The Valkyrie behind Nanawax : The untold story of Maureen Ayité

Maureen Ayité is a complex character. She is definitely a woman, an entrepreneur who sells dreams. It’s a crush that I could no longer hide. She inspires me rage, discipline, decision and pride. She is a Wonder Woman. She managed to create her very own success story in a harsh environment, filled with the most unusual obstacles. And yet her resilience and talent are propelling her, each day, towards unsuspected heights. With her brand of Ready-to-wear, she aims at becoming the African Zara. She may not realize it, but Nanawax has the potential of a worldwide brand. It is already a religion and a lifestyle so to say. It is a label, and  a tag, that all women are dying to wear.

Maureen Ayité is a persevering woman. She sells you dreams while she is going through daily nightmares. I wanted to capture her soul, and write about who she is deep inside, beyond the brand image, the hype and gossips. Who is she? How does she live on her work? How is she  making it through? How many fights a day does she have does she have? Does she have any regrets? Does she feel fulfilled? How does one get to live the life of Maureen Ayité, Empress and future queen of women? What is her story off the cameras? Empress all day, and Amazon every single minute. How do you survive in the midst of the fashion jungle? Who are you Maureen Ayité?


Wax has a particular meaning for you unlike anyone else. You were born of these African Wax.

My grandma was a Wax retailer. She started when she was 15. It allowed her to own properties/goods , to live on it and provide for her family. Yes, we could say that I was born of Wax and African prints. But I was like all the other girls at that time. I used to cry when one wanted to have me dressed in African prints, to go out. I did not want to look like a “village girl”. As a teenager, I started to collect the unused pieces of printed fabric  from my grandmother workshop and used them to make small bags and earrings. [When I was in my eleventh and twelfth grades at Senior High school // During my two last year at high school], I used to  look for all the burgundy and beige colored fabrics that I could use to make little stuff that match my school outfit. Some friends asked me where they could buy the same creations. I told them that I did it just for me, just like that. In 2008, when I arrived in Paris, I was a bit depressed. I decided to create a Facebook group to put all my Wax and African Prints stuffs online, and share some works and creations that I found extraordinary. Anonymously, I posted my own designed outfits without showing my face. I didn’t want anyone to know who I was at that time. I had no money to pay a photographer anyway, so I used the timer to take my pictures. I used to make front, side back photos, to allow people to make their tailor reproduce the designs. Sales were not on my mind at all.

But, you did abandon everything to create Nanawax. Entrepreneur by necessity or circumstances?

I was studying the language of the deaf. Nothing to do with design at all. It is the strong market demand that made me create Nanawax.

A Lot of people would ask me to reproduce some model for them. I used to do it for free. As time went by, everyone wanted to know where they could buy this or that. I used to give them links if the models were from other designers. But they wanted what I was doing. During one summer, I went back home to see Grandma with my € 1,500 scholarship. The trip had cost €1000; I was left with €500 with which I started my business. I took a “1 meter” of Wax from my grandmother that I brought to some local tailors. Because I don’t know how to sew. I made accessories and they tailed the models. Then I put a little message on Facebook: “Come purchase here. I’m organizing a small private sale at a friend’s place”. I just wanted to make some fair money in order to travel to Bulgaria for my internship at the school for the deaf. I had no ambition to open a shop or to create a brand. Then the day of the private sale arrived, in an 18 squared meter apartment, there were almost two hundred people for twenty bracelets; I told myself that there was a real need. I expected to see only ten people! I didn’t realize that people were following my page that much. I called the school for the deaf and I told them: “We will postpone the internship of three months, so that I could make some more money.” Except that, I went from private sales to private sales. Eventually I have never done the internship.

I’ve finally never taken that course.

I returned to Cotonou. I used a place at the back of my mother’s shop to make my customizations. There is no Licra here. The materials are either too expensive either unavailable. So, I was not making any clothes by my own at that very moment. I used to buy ready-made in Paris that I would customize using Wax and African prints. This method was really expensive for me: some sizes or designs could also be missing.  At first, I kept it like this because I was not planning to make a business out of it. I wanted to do it just for a moment. But it worked so well that I eventually dropped the Deaf School Internship. I decided to find my own materials. Therefore I traveled to many countries in order to purchase what I needed. I never thought that one day I could make more than fifty millions in less than four hours. Click To Tweet

This is the story of your life, private sales that became very public.

