My sister was always better at sketching outfits than me. With a pencil and a piece of paper, she would draw bell sleeves and criss-cross backs and tapered skirts and asymmetrical necklines that left even the most talented tailors wondering how they would actually sew the thing. “Just because it can be drawn doesn’t mean it can be sewn,” they would protest.
Our family dressmaker had the opposite problem with me.
“What would you like?” she would ask.
“I don’t know. I just want it to be nicer than hers,” I would say, pointing at my sister’s creation.
Like many people in the world, I grew up wearing clothes made in Asia. My wardrobe was filled with mass-produced jeans, skirts, T-shirts and dresses assembled in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh – clothes that had travelled thousands of miles to land in my drawers. Yet, these clothes were for the everyday, not for special occasions. Grand events were marked with bespoke outfits, made to exact measurements and tastes.
Christmas was bespoke and so was Easter, in a good year. Milestone birthdays, funerals and weddings also (depending on how close the couple were to the family). We wore aso-ebi to these celebrations, a uniform material chosen by the celebrant and either given or sold to us, sometimes controversially at an inflated price. The material may have been uniform, but the styles most certainly were not. Your tailor was enlisted to make sure you stood out while matching.
When I moved to England, I refused to give up bespoke. Of course, it was unthinkable that I could try bespoke here. In Lagos, there were tailors for every budget. In London, even getting a zip replaced was enough to set my bank account palpitating. What I could do was send my new measurements home, but often with disastrous results. My mother would arrive from Nigeria with dresses that didn’t zip up or skirts that were too short.
I had to learn patience. Trips to Nigeria were for seeing family and friends, but also for stocking up on new clothes. All year long, I would go around, taking pictures of dresses in shop windows that I couldn’t afford, but which I was sure my tailor in Nigeria could make an approximation of. Then, once I got home, I would show him a range and we would decide on a couple and recreate them in Ankara fabrics.
Yet, even this started getting expensive. Two or three outfits was fine. The Nigerian naira is weaker than the pound and my money certainly went further. But my hard-won sterling started giving way under the strain of 10 outfits. The tailor I had begun with had prospered over the years and, each time I returned, his prices had shot up. And then I discovered Mummy Michael.
All year long, I would go around, taking pictures of dresses in shop windows that I couldn’t afford, but which I was sure my tailor in Nigeria could make an approximation of
I saw my cousin wearing a dress I liked. "Who made it?" I asked. "Mummy Michael," she replied. When I heard how much it cost, I knew I needed Mummy Michael in my life.
There was one clause that almost severed the match: Mummy Michael didn’t pay house visits or deliver, no matter the size of the order, and her shop was in Aguda. Aguda is a suburb in Lagos that is not known for fashion. But I couldn’t afford designer prices. I couldn’t even afford normal tailor prices at the volume I wanted, so to Aguda I went.
I was lucky that first time. There was no traffic and the drive took only 45 minutes. The pavement disappeared into mud when I got to Joel Oguntade, Mummy Michael’s street, and there was a moment when the car almost sunk immovably into a pothole.
Still, I soldiered on. I was willing to brave even deeper gullies for the chance of a decently priced, crisply pleated Ankara skirt. Finally, we arrived. Mummy Michael’s store was small and it was stacked to the ceiling with other people’s fabric. I’d brought yards of my own to add to the piles. Mummy Michael herself was dressed in one of her own designs, a neatly sewn day dress, a walking billboard for her craft. There was no sign of Michael, the child for which she had been rechristened.
We got down to the serious business of choosing my styles. I flicked through magazines to help me – pages of pictures, with outfit after outfit of Lagos society women at weddings, funerals and parties. I also brought out all the images I’d saved on my phone throughout the year. We picked designs, then we matched them to my fabric.
Finally, it was time to discuss price. I was too pleased by what she quoted to haggle much. Just a little desultory bargaining to save face and thus the fashion partnership between Mummy Michael and myself was born.
I’ve worn her clothes to television interviews, to talks, to panels. In Lagos, when I go to parties in a Mummy Michael original, I sit smugly beside others who have paid 10 times as much for their outfits. I rarely go shopping in London now. I just walk past Hobbs and Ted Baker, slyly photographing their shop windows, impatient for my next trip home when Mummy Michael will sort me out.
Chibundu’s book, Welcome To Lagos, is available now.