Ayiba contributing writer, Akinyi Ochieng, interviewed Dorothy Attakora, founder of Mina Danielle Designs, a company that integrates traditional fabrics with Western accents for women of the African diaspora. A woman of the world, Dorothy is a PhD student by day, but an entrepreneur and fashion maven by night.
Akinyi: First of all, I love all the pieces on your website. How did you stumble into the world of fashion design?
Dorothy: I was born in Ghana and moved to Toronto just before my sixth birthday. When I was growing up, I would always have clothing sent to me. My grandmother would always sew clothes and send it here. I was raised in predominantly white neighborhoods, so when I was younger, I often felt a little awkward wearing Ghanaian clothing and jewelry. However, as I got older, I found that wearing the clothing became a sign of resistance and empowerment. But while it feels good to be in the clothing, I don’t often see it.
In 2008, I went back home with one of my best friends for the first time since I left. During the three months that we were there, I spent the majority of my time shopping for fabric, going to the seamstress and designing different outfits and getting them made. By the time I came back to Toronto, I had so many different clothes and was wearing stuff around town. People would continually stop me and ask me, “where did you get this?”
For major events in my life, I have always designed my own clothes. I hate the thought of going to an event and wearing something that somebody else might show up in. Even in grade 2, for my first communion, I got something made. Grade 8 graduation, I designed something and got someone to sew it. Confirmation, prom, all of it. I really enjoy the process of designing something.
So when all these people were asking me where I got my outfits made, I let them know that it was my own creation that I had sewn in Ghana. One of my friends finally suggested starting a business. I was a little hesitant at first because I don’t have a fashion or business background, but I am very much a personality who dives into something. And I finally decided, “why not?”
Akinyi: How did you come up with the name of your company?
Dorothy: The name is actually inspired by my younger cousins, Ajua and Abby. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with them in the States babysitting them and watching them during the day. A lot of our time would be spent doing arts and crafts. By the end of summer, we would have a catalogue of clothing. They would draw girls with the different outfits with different color codes and pricing. Ajua and Abby are two of my favorite people in the world. They’re such inspiring, well-rounded individuals – creatively, intellectually, and personality-wise. When it came to starting a business, I thought about where in my life I have felt completely passionate about fashion, art, and creativity – and I thought back to my cousins and how they were a part of it. So the company name comes from their two middle names – Mina and Danielle.
Akinyi: How do you go about getting the clothes made?
Dorothy: For the website, the majority of the clothes are made back home. If I’m in Ghana, or in Kenya, where I travel to a lot, I’ll either purchase fabrics and have it made there, or I’ll take the fabric back to Canada. In Toronto, we also get a lot of stuff made – mostly custom orders. For clients that are looking for custom clothing, I’ll meet up with them and have a consultation. If they have fabric, then we use that. If they want me to shop for fabric, then I do that and then together we’ll come up with a design and will get them made here. I have three seamstresses in Toronto that I work with.
Akinyi: Are the clothes you design more traditional or are they mostly modern, Western outfits in African fabrics?
Dorothy: Growing up, I had to wear a lot of traditional clothing, which always felt a little forced. Personally, unless it’s for some big event like a funeral, I generally don’t wear traditional clothing. I enjoy the process of being able to look at a print and being able to see whatever inspires me. Most of the clothing is all modern with a traditional print. I try to make things that I could wear everyday to different events. Traditionally, Ghanaians have a kaba and slit (a top and a skirt). The skirts tend to be long and flowy – generally, too formal for me. I try to make the clothes accessible and ready-to-wear.
Akinyi: Is Mina Danielle your primary focus or are you also working on something else?
Dorothy: Currently, Mina Danielle is being put a little to the side as I start my PhD in September. As of right now, I work full-time as a research coordinator at a community health center. I do research primarily around HIV prevention for women of color. That’s my full-time 9-to-5, but I have been working on Mina Danielle for three or four years part-time. But in all honesty, it’s really been full-time. When you’re an entrepreneur just starting out, you’re constantly trying to perfect your business and hone your skills. But when I start school in September, my primary focus for the next four years will be research and completing my PhD, so Mina Danielle would probably become more part-time than it has ever been. Eventually, I’d love to rejuvenate it and start it up again. I’ll still be working on it, but from a different location, Ottawa. Because the city is closer to Montreal, which has a lot of Africans, it will be interesting. I’m looking forward to exploring that scene.
Akinyi: I wish you the best of luck on your new journey! On another note, where do you think this recent surge of interest in using African fabrics has come from? In the last five years, I think I’ve seen so many people on the street wearing African fabrics.
Dorothy: I would disagree. I think African fabrics have always been huge in the couture, high-fashion worlds. Burberry and a lot of different brands have been using traditional African prints for years, but I don’t think these companies were openly acknowledging that the fabrics and their inspiration was African. I find that now the difference is that people are naming it as African. People are becoming more aware of it. There are also a lot of celebrities that aren’t afraid to explore the world of African fashion, as such. I think we’re seeing the fabrics become more of a presence as they enter pop culture through people like Beyonce, Solange, and Gwen Stefani. It has become more visible, more something people can see wearing everyday. The prints have always been there, but it wasn’t accessible to the masses. I think companies have realized that people want to look unique, which is why you see Forever 21 and similar chains now incorporating African-inspired prints into their clothing. There are also more young women that are becoming entrepreneurial – particularly African women, which I think is also contributing to these trends.
Akinyi: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs, particularly in the fashion world?
Dorothy: For me, taking into account that this was not something that I was trained to do, passion was the most important factor. You really have to be passionate about what you’re doing. There is going to be so much hard work, so many naysayers and so many different pieces that need to come together. You need to have passion and drive to motivate you.
I structured my business in a way that was very personal for me. There are little touches of me in the name (based on my family), the logo (which incorporates the Akan symbol of sankofa), and the collections. There are symbols in everything. There a lot of pieces that are very well thought out and personal. That is what pushes me. It’s not just about the business. A portion of our funds go to HIV work. There’s an organization in Kenya that I’ve worked with a few times, so sometimes I’ll get the women there to sew clothing and then I’ll sell it. In that way, Mina Danielle also raises awareness about different social issues. It’s not just about profit. It’s also about using the clothing as a vehicle to educate people about issues that are important to me because my background is in the social sciences and humanities. Find your passion and use that to motivate you and find your competitive advantage. You also need to find what makes you unique and learn how to profit from that personally and professionally.