Yeah, from day one until today. There are people who come to the sales from so far; from Belgium, Libreville, Netherlands, England just to buy and leave the same evening.  The weather was cold, it was raining But my clients were there. I could not believe that one day I would attract people who would do that to buy my products. Even I wouldn’t be able to stand in a queue just to buy a cloth . It is a grace from God because I don’t know how I did it. There are many prints fabrics events with thirty, forty artists/designers/creators who fail to mobilize so many people. I don’t boast about it. Now some people invite me just for the crowd. But all this didn’t happen all at once either.

Nanawax private sale in Abidjan. © Nanawax

This reminds me of one experience I had. At the beginning, after my first private sale at my friend’s place, I used to take stalls in some markets. I would in the halls with my little table. It was not the great Nanawax back then. I asked for a stall to a girl who used to organize private sales in Paris. She shaid no, that I was not known enough. I said okay, don’t worry, I’m fine with it. Today, she is desperately seeking for me. She won’t find me. I always give a chance to people. If you find that you’re already too well known to associate someone unknown to your thing, great. But when the time comes and the person makes it and surpasses you, don’t get mad. As nice as I can be, I’m also motivated to take revenge on thosewho mocked me and be able to surpass them. I play my game very hard. And when I do something, I want to be the best, the number 1.

What is your difference with the competition?

Why did I choose to study the deaf language?  Because I was good with signs language and I really loved doing that. I didn’t want to go in management or business studies to have hard times. When I master something, I do it. This is why the “J’aime le pagne de chez moi” Facebook page was not for a commercial purpose. I animated that page for 4 years before selling a single product.

That’s the difference between others and me: passion. I didn’t choose African prints because it was a promising business, I have chosen it out of passion. When you do something just for money, people can feel it, know it. I think that’s why many prefer to buy with me, because they don’t have that feeling. But it is also thanks to my products. Two years ago, a girl bought a Nanawax bag at the time I didn’t have our labels stamped on the products yet. She returned to Cotonou just to have the Nanawax logo. I think customers also come to be able to say: “This is Nanawax. I’m wearing Nanawax.” Click To Tweet

What is your greatest pride with Nanawax?

One day, a lady came to buy a Nanawax bag at the shop. She had a Fendi bag. She transferred all her stuff from the Fendi’s down to the Nanawax’. I was too happy to see that. It is one of my greatest prides.

Is not The Nanawax dosage too much?

Yes, I noticed that some people come just to see me, to take a picture with me rather than to buy something. For them, I’m a star and they want to talk with me. But I lack of time. I have a queue of hundreds of people to handle; I have to manage the cashier and advise the clients. I can’t afford to discuss to chat. People don’t understand that during sales I’m there for a purpose: to work and to sell. There are journalists or bloggers who come during the sales for interviews! It’s like asking an interview to an artist while he is performing. How can he give you his attention while he is on stage? So when I say no, those same people will go on their blogs to insult me. That’s why I try to be less involved in the private sales or avoid receiving everyone at the shop. I prefer to leave it in the hands of trustworthy persons. Clients are disappointed and ask where I am. They think that I have snubbed them. It’s very complicated.

So do you think the brand Nanawax could have been called Maureen Ayité?

No, if it was about Maureen Ayité’s aura I would have been famous since my birth. No, it’s because I’m Nanawax that today Maureen Ayité is known. People don’t want to take pictures with me because I’m Maureen Ayité. For example, when I’m not wearing wax, people don’t recognize me right away. It is only when they recognize my Wax outfits, that they recognize me. I am nobody.

Can we say that social networks have made Nanawax?

Without Mark Zuckerberg, I would not be here today. It all started on Facebook. Twitter was all new to me, and I was not good at using it. The only social network I was proficient with was Facebook, I also used to find that Instagram sucks. One day, I decided to post two pictures on Instagram and it all started from there. Today I have more impact and clients on Instagram than on Facebook. I never thought that one day I would write text messages to celebrities thanks to application like Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook. I started using Snapchat only one year ago. It is even through Snapchat that I got in touch with Youssoupha, one of my favorite rappers.

