Entrepreneur creates fashion brand in Cameroon

Augustine Mabiama posing for a picture in the Nakuin Couture store in Douala, Cameroon. Photo by: Nakuin Couture

Interview with Augustine Mabiama

Lives in: Douala, Cameroon

When her parents enrolled her in a vocational school, Augustine Mabiama thought they had blighted her future. Years later, as the founder of a recognised brand in the growing African fashion industry, she sees that decision differently.

In one corner of a busy fashion house in Douala, Cameroon, designer Augustine Mabiama is in the middle of a photo shoot, using a makeshift photo studio equipped with an 18-inch light ring and a smartphone on a stand.

Showcasing a whole range of outfits of different styles and colours, Mabiama checks the lighting quality of the images. After making a few adjustments to the clothes for the next shot, she steps back in front of the camera, poses briefly, then walks around the light ring to check the image.

Mabiama is the founder of Nakuin Couture, a fashion brand that has cemented her reputation across the country. The chosen pictures – with herself as model – will go through an editing process, and in the coming days, they will land on the Nakuin Couture Instagram page.

“Social media marketing is key,” Mabiama explains. “I recently bought this shooting set and this iPhone for the purpose of promoting my creations and the brand.”

Mabiama’s story of founding a Cameroonian fashion brand is also a tale of escape from convention.

Born and raised in a middle-class family in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, Mabiama was expected to fall in line with other young people from her social background, who would traditionally follow an educational curriculum made up of sciences and humanities and then join the local corporate world.

By the time she was 12, Mabiama had completed her primary school and was very enthusiastic to start secondary school.

Thinking that she would follow the same path as her siblings, Mabiama discovered that her parents had made a surprising choice for her – they enrolled her in a vocational and technical high school, to follow a garment industry curriculum.

Mabiama recalls being very upset by her parents’ decision. At the time, there was a largely negative perception of vocational school curricula.

“There was a widespread social bias in vocational and technical teachings. The students there were viewed as failed students. I mean, students who had proven unfit for traditional sciences and humanities curricula, and who had been reoriented there as a remedy to their failure,” she notes.

“Today that perception has largely evolved, but back in those days, youths exclusively dreamt of careers such as well-paid corporate executives, not of less socially rewarding jobs like tailors or hairdresser/beautician,” Mabiama adds.

The decision deeply pained Mabiama and led to many tearful moments. She questioned whether her parents actually wanted her to have a good future.

Reluctantly, she made the effort to be a good student. After seven years of secondary school, she graduated, and considering her debt to her parents paid, looked forward to embracing what she considered a “normal” university curriculum.

She applied to Yaounde’s University School of Economics. Unfortunately, the school no longer accepted students with a technical vocational background, so she wasn’t admitted. Then she heard about a local programme enrolling students and sending them for studies in Italy. However, her attempt to take that route failed due to an issue with her passport.

Months passed and Mabiama despaired. Then one day, as she was watching the news on television, she learned about the opening of a new university in Yaoundé, the Cheick Anta Diop School of Arts and Crafts. The school proposed a fashion design curriculum.

Mabiama gathered her resolve and made the leap. It would change her life.

“I said ok. I will go into it, but I will do things differently, I will bring something to the industry,” she notes.

Models posing for a photo dressed in Nakuin Couture. Photo by: Nakuin Couture

In 2009, Mabiama obtained her fashion degree. She immediately started to work from home, creating and making clothes for clients with an old sewing machine. Her brand, Nakuin, was born from this modest beginning.

Her initial profits were allocated to the purchase of more robust production equipment. To promote her products, she invested a lot of resources in organising fashion shows, and attending expos and fairs.

As her brand became increasingly recognised in fashion circles in Cameroon, Mabiama realised she would need a retail outlet. After resettling in Douala, she opened the Nakuin Couture boutique in Bonapriso, an upper middle-class neighbourhood located on the southside of Douala, in 2014.

Thanks to a sound marketing strategy and entrepreneurial flair, Mabiama is today recognised among the most iconic Cameroonian fashion designers.

However, building and maintaining her brand hasn’t been without its challenges.

The local garment industry is struggling to cope with a flood of some US$50 million in second hand garment imports, according to the Cameroon National Institute of Statistics. This has decimated the domestic manufacturing base and made it increasingly difficult for boutique operators like Mabiama as skills and resources exit the sector.

“There are persisting problems affecting the garment industry growth. Difficulties in finding skilled workers and finding raw materials like good quality fabrics on the local markets. There is also a lack of access to finance and many other things,” Mabiama says.

However, the fashion entrepreneur believes that for every problem, there are solutions. Her answer is to keep standing out in a difficult environment through constant learning and training.

“I attend training sessions … in various fields that could help me. I take every opportunity to travel, to discuss and exchange with people. Recently I hired a professional to receive some training in community management.”

While Mabiama believes she still has a long way to go, she is optimistic about the road ahead.

“There are challenges, but there are also opportunities. I hope to open more boutiques in the near future, and expand. Why not expand the brand across Cameroon and outside?”

/bird story agency