You need ‘can do’ spirit and divine grace to get there, says Mudi
When a list of leading fashion designers in Nigeria today is drawn, a vantage position for Clement Mudiaga Enajemo, CEO of Mudi Africa is assured. From the early 90s when he started out at Ikosi, Ketu, Lagos, the Delta State native has carved a niche for himself in the business of blending fashion with creativity. He has grown to become a global brand, designing for leading figures across the continent, including presidents, prime ministers and notable celebrities. Mudi’s story is a typical example of hard work pays.
For the entrepreneur, the year 2018 is significant; it marked his 50th birthday and 25th anniversary of Mudi fashion brand. Of course, The Guardian reached out to him for a chat in celebration of the milestones.
Typical of Mudi, he showed up in his signature outfit, with a cap to fit. Just few minutes at the hotel’s lobby, his sight attracted attention; many recognised him, especially the waitress that couldn’t help but to chop knuckle with the master designer.
“First of all, I will say a big thank you to God for life, the wisdom, the gift, the zeal, the drive and determination; I must thank God for all of that,” he said, as he recoiled on the sofa.“This environment requires high level of self confidence to believe in yourself; people will always try to make you feel you are not serious with what you are doing. So, you must be determined to say, ‘this is what I want.’ You must be focused as well,” he quipped.
With the way he started the conversation, you could easily tell that becoming a fashion designer was a tough call for the proudly Urhobo son; like yesterday, the discouragements are still fresh in his memory. “I remember when I just started this work, about 23 years ago, a friend called me and said, ‘Mudi, this work you are doing, when are you going to buy a car?’ But one thing that actually helped is the belief that ‘it is possible.’ And by the grace of God, I still have that mentality up till this stage. That’s why most times, when I go to a country I don’t know anybody; I just go to the Nigerian Embassy to see the ambassador and he/she would give me the blessing and go ahead. I just get a lawyer, register my company, get an auditor and set up a shop. Most times, when I’m through with opening an outlet in another country, I begin to wonder, ‘how come? How possible without a bank loan?’ Anytime I open an outlet, it drains my finance; I have to start saving again, that’s where the drive comes,” he said.
Right from his days in primary school up till when he enrolled at the Government College Ughelli, young Clement picked interest in artistic expression. And when it was time to make a choice, he opted for fashion designing.
“You know, as an artist, you can decide to go into interior decoration, sculpture or painting, but I decided to pick fashion. Illustration is arts, it’s a gift; you don’t learn creativity. So, what I did was to learn how to cut and stitch. But in terms of creativity, it’s there. Fashion designing is about creativity; you have to first of all be creative. Besides, you must have the drive and believe in yourself. Most importantly, you must have taste. So, I picked fashion designing because, to me, it’s arts; I wanted a platform to express myself.”
Beyond passion, Mudi believes his venture into fashion was divine.“You know, the word destiny plays a major role in life. We are all individual scripts waiting for God to interpret; I’m just interpreting mine.”
However, he recalls a particular incident that sealed his decision to pursue a career in fashion designing against all odds.“Something happened back then when I was living in Ketu; I used to help a lot of friends to buy clothes. When they wanted to buy new clothes, they usually called me to help them select, including shoes. This eye for good things, I grew up with it.”
He continued: “On this particular day, two of my friends – Tunde and Emma, they were discussing together, but immediately they saw me walking close to them, Emma told me, ‘Clement, why you no go fashion school? Go fashion school, no waste this talent o, sebi na you dey help us buy clothes.’ At the same time, Tunde said, “Emma, na wetin I wan talk na him you talk so.” That was how I started giving the whole thing a serious thought.”
Mudi first approached his elder brother to intimate him of his decision. Luckily, he gave his blessings. Then, he went around Ikosi, Ketu, in search of a tailoring shop for his apprenticeship.
“There was a particular tailor in my area in Ikosi; he’s a roadside tailor, but well organised and thorough. I walked up to him and opened up, he said, ‘yea, Clement come, after all people in this area they know say you sabi dress na. Come, I will train you.’ I registered for six months just to have that basic knowledge of fashion designing. After six months, I wasn’t really satisfied, so, I decided to enroll for extra three months,” he said.
Meanwhile, in between the time he was training, Mudi devoted Tuesdays and Thursdays to sharing his complimentary cards, especially with fiends back home in Delta State.“Some of them were like, ‘oya make me one shirt, make me one chinos.’ So, over time, I tried to create, modernize and learn from mistakes.”
Though naturally talented, beyond his secondary education, Mudi didn’t proceed to the university. In fact, he sees a blessing in his inability to go for higher education. “A lot of people have always asked me that question. But you know what, a Whitman once came to my office seven years ago. After looking at my sketches, he said to me, ‘MUDI, if you had gone to the university, something would have happened to your brain; your design is very real, very original, no adulteration.’ So, I don’t pretend, I didn’t go to university; I don’t hide it at all. But in this fashion industry, there’s nothing you will tell me that I don’t know because I grew through the ranks,” he said confidently.
