Sarah Divine is a wonderful friend of mine from King’s Church, Manchester. Originally from Douala in Cameroon, she has recently created a fashion line called Maison d’Afie. Sarah was a high-flyer in her accounting career before pursuing her life-long dream as a fashion designer.
She talks to me about growing up as a seamstress’ daughter, her love for the long and slender, the sexy and the decent and designing for Michelle Obama. Sarah shares her desire to empower women and designers in Cameroon, to promote African talent to the world and to show that good things can come from home.
What are your designs about?
My clothes are multicultural but African-themed. I use a lot of raffia, linen, damask, woodin, and tie and dye in my creations. I would describe my style as glamour, feminine and sexy. Long dresses are a favourite, and I like corsets, long and slender outfits that define a woman’s form.
How did you start out?
I’ve always designed my own clothes as a hobby and got my mum to make them. So I guess when I lost my job, I was just continuing with my hobby. Then I began to think about how people have always liked my clothes and how my friends have been asking me to design outfits for them. So I decided to create a website and sell my clothes there.
When I was young I would sneak little fabrics from my mum’s workshop and hide in the closet to sew for my dolls.
And Maison d’Afie was born.
Yes, Afie is my mother’s name and she’s a tailor in Cameroon. Now that I’ve started my own line, I’ll be working with my mum and she’ll be doing the sewing.
The First Creation collection: “… and the man chose a name for each one” (clockwise): Mayang, Lembe and Eyenge, Nelly and Mameri
How did your interest in fashion begin?
Growing up, my mum had a sewing workshop in the house. In the evenings after her customers had gone, I would sweep and clean it. But I would sneak little fabric leftovers and hide in the closet to sew for my dolls. When my friends came round I’d sew for their dollies and tell them to be quiet. But my mum really discouraged me from becoming a tailor and told me to concentrate on my studies. I wasn’t even allowed to have a needle.
Growing up, I could have any clothing I wanted. I just walk into my mum’s workshop, show her what I want, pick the fabric and it’ll be ready within an hour
That’s funny now you’re collaborating with her.
Yea, after I moved to England, I really missed my mum’s things so I started sewing my own designs. I really took for granted how I could have any clothing I wanted when I was growing up. I’ll just walk into my mum’s sewing room, show her what I want, pick the fabric, she’ll cut it and and it’d be there for me within an hour.
An outfit called Mimee, from the First Creation collection
If I see someone in a nice outfit, I have to go home and sketch it, changing and adding things to it
Has fashion always come naturally for you?
Yea, when it comes to clothes I always know the colour I want and the exact look I want to portray. I don’t want to wear the same thing as someone else in a party – that would be extremely frustrating. I like being unique. I’m very passionate about drawing, creating and designing things. If I see someone in a nice outfit, I have to go home and sketch it. I’ll be thinking, I could change this here and add something there. I don’t do it consciously, it’s just something that comes naturally to me.
Any disastrous couture?
Of course! Sometimes they’re so ridiculous I just put them in the bin. The first time I sewed trousers, I just cut two straight lines because that’s what trousers looked like to me. I was quite young and got so attached because they were my first pair. I refused to give them up.
Nothing beats a Valentino outfit for me. His long, slender dresses keeps a woman looking like a woman
Who inspires you?
Coco Chanel and Valentino. Nothing beats a Valentino outfit for me. I really really like his style. He’s into long, slender dresses that keeps a woman looking like a woman, which is what I like. Coco Chanel is very classic couture and that’s what I like about her.
Do you have an all-time favourite designer?
I’m torn between Valentino and Yves-Saint Laurent, but I would have to say it’s Yves-Saint Laurent. He’s the one I always go back to. I like Valentino, but I only started observing his works in my later years. In England, I really like Karen Millen. I notice these designers hardly do anything short. Most of them are below the knee, and that’s why I don’t get where all the skimpy trends come from.
What’s your favourite high street brand?
Zara is my shop. I love, love, love Zara. It’s affordable and it’s classy. My friends would actually text me and say they’ve bought something from Zara so we won’t wear the same things to a party.
What have you got in mind for your next collection?
It would be African-themed with different fabrics from around the world. I would be using Chinese and Indian silk, and a lot of linen. I’ve got a white linen pencil dress with an African sash at the side. There’ll always be something African in my designs, like raffia strips.
The focus of fashion is in Africa right now because big designers are running out of ideas for eccentric couture on the runway
Raffia, linen, damasque and woodin – the heart of African fashion at Maison d’Afie
So what are African motifs?
African motifs are very colourful and tend to be bright brown, orange and green, with hints of yellow and red. Generally, the African woman covers as much as she can, and that’s why most of my designs go below the knee. I should still look like a woman, of course, and not like a sack. I always try to bring out the femininity of a woman by defining the waist. It just shows you can be sexy and decent as well.
What do you think is the state of African fashion at the moment?
Africa is known for its exotic creations and I think the focus of fashion is in Africa right now because big designers are running out of ideas for eccentric couture on the runway. This is also the first year we’ve had Arise Africa Fashion Week 2009 in Johannesburg. Haute couture is becoming too expensive with the global crisis.
My dream is to dress Michelle Obama by 2012. I can’t wait to see her in one of my dresses
You hail Michelle Obama as the modern black woman. Why is that?
I think she’s the modern woman, not the modern black woman. She is a professional, a mother, a wife – she’s got it all. Her style reflects the political change of her husband’s administration, which is fresh. I like the way she plays around with her accessories, which is why I want to do an accessories line. You look at her clothes and you think, this is something I can afford! It’s modern and simple. The woman advising her is doing a really really good job.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m trying to get as many fashion shows and distributors to stock my clothes. I’m not even trading yet and I already have 20 orders in less than a month and have booked in for two fashion shows. I’ll be based in Douala and eventually I want a bigger workshop, to train more people, expose them to good couture and implement a professional system from creation to closet.
I want to show the world there are talents in Africa, not just poverty and AIDS
There seems to be a larger purpose for your fashion to develop Africa.
Yes, I’m trying to get African fashion out there and show the world there are talents in Africa, not just poverty and AIDS. I’d like to help designers back home, giving them exposure, helping them understand what international standards are and what quality is.
Who do you dream of collaborating with?
I’d really like to work with Thakoon and Jason Wu. I especially love the white dress Jason Wu did for Michelle Obama’s inauguration. It’s really creative and playful, and I like that it’s long. I’ve been looking at his website and he does a lot of that.
Who do you dream of designing for?
I’d like to dress Michelle Obama by January 2012. That’s my target and my goal. I’m following this blog that follows her style. I keep up with what she’s wearing and who’s doing what for her, so that my designs would be a reflection of what she’s wearing at the moment. I also keep up with what occasions she’s going to because it gives me an idea of how to design for her. I can’t wait to see her in one of my dresses.
Divine roots; Sarah at home in Cameroon. “You don’t have to go and spend abroad to get quality goods. Good things can come from here. You make the change, you make the difference.”
Finally, how do you glorify God with your talent?
I really want to reach out to as many women as possible, with the message that everything will fall into place if you keep your focus on God. This year has been a period when I lost everything – my job, my boyfriend, my flat, my home. All of it was taken away from me in a day, but I’m going to worship God regardless. And right now he’s blessing me. Everything’s happening so quickly with this business. God is so good. You know, Jesus must’ve been a really good carpenter and Daniel a good politician, but the focus was always on what they did for God, not what they did in their careers. That’s how I want to be.
Sarah begins trading officially next month on her website www.maisondafie.com, but her limited edition clothes are already available to pre-order from her personally through enquiries [at] maisondafie [dot] com. Join her Facebook page here and read her blog.