Madam Wokie in the press: An interview with Mary-Ann Kaikai of Madam Wokie by The Network for Change (TNFC)
Tell us about Mary-Ann Kaikai.
Mary-Ann Kaikai is the founder and creative director of Madam Wokie, a Sierra Leone based fashion brand that specialises in designing bespoke and ready-to-wear clothing and accessories for ladies. I was born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and I have lived in Ghana, The Gambia, Togo and several other countries across Africa. I attended The Limount College Secondary School in Freetown and went on to The Fourah Bay College, University of sierra Leone. I studied African Studies and International Relations. I believe that Sierra Leone’s history, my family, my life experiences and travel have inspired me artistically and I am determined to showcase my work worldwide to create a positive image of not just my brand, buts also of Sierra Leone.
What does fashion mean to you?
Fashion means everything to me… I would say it is my calling. For as long as I can remember I have always wanted to work in the fashion industry. While my friends dreamed of becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers, my dream was to be Naomi Campbell and walk the catwalks worldwide. Back in secondary school I participated in numerous fashion shows and beauty contests to create a platform for myself and find a way into the fashion industry. Much to the frustration of my parents, I was crowned three times Miss Limount and would use every opportunity I could find to sneak off to a fashion show/exhibition organised by established designers such as Zindzi’s and Swank Couture by Jenneh Mason; one of the first fashion designers established in Sierra Leone. However since I spent most of my formative years in Sierra Leone, by the time completed secondary school I was encouraged to focus more on academics and pursue a somewhat respectable career.
How did you break into in the fashion industry?
I became a part of the Sierra Leone fashion industry in secondary school through beauty contests and modelling for fashion shows. However towards the end of my university degree my family sensed that I wasn’t really interested in academics or pursing an office-based career. My aunt, Mrs Jebbeh Forster, therefore decided to employ me as the manager of her uniform company, Picton Uniforms, which specialised in producing wholesale uniforms for the Government of Sierra Leone. My role was to oversee the tailors and ensure the smooth day-to-day running of the business. In 2009 my aunt was offered a job abroad and she literally handed over the business to me. The first thing I did was to change the name from Picton Uniforms to Madam Wokie after my maternal great-grandmother. She was one of the few female Paramount Chief’s in post-colonial Sierra Leone. She was also a beautiful, passionate and stylish lady who loved expressing herself through fashion. I then set about incorporating my style and personality into the business. I moved from sewing uniforms to designing affordable garments for my friends and acquaintances.
I formally launched Madam Wokie in April 2009 with no formal training in the fashion industry. To be honest the business was meant to be a side hustle until I decided what career I wanted to pursue. In 2010 I was invited to showcase a collection at the Arise Magazine Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria, where I launched the Madam Yoko Collection. The collection was well received and in 2012 I was invited again to showcase another collection which I called the Wanjama Collection.
In 2011 I was also invited to participate in the Africa Fashion International Fashion Week in Johannesburg, South Africa; and the 2011 Africa Fashion Week New York. Locally I participated in local shows including the annual Madeng Beach Festival. The biggest break came in 2013 when I was invited to make a presentation at the prestigious 2013 Fashion for Development, First Ladies Luncheon and Fashion Show at the United Nations General Assembly in New York organised by Vogue Italia.
Madam Wokie has also been featured in several publications such as Theguardian.com, Haute Fashion Africa, Vogue.it, Brussels Airlines B There Magazine, Studio53, Arise magazine and New Africa Woman Magazine. The brand has also been worn by the likes of Victoria Secret model, Selita Ebanks, Eva Mendez and several other notable individuals in the Sierra Leone and across African. Since then the demand for our products have grown beyond our capacity and we have successfully added new ranges of bags and accessories to our brand.
Having experienced this level of success in the first few years I knew that if I stayed focus I could make a career out of fashion and achieve my dreams. Now five years later, Madam Wokie is one of Sierra Leone’s leading fashion brands. I can honestly say that nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing a lady walk into a room looking amazing in one of my creations.
