“Textiles are in my DNA, it was always meant to be,” says New York-based designer and entrepreneur Mariama Camara of her affinity for cloth. Growing up in Guinea, she remembers watching her mother, grandmother and aunts work with traditional fabrics, and her great-grandmother was among the most successful tie-dyers in the Kindia region of Guinea. In 2001, Mariama moved to New York and followed her older sister into modelling. “It was the best way to get to know the city and learn the language,” she says. “It shaped my character and made me the entrepreneur I am today.”
While Mariama built a successful career for herself as a model and then a makeup artist, she never stopped thinking about watching her family design and create tie-dye textiles as a child. She wanted to help support the talented artisans in West Africa whose work she grew up admiring. She founded Mariama Fashion Production as a way to bridge the gap between the textile artisans there and international fashion brands. “I choose to showcase the textiles of this continent because a lot of people undervalue the work we do in Africa,” she says, speaking from her studio in Ivory Coast where she spends part of the year. “Many people come to countries in Africa for inspiration without giving the artisans any credit. I am very proud to be able to showcase ‘Made in Africa’ products with the world.”
Mariama Fashion Production specialises in tie-dye, wax printing and hand weaving, sourcing raw materials locally and empowering artisans. “As an activist and pan-African it’s a dream to collaborate with a company like TOAST who value the work of artisans,” she says. “It’s the best experience because it’s a knowledge exchange. I treat the people creating our pieces as business partners. It’s a partnership in which I want the best for them.”
The three tie-dye fabrics that TOAST will be working with are very special to Mariama because they are authentic to her region. “The pattern we have created is recognisable all over West Africa, from Mali and Guinea to Senegal and even in the north of Ivory Coast,” she explains. “It is a beloved pattern of this region because our mothers used to wear it and while it’s not something we see anymore, people still love it.”
Mariama is one of the few voices speaking up on behalf of independent artisans in her region. “In Africa right now they want to replace handmade products with machine-made products. This will impact thousands of people across the continent. If you do that then how are they going to survive?” she says. She believes that both of these can go hand in hand without replacing the other. “When artisans see me standing up for them, they are grateful for the advocacy. This drives me to keep working harder for them.”
Alongside fashion production, Mariama also co-founded the charity organisation There Is No Limit Foundation, focused on empowering entrepreneurs, artisans and smallholder farmers by providing training, funding and community connections. “All my work, all my companies, both for profit and not for profit are focused on one thing – to create jobs for local people. I wouldn’t do anything that doesn’t positively impact them.”
Before I let her go, Mariama gives me a virtual tour of her first ever Kanafrik store. It is only a year old but has a dedicated client base who poured in throughout the duration of our Zoom call. There are more stores in the pipeline with new ones coming to New York, Paris and Dakar. The aim with Kanafrik is to help entrepreneurs and artisans to be able to sell their local handmade cosmetics and food products globally. Mariama’s bright smile doesn’t give away how hard she works. In the last 14 years, her foundation has benefitted over 35,000 people. A percentage of the profits from Mariama Fashion Production also goes towards this work. Mariama might have several plates spinning but her goal is singular; “It is to touch one artisan’s life at a time by empowering them to work with global brands. This is just the beginning.”
Interview by Zeba Talkhani.
Photographs by Faour Marwan.