class. One of the reasons I took an offer from my mother to come to the United States was because if I stayed in Ghana, I wouldn’t have gotten into university. I want to work with Africans, because I’ve come to see Africa, not only as a continent but as a country. It’s really strange because I’m one of those people who always corrects those who refer to Africa as a country. But, I see it as so, because we are all in a similar situation. If we can unite and work together, that is our chance! We’ve been divided and conquered and we have been working against each other, rather than working together. It’s always been my dream to come back and do something, give back.
How did you finance your brand? What challenges have you faced in this aspect of your brand?
[Laughs] I finance my brand by myself, and I borrow money from my family. I am very economical because I haven’t borrowed any money from the bank and I also have to pay tuition for school. I am very low maintenance and I do the best with what I have. You’d be surprised with how creative I have become because of my financial situation. I do everything myself, and if you look at my collections from the past, you can see my growth. I do my own books, so I know how much I spend and my budget. Hopefully, one day, I won’t have to do everything myself, but I think it’s good that I know how to do it all.
How have you dealt with marketing to international and local markets? What has been the difference in both?
I used to be on an e-commerce website and I had access to international markets but from the start, I have always been interested in selling to the buyer and not wholesale. But, I was once approached by an international buyer who was interested in my wholesale. I didn’t know anything about it, but I learnt to work with that. However, my focus is not on the international, but more on the local because that’s how I learn to get better. I do approach stores and offer them my work. Because it’s home-made and not machine made, it’s not something you can make a lot of. But that’s what makes it special. So, for the international, it’s not something that is going that great because that’s not my main focus, although I do have international clients. But it’s going better locally, because I go to local markets and sell directly to the consumer.
Which designer has inspired your thinking?
Oh wow! I should have known that question would come. I’m going to tell you the truth, I am not interested in brands. I don’t have a particular interest in any brand. Again, I grew up in the country. When you wanted something, you went to the tailor and agreed on a design. You sort of made your own thing. So for me, I’m not into what has already been designed, it’s always been my own designs and imagination. I do enjoy a lot of upcoming African designers, but I am inspired by what people on the street are wearing around me. I look at the runway, but I’m not too interested in it because it’s the everyday people who inspire the runway and the fashion magazines. I am motivated by the everyday people.
What, in your opinion, is the key to elegance?
[Laughs] Oh! First of all, you have to respect yourself. To respect yourself is to understand yourself. If you can respect yourself, then you are very elegant. That makes you a queen, because you know yourself, who you are, where you come from, and where you’re going.