At his state-of-the-art head office located in Anthony Village, Lagos, there are two framed images you can’t miss; the picture of his house in Ikosi where the journey began and that of the new office, which stands out in the area. “That’s the story of my humble beginning, it’s the compound where I used to stay. Those days, I was working from my room; I first bought one machine, then I bought another one and other things I needed to start my business,” he recalled.
For a beginner, working from home is comfortable, but once the business begins to expand, space becomes a major constraint. Mudi’s case isn’t different.“I approached RMD (Richard Mofe Damijo), who now gave me money to rent my first shop in Anthony Village. Then, I was working and other things came up and took money from me. So, I opened up to him that I didn’t have money to rent a shop. The money I had then wasn’t enough and he gave me the bulk of money to add to what I had to get a shop.”
Recalling his relationship with the renowned actor, Mudi said, “his late wife, the then publisher of Classic magazine has a younger sister, Ughali; I used to make clothes for her. So, on this particular day, I went to her office to drop her skirt. As I was coming down, RMD and his late wife were going up; I’m sure he was impressed with the way I dressed. So, a week after, I went to see Ughali and she opened up to me that, ‘ah, that day you came, RMD asked about you and I told him you are a fashion designer. He liked the way you dressed, so, take his card, go to him and introduce yourself.”
He continued: “I went to meet him at his office in Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja, Lagos. He asked me few questions and I took his measurements; he asked me to make him a short chinos. The day I took it to his office, he was impressed and asked me to make him another one. Later, he asked me to make him a trouser and from there, he took me as a younger brother. Though we are both Uhrobo, we met here in Lagos and he has been very helpful. Giving me my first shop? You know it’s a very remarkable thing. People I know back home then that I went to for help, nobody helped me,” he noted.
Though he felt disappointed earlier, Mudi then, he has a reason not to be angry with those, who turned him down. “There’s something I’ve discovered. I think a lot; I think very deep. Some of those people that didn’t help me, I felt very bad, but today, I’m happy they didn’t help me. Some of them are broke now to the extent that that if they had helped me, they would have been on my neck today. Again, some of them, they didn’t make clean money; maybe God didn’t want them to share part of the glory,” he reasoned.His big break in the fashion industry came when he started designing for Jumobi Adegbeso, who was a presenter of a popular music show on AIT.
“Before he got married to RMD, I was making her clothes; she used to anchor a programme on AIT, Music Break from 12 till about 1pm. I was the one costuming her; I made those Ankara tops she wore. I became very popular and people were shouting ‘Mudi, Mudi…” After that stage, I moved into billboards; I was the first Nigeria designer to have billboards all over Lagos; there were six billboards positioned at different locations in Lagos. Not that I had so much money, but it was about the zeal to project the name; that period gave me the break,” he declared.
To the fashion designer, competition is good. In fact, at the time he launched his brand, the industry was already booming with talented fashion designers. But for Mudi, the sky is too wide for all birds to fly.“Competition is good, even now, we have so many designers, which is good for the industry. The market is big, the more the merrier. Not everybody will wear Mudi; some might prefer another designer. But the bigger the market, the more the competition, which is good for the industry; it challenges you to think more and keep inventing. However, that period was challenging because of lack of capital.”
On how he has managed to keep the brand alive despite obvious competition, he said, “one thing I tell people is, ‘focus is key.’ There are people, who are talented; they have the drive but no discipline. Some have discipline, they are not talented but they have the drive. Some have the drive, they have the discipline, but they are not talented. As a fashion designer, you must be creative, you must have the drive and you must be disciplined. I still get to work 7am everyday. Put that one aside, as a designer, you must have taste; you must know the colours that blend.”
Though he has seen many challenges, for Mudi, raising money to pay for his shop after the expiration of the first two years advance facilitated by RMD was a tough task that almost broke him. “The two years expired and I couldn’t renew my rent; that was the most difficult part of this journey. I had money for only six months and I approached the landlord, but he said, ‘Mudi, if you don’t have money, pack.’ I had nobody to run to,” he recalled.
Determined to secure his workshop, Mudi approached one of his friends for support.“I opened up to him on my challenges and asked if he could give me N18,000 loan to add to what I have to pay for the shop. You know what the guy told me, he said, ‘Mudi, forget this job; this work will not pay.’ He started mentioning names, which I don’t want to say here; he started calling names of designing that are not making it in the industry. He said, ‘Mudi, you have taste, I know you dress well. A friend of mine, who goes to Italy to bring in clothes and ties, I will link you up with him to give you some to sell in offices; that will make you more money than designing. What are you designing?’ I wept,” he lamented.