Mawunu Feliho, Team Irawo

I don’t run after celebrities. I don’t beg them to wear my clothes. They just come to buy with their own will, because they want it. And when people who can afford Channel or Dior, come to see what I produce and find that the finished products are fine, that simply means my job is good despite all the critics.

Yet you said during Benin Textile Days that you’d rather prefer to give your clothes to Rihanna than to a normal or simple person.

Yes. There are bloggers or pseudo-stars who write you, ‘Please, give me some clothing, I will make publicity for you. I am known. “. But here is the thing, even me I don’t know you. I have to speak for my brand. I don’t see why I will take a dress that I created and on which I spent money, to finally give it to someone who has no impact. In the end who is winning? Of course that person will be the only winner since there will be a new dress in their wardrobe. I know for sure that the person will only make some pictures with the model. As for me, it will be a total loss of time and the loss of one my dresses. When Angelique Kidjo buys and wears Nanawax, there is an impact. That’s why I prefer to give a dress to Rihanna because it has an impact. If she like it, it is over, I’ll take off. No commercial interest, no action. I want to advise designers and stylists against giving clothes or making shows that are totally free. How many clients will you gain at the end?

How have you acquired these commercial skills?

I often say to my employees. You don’t need to go to school to do symmetry or to understand that thick clothes should be at the bottom and lighter ones at the top. That’s logic. I always think to the commercial value of an action. I was invited to a dozens of shows in Paris but I’ve never been there. All these people find me snob. But what is the impact? I will pay my ticket, pay the hotel, make some outfits and all the blacks folks in Paname will come to watch, cheer and take pictures. How many of them will buy the products? What benefit would have I got out of the trip? Would I just go for the sake of saying that I’ have done fashion shows? Then what?

So every action of Nanawax is calculated?

You got it right. No interests, no action. The only thing I do without calculation is what I do for orphanages. I started it in 2010, three years before my brand.

When I started with Nanawax, entrance to private sales used to be free. One day, while laughing with some friends, I told myself, “Well, if I were to take 1€ or 2€ per person, I would have more money to give to orphanages.” Then I was able to give recently, about € 1,000 to Abidjan’s nursery. However I avoid putting these things I do on Facebook or Instagram.

Why this concern for privacy?

I don’t think I’m doing something incredible. And I don’t need too. There are many people who are not doing anything but  bring about all the country’s cameras to make a single donation. I don’t think it’s good. I know in my heart what I do and why I do it.

Why are you sensitive to the cause of needy children?

I don’t know. I’ve always loved taking care of children. I made almost a year of volunteering at the hospital of children with cancer in Costa Rica. I was not paid. I have always volunteered. Today, I have no more time. So if I can give back take a little of what I earn , it doesn’t cost me anything.

Finally, your training in deaf language was not useful.

No, it is no use to me. But very soon I will hire some deaf people that I met at the Deaf School in Porto-Novo. They are studying arts and crafts. They will work here at the shop and I will do the interpretation between them and tailors. However, in tailoring, there is no need to talk. The objective is to integrate them, to give them a job.

For such a young brand you suffered much bad buzz . The first one was the #DialloGate where Twitter users felt that your products were too expensive and could be cheaper on the market.

On social networks, many people express themselves without even coming to my shop, without ever buying a single Nanawax product. Most of them have never dealt with me, or even seen me.

The client is the king, just like people said. But the Seller is not his slave. My pictures are on the Internet and free. Anyone can copy my models. Originally, “I like my home prints” was made for this purpose, allow people to reproduce the designs. But you can’t come into my shop saying: “Ah, but it’s expensive. My tailor can do the same”. “Then get lost, go see your tailor!” And I will answer the same thing until the end even if it makes me close my shop. These kind of things annoy me. It’s not respectful. The most expensive item in my store costs 80 000F. The most expensive item I ever created cost 100 000 F and it was a unique article.

Don’t you suffer from your straight talking?

I’m a big mouth, people say. Yet, when I am wrong, I know how to apologize. I can even lay down on the floor to ask for forgiveness. For example, there werre some Bassam bags purchased in Paris which were not good. I have apologized and exchanged or refunded them. I only reply to people’s remarks when they talk down on my job with false facts. I am okay with constructive criticism, not with insulting others work. They reproach me my rigor. It is because I work hard that I can’t get through everyday.