Who is the Madam Wokie Woman?
The Madam Wokie woman is a hardworking lady committed to making her stamp on the world while looking fabulous. She is confident, bold and is always prepared to experiment through fashion, especially if that means standing out in the crowd.
What is it like working in the fashion industry in Sierra Leone?
While working in the Sierra Leone fashion industry can be quite challenging, it is also very rewarding.
It is challenging because unlike more established fashion industries in the Europe, South Africa and Nigeria, the Sierra Leone fashion industry is quite young. As such we lack the skills and expertise to compete with international brands. The average established fashion brand in the West will have a team of experts including visual merchandisers, tailors, a publicist, but to name a few. However in Sierra Leone, you would find an individual having to take on several roles for which they are neither qualified nor experienced. Another challenge facing many local businesses is the lack of finance. While you may occasionally hear of grants and opportunities for young entrepreneurs, this is not available to a vast majority of youths who are quite willing and able to work. Also Sierra Leonean businesses have difficulties in accessing platforms in which to engage with markets worldwide. In cases where they do gain access, this is quite expensive. Such challenges can make running a business quite frustrating.
On the other hand I always tell people that one of the reasons why Madam Wokie is this successful is because I am from Sierra Leone and people worldwide are very interested in not just our culture and art, but also what we can contribute globally. This creates and opportunity for us to not just create a niche for ourselves, but always to define what the future of Sierra Leone in terms of art and culture will be. As a young person I find this quite inspiring and think that Sierra Leonean entrepreneurs should adapt their businesses to meet the current demand.
What are the highlights of your career?
The main highlights of my career so far have been seeing former Victoria’s Secret model, Selita Ebanks, in one of my creations and Eva Mendez wearing one of my bags. I have also enjoyed participating in international fashion shows including Arise Magazine Fashion Week 2011 and 2012.My greatest achievement would have to be showcasing at the Fashion for Development First Ladies Luncheon and Fashion Show at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. That was a game changer for me as not only did I challenge myself by designing a full collection in less than a month, I got the opportunity to showcase my work to so many amazing people including Her Royal Highness Princess Ameerah Al Taweel of Saudi Arabia; Franca Sozzani, Editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia; Mette-Marit, Crown Princess of Norway; Mrs Folorunsho Alakija and Mr Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS.
What inspires your designs?
My designs are inspired by Sierra Leonean culture, history, my travels, my family, global fashion trends, my mood, the average woman on the street… literally anything. As with most aspects of my business, I always consult with my sisters on designs to get an idea of how my pieces would be received as they are my best critics.
How does the Madam Wokie brand function?
Madam Wokie has a leadership structure comprising of me and my two younger sisters; Musu and Wokie, who live in the United Kingdom but are very involved in the management and strategising of the brand. They also assist with communications and other key features of Madam Wokie which are quite difficult to operate from Sierra Leone. Locally I employ technical and managerial staffs who assist with the day-to-day running of the business. In 2012 I started the Madam Wokie Arts and Craft project. The project aims to provide sustainable livelihood for unemployed youth based in the provinces by providing jobs for talented unemployed youth and a market for their products. I personally find this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my business as not only do I get to give back to communities, I give them an opportunity to showcase their amazing work worldwide.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hopes for the future are to make Madam Wokie a household name and to have my pieces sold worldwide. I also wish to inspire youths to pursue a career in the creative arts as I believe that if I could do it, so could they. In terms of our wider society, I look forward to the day when the average Sierra Leonean has access to financing, platforms and entrepreneurship programmes to develop their talents.
Your advice to others young entrepreneurs
My advice to other young entrepreneurs would be to make achieving a formal education a priority. While running a business in Sierra Leone can be quite rewarding, it is also a risk and it never hurts to have a backup plan. I would also encourage them to seek work experience where possible as this would give them a good foundation on business operationalization and professionalism. Lastly my advice would be to work hard, never give up and surround yourself with positive like-minded individuals who would inspire ypu to be better.
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