Having resolved not to throw in the towel, he laughed everything off and consoled himself that everything good will come.“You know what I did, I just went to meet the landlord and said, ‘sir, give me two weeks. If I don’t pay within two weeks, I will pack.’ Luckily for me, I had some jobs; a client called me and said, ‘Mudi, make me 10 trousers.’ He paid me the money in bulk and I took it straight to the landlord.”
To avoid similar embarrassment, he began to save towards renewing his rent the following year.“I started doing daily contribution; I started with N50 per day. Sometimes, that N50 won’t even be there; I will skip that day. Later, I moved to N100 until I eventually pegged it at N500 per day. Unlike now when you have several banks around, the only bank close to me was Afri Bank Ketu. Once I removed salary for my sales boy, I will enter molue to go pay in the money into my account. I gave my passbook to RMD and said, ‘bros, hold this passbook; if I’m sick, don’t release it. If they call you that I’m sick, don’t release it.’ So, I was just saving without withdrawing until I was able to save N245,000. I bought my first car, Toyota Corolla, manual, no air-condition; it was two doors not four doors,” he enthused.
Talking about cars, Mudi is a great collector, though he would never accept being a car freak.“I’m not a car freak,” he insisted, adding, “people usually get me wrong. Let me explain it to you, I come to your house and you have about 20 pairs of shoes but they are all regular shoes. Then, I have only four pairs of shoes but they are all classic shoes. People will say, ‘oh, he has good shoes,’ because of how unique they are. I’m not a car freak, just that the few cars I have are extremely unique,” he boasted.
In his collection of car is a 1971 Peugeot 504.“I bought it from France. I’m just living the life I want to live. This is me, I’m not competing with anybody; we all have individual race to run. I’m just running my race; I’m not under any pressure,” he declared.Standing in its majesty today in Anthony Village, there’s a story behind Mudi’s Corporate Head Office.
“That house you see there, it’s a blessing. When they were about to sell the building, I wasn’t prepared to buy a house; I didn’t even tell any agent to help me search for a house. The money wasn’t there; mentally, I wasn’t ready. A woman just walked up to me and said, ‘Mudi, there’s this house they want to sell in case you are interested.’ She gave me the agent’s number and I called him; he came to my office and we started bargaining.”
At this time, the money in Mudi’s account was N11,700,000, which wasn’t enough to acquire the property.“I wasn’t ready to buy a house, but we started negotiating and he said, ‘Mudi, since you are serious, I will talk to the family and get back to you. When he was leaving, I gave him some money for refreshment and said to him, ‘please, my interest first.’ Later, they called me after having a family meeting and agreed what I should pay.”
Mudi’s first plan was to go to his banker Zenith bank to seek for loan, but that didn’t work.“They couldn’t help me, after baking with them for several years. Luckily for me, I just opened an account with GTB less than six months then. So, I approached my account officer and said, ‘Nnamdi, please there’s a house I want to buy; it’s not for luxury, it’s for work.’ He said it will be difficult my account was less than six months.’ He agreed to discuss with his madam, but he said I should also try and meet the regional head.
“I went to see the woman and they eventually gave me the money, though they said I should top my own part of the money to N21,000,000. I used to have a flat in Dolphin Estate; I sold it and gave the money to GTB. That was how I bought the house and I was able to pay back the loan in two years. That house you see is the work of God,” he said.
To ensure he put it exactly the way he likes, Mudi designed the building by himself.“I designed both interior and exterior; I did everything. As for the openness, I like open space; even the house where I live, it’s open. I like freedom; what do I have to hide? Again, putting a fence there would have destroyed the aesthetics. Moreover, it’s a commercial property.”
Upon completion of the building, the plan was to invite his then state governor Emmanuel Uduaghan to commission it, but along the line, there was a change of plan; Fashola became a preferred option.“I had a second thought and decided to invite Fashola being the governor of Lagos State. As at that time, we never met, I just spoke to my lawyer and he drafted a letter, which I gave to his Chief of Staff. I just kept calling them to confirm the date, but they called me on December 13, 2013 and said, ‘Mudi, the governor is coming to commission the place.’ And the governor did come to commission my office,” he enthused.
Impressed with what Mudi was able to do, the Lagos State invited him for a discussion in Alausa.“They had agreed to name the street after me, so, it became Mudi Lane; there was no name on that street before. Sometimes, I look at the house and say, ‘God, I thank you.’ There are so many designers, who are privileged and started with capital, but I started with nothing.On the day of the official commissioning, Mudi brought his mother down to Lagos to witness the epoch making event.
“My mum was there and she asked me, ‘my son, are you sure you own this house?’ I said, ‘yes.’ She shook my hands and tears came out of my eyes. We are nine children altogether and my father had died; it wasn’t easy for her taking care of us.”To young Nigerian designers, he said, “If you check most of them, though not all, they are in a hurry; there’s a process of growth. It took me 25 years to get to where I am today; some of them just less than four years, they want to be everywhere. Social media is good, but in a way, it has its own negative effects. You see a designer, he’s known all over the country through social media hype, but no structure.”
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