How did you feel with the recent #NanawaxGate?

I’ve been called a lot. My family, my friends. “Maureen, are you okay?” But I was really fine. The “Gates” brought me more followers on Twittter in one day than in a whole year. There is always a blessing behind each problem. My clients know the quality of Nanawax. She, who started the gate, got married dressed in Nanawax. If my products were so bad, why are they spread on her profile? In sales, it is always the same people who are coming back with more and more clients, at each time. If my products were bad, they wouldn’t be coming back. As long as you don’t know me, if you have never bought a Nanawax product, it is clear for me that you don’t know my personality. Therefore you can say Nanawax is shit, I don’t care. Some people even said I am a “bitch“, but I haven’t closed my business for that. Click To Tweet

Is not the blame also  on the ever-growing number of clients who are coming to your sales?

Even recently for the private sale in Paris, I was hoping only 500 people to come. But at the end the 500 tickets ran out. There were nearly 900 people. About 700 were able to enter and participate to the sale. There are people who come not to buy. The one who really wants to pay comes with her female friends and by doing so they prevent other clients who really want to pay from entering. Some of them fought each other. Some others try more than 10 clothes when they maybe want to buy only one, blocking other clients. We find clothes in the toilet, thrown in chairs or on the floor. You can’t even point their bad behavior to people, so that you aren’t accused of being nasty, rude or arrogant. Imagine if people behaved a little better  … The most pissing thing is that satisfied clients don’t express themselves. But an unsatisfied client can speak like 1,000 people.

But it’s not just that. There are clients who see pictures from one or two years ago, but still want them today. They don’t check the available items in a particular sale. Even at Zara’s the designs change  every three months. People don’t also seem to understand that I make ready-to-wear clothes. I’m not a tailor. They think that since it is printed fabric, you can reproduce. When they go to Mango, can they ask them to make special models reproduction?

You were born in France; you grew up in Ivory Coast and Benin. To which of these countries do you identify yourself?

I have a Beninese nationality, but I haven’t identified myself with Benin until recently. Honestly I think that in Benin, people are wicked and full of bitterness. As soon as you do something, they’ll never see anything good in it. When a Beninese is showed off in a media, you can count on the fingers the number of Beninese who will share the article. But as soon as the person appears in the news for a bad thing, even those who don’t know you will talk and share. In Ivory Coast, people are nicer. They will not talk down on your work. This is why Ivorian designers are ahead of us. Yet we have great designers here in Benin as Pepita D. But how many people go to buy in her shop? They say, “Oh, this is just Wax print clothes. It is this, it is that. There is always something to say. I prefer to go to Paris to buy my outfits’’. Ivorian people support artists, singers and stylists. When an Ivorian sees a person falling into one of these categories in the street, he will happily run to take a picture with him. But in my own country, I was insulted because I took pictures with Blaaz or Fanicko in the street. But am I better than them?

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Benineses have therefore failed to support you in your business?

They have never supported me so far. It is now that everyone seems to remember my Beninese nationality. I always try to promote Benin positively on social networks but the reality is that the life of someone like me  in Benin is quite different from what one might think. How many Benineses are buying Nanawax articles? Anyway I’m not complaining because I’m not the only one in this situation. Even Angelique Kidjo, the superstar is experiencing it. People often talk and boast about their Beninese nationality. But how many Beninese have an original Cd of  Angelique Kidjo?

People are not happy with what you are, whether they are your employees or not. Many people complain about seeing my face in newspapers and magazines. Why is it always Nanawax? But I don’t ask anything to journalists, they come to interview willingly and freely. Sometimes I’m not even aware of it. One day, some journalists came to a stylist’s event in Benin and asked why I wasn’t present there. People answered that they didn’t know me. The journalists searched my shop’s address on the nana-wax.com website. They showed the address to bike-taxi drivers “Zemidjans’’ who drove them throughout the city, so that they could have few minutes of interview with me. If a celebrity wears Nanawax today, tomorrow you will see many other Beninese creators tag them on their publications. If I send a photo to Visit Africa tomorrow this page is found tagged in several Beninese creators publications. But you don’t have to copy me!

When fashion designers organize their events, they avoid to invite me, they will be saying “Oh, she is already everywhere. She will take all of our clients.” This is really a stupid mindset. For all my private sales, I try to invite other designers or I try to help others as much as I can. When I started Nanawax, I wished I had someone more famous than me in the fashion arena, to give me these opportunities.

So you really had no support from the beginning?

There was no one, just as I’m telling you. Even my mother thought my business wouldn’t last long, she thought it was just a holiday job. She always told me, “Oh, and your Internet stuff?” She used to tell me that I was wasting my time on the internet posting those things. The first time she came with me to a sale, which was about a year and a half ago. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “Ah, my little Maureen,  you’ve made it through!”

When we listen to you, when we see you, it looks like everything was easy. But you seem to have experienced a lot of low blows.

I have sold a designer’s sheet for two years in my shop, without taking any percentage. It just took me to see that she began to copy my business, to stop that. Another time she asked me to sell plushes. She had no label at that time. I sold them for her until clients asked me to make assortments with Nanawax outfits. So I gave her my printed fabrics and we agreed to do the sale so that each of us get her interest. I published the plushes pictures on the Facebook page. People fell for them. One day I received a large order that I communicated to her, but she started to turn me around, “No, I didn’t have the time to do it. I will do it after, and so one… “. Finally, she told me at the last minute that she couldn’t deliver. I realize later on her networks that she made full of fluffes she posted just to say it’s not Nanawax that produces them. The last delivery she made me, she affixed labels bearing her name and phone number. I’ve removed them because our contract never stipulated it and it was no longer a consignment shop/deal. Even if it bothered her to have my name put forward, there were ways to proceed. I pointed it out to him. Today, she is supposed to be my public enemy.

A lot of artisans had also done some little low blows to me. They have the know-how but once you show them how to use a material, they do their own business on your back. They use the other half of my materials and my fabrics and sell them again at more expensive prices. But that is people out there. When it’s people close to you, it hurts more.

Around me: my best friend. Today, people say Nanawax copy her, it makes me laugh. She has been my best friend for years. We did all the craziest things together. In Paris, I used to spend the night at her place during my sales. At the beginning I used to customize jerseys with printed fabrics. I wanted to find suppliers for Wax print. She helped me find an address. She studied marketing and had everything to start a good career. She had nothing to do with prints. She went behind me to reproduce the jerseys and create her brand. I started selling Licra-made swimwears long before her. But faced to accusations of plagiarism, am I supposed to spread our story on social networks to restore the truth? Those who know, know. The rest, too bad.

An aunt during her stay with me took all the numbers of my suppliers in less than a month to exactly reproduce my products with the same fabrics. Someone tagged me one day to report a Facebook page that was publishing my items placed. Out of curiosity, I called the number on the page to see who it was. I fell on my aunt. People who ran my Facebook page took orders for thousands of euros on my behalf but to deliver their own products thus creating problems with customers.

Once I came to the shop to see at the storefront a slaughtered cock, its blood spilled on the ground. I can give you thousands of examples of these betrayals and backstabbing. I do not come easily to delegate anything anymore. I have had negative experiences for the most part. How do you want me to trust people after that? But hey, when you do well in life, you do not have to worry about the rest.

Did being female and young get you in trouble in your business?

I didn’t have any blockage due to my status as a woman because I didn’t go into a bank to ask for money to start my business. Let alone asking someone for something at the risk of being turned blue.

My employees are older than me but I pay them a good salary with benefits, they remind me of my age all the time: “I have children who are your age. You don’t have to teach me my job. You don’t tell me this or that.” But I don’t care. You have children of my age, but i’m the one who pays you. You do what I tell you to do.

When they see my size, people say I am too small. But it is not because I am short that I’m gonna let people walk on me. There are people who say, “Oh, I know your mum. I used to take you in my arms and play with you when you were a baby. “. Usually I reply saying this “thank you auntie to have carried me like that, but the price remains unchanged.”

You said the last time on Twitter that it’s not a good for a designer to be the face of his own brand. How do you explain that it worked for you?

Not to brag, I think that I have a body that suits my outfits. Because originally, I make the models for myself before reproducing them for clients. You can have a good product but not the ideal body to highlight it. A designer who has a fat belly and who wears his own Crop top doesn’t put them in value. Kim Kardashian makes her own pub with her clothes because her body is worth taking a look at. We must inspire the clients to buy our articles.

© Nanawax by @mariopanya

What do you think of intellectual property?

I think it is a good thing but impossible to apply in Africa. To register my brand, I suffered a lot. It had to be registered in Cameroon to cover some African countries. Administrative procedures were difficult, the answers are given after one year and validation comes after 6 months. So it is almost 1 and half year, just for a brand registration. It is impossible to register models. I decided to do it in France but it’s so expensive. For a CEO, It is in between 6 000 to 10 000€. You invest the money and someone copy your model. Do you think you can recover your investment in the prosecution? Unless it is a great brand, you can’t get back your funds. But when it’s coming from your own African brothers? African designers are not ready for that. Neither do I. If I have to register all my models, how much am I going to pay? € 100 million?

Many people accuse you of plagiarism. The Carribean, Miriam Maxo reproach you to have copied her teddy bear model for children.

 

© Nanawax

She said she have registered the pattern of her teddy. Last time I checked her brand itself wasn’t registered. Her teddy has nothing singular apart from being made in printed fabrics. But the model of her teddy is a standard and universal one. It’s just like registering a basic rectangular bag. Also, she didn’t create this teddy bear because there are brands that did it before. They are American or English brands that did it before her. When I was still working with that other girl who asked to sell fluffy plush in my shop, I have mentioned the fact that it wasn’t a new thing. She filed a complaint against me. I don’t think it will succeed. The brand Panafricana produces sneakers in African prints. I used to do it before them; do I have to prosecute them for that? They don’t use the same fabrics as me, it is neither the same selling techniques nor the same markets. Alibaba has so many pictures of me with my models on their website, although I don’t even sell anything there. A Beninese brand has used pictures of me in my Tribia necklace to market their own necklaces collection that they had plagiarized from me, it has even created confusion. If I had to complain about those who copy me, I would go on trials every day. Click To Tweet

How do you manage to reinvent yourself every time?

I like to watch great events red carpets, movies. Last time I watched a movie from the 40s, and I noticed a nice model that could look great in printed fabric as well. I have already reproduced a model of Rihanna in African Print. She is actually my favourite artist on the red carpet. I do take many inspiration from Zara as well.

© Nanawax

When others copy you, it is plagiarism, but when it is you, is it different?

When you copy someone, don’t exactly copy him. There is a difference between to copy and to take inspiration from something. I always put a personal touch in every cloth: African prints, accessories, pockets or any other thing that can bear my creativity. What makes me uncomfortable with plagiarism is when they copy to the extent of using my own fabrics for my own models. Some people even used my pictures without my face. No matter which field you are in, the first person to copy you will be a close relative. On the top of that, many designers have their products in my shop. I can easily copy them, but I don’t. When I have a crush for a designer, I don’t mind sharing it with people or buying his articles

Some people think that you contribute to a kind of Wax prostitution. Do you think that one day, people are going to get tired of Wax prints items?

People who think that African prints or Wax is a fashion trend are wrong. It is so for the western people. It is a trend right now because stars like Beyoncé are wearing it. But do you know for how long Africans have been wearing prints? If it has not been already old-fashioned all this time, it is not today that it will be. Printed fabrics won’t become has-been, only models will. It is just like saying that Licra is going to be out of fashion. It is what we do with licra which is going to be old-fashioned. I don’t only use wax. I also use Licra, Bogolan.

Maureen Ayité, Nanawax, Irawo

What do you want people to say about Nanawax in a couple of years?

I wanna be like Zara Click To Tweet

When I was an undergraduate student, i couldn’t afford to buy it because it was too expensive for my pocket. That is why I often say that what is expensive is relative.

If I make a cloth that costs 1000 F CFA, someone can still find it expensive. Finding something expensive only depends on the money you have. So I want to make good quality clothes affordable to everybody. But even “everybody” is relative. I want to have severals shops in Africa and around the World by the grace of God. I would like people to know Nanawax as an African ready-to-wear brand.

 

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