“Koko Nanga consumer is an Afropolitan at heart. Throughout my journey I have met/spoken to a variety of people from different countries, cultures, races. With this I have realized that you don’t have to be black to be Afropolitan. You simply have to have an affinity for Afro culture.” – Maryanne E. Mokoko
This is a very powerful story, so we’re going to get right to the interview of Maryanne E. Mokoko, designer, Koko Nanga. She represents African women [African American as well] in business, who are combating stereotypes and prospering against all odds. In pursuing a career of purpose, Maryanne is changing the way we see African fashion. She combines her proud Cameroon roots with designs that are relatable to our changing times. Her story resonates with all women across the globe who lift and empower themselves to make a positive difference in our culture through the creative means of art.
Maryanne, let’s start by talking about your childhood upbringing – the blending of your African heritage and the American culture as it related to your pursuit of creating an African fashion business.
I am a naturalized American of Cameroon origin. I immigrated to the United States at the age of 14 at the near close of my secondary education. Cameroon is a country in Africa almost the size of the California state. A well versed Cameroonian fluently speaks four languages: French and English (which are the official languages), their tribal dialect, and broken English (a common vernacular similar to creole).
The country located in the west central part of the continent is sometimes referred to as “Africa in Miniature”. It has a variety in climates, landscapes, ethnic group’s traditions, religions and languages. In addition, most ethnic groups in Cameroon migrated from other parts of Africa, namely- Congo, Southern Africa & just to name a few. These attributes have helped contribute to validate the cute nickname. In truth, my childhood in Cameroon was always reflected with an appreciation for and acceptance of diversity.
Cameroonians are also well known for their love of music and dancing. There is never a quiet street corner in this fun loving place. You can imagine how this type of affinity for celebration can make dress makers in the country very busy.
“. . . this [African fashion] wearable/fashion art should be eligible for showcase (according to merit/skill level) on any creative platform in the world. The industry has begun welcoming to this notion and in due time the separation we see will be a non-issue.” – Maryanne E. Mokoko
What was your family’s influence on your desire to pursue fashion?
My mother has always been a big influence in my life. She raised me to believe I could be anyone I wanted to be and to always reach beyond the stars.
My grandmother was another woman I spent a lot of time with as a child. She was never rich financially but that never stopped her from making a big means out of a small way. She was known by many in her community for always providing the best “sap” (dress) one can manage to buy. Even with poor eye sight she still insisted on making clothes for her grandchildren. She would often do these by hand with time and care.
Coming to America, I heard my Dad mention that this was the land of opportunity. As a child I took heed to that. At 16, I expanded my skill of obsessively drawing the face of lady Smurfette from the Smurfs to women figures in different types of clothing. Back then, I wanted to attempt at story book/cartooning but that turned into something else. It’s weird how at the time I never thought much of it. It was just a hobby. The first clothed figures came out decent so I continued and began a scrapbook of the pretty images. In my high school senior year, I got a little more serious, the drawing stopped and by the time I knew it, I was off to college.
Now that you are living the American culture, what was the next step of your journey? Tell us about your college experience at Howard University.
My second year in college, my mother was overcome with a stroke. This affected my family tremendously. Her demonstration of courage, faith and her desire to not give up and instead- be a silent instrument of conviction was amazing to me. Her resilience and zeal to constantly be purposeful inspired me to want to be something more than “passive Maryanne”. It was that year that I decided to turn my hobby into a career that could be of purpose. This was 2006 and I was a sophomore at the Howard University’s School of Architecture & Design.
Howard (not Harvard) as one of my uncles would joke about, is a historically black university (HBCU). There I learnt about cultures in a way I never imagined. The people I encountered/came to know were diverse in their origins, way of life, manner of thinking, and ability to relate with others. I guess that is what college does to you. It exposes you to diversity.
My Alma mater also had an African Students Association which I was part of. I didn’t even realize how diverse Africa alone was. This group’s members & vision was very influential to me. It was probably somewhere here that coining the African Print as the brand’s staple cloth was made. I wanted to create clothes that will make people like me be proud to show off their origins. At the same time have designs that are relatable to our changing times. Hence, print with a modern flair. I quickly noticed that this notion resonated equally with first and second generation collegiate Africans. As I grow older I’d like to believe my taste is also maturing to encompass a wider audience wanting to make that wearable connection with Mama Africa.
Is there a story behind the name Koko Nanga?
Well, this one is quite simple believe or not… hahaha. My last name is Mokoko and my middle name is Enanga. When you take out the first syllables of each you are left with Koko Nanga.
Mainstream media and the general public can often pigeonhole African fashion as its own separate category. With the growth and popularity of African fashion, fueled by the Western culture, how would you position your brand? Would you categorize it within the African fashion market or a broader appeal as a Western fashion brand that has African influence and/or inspired by African culture, or defined as something entirely different?
As a creative, I pride myself in creating unique designs. This is the way of a fashion influencer. I would like to think of my work as more than just a collection of exotic fabrics.
If I am to position my brand, it will be as a clothing line which uses African print as the backdrop to her designs. This to me is not a special category that is measured by unique standards. It is a cloth type just like any other cloth is a cloth type used to make styles.
Therefore, this wearable/fashion art should be eligible for showcase (according to merit/skill level) on any creative platform in the world. The industry has begun welcoming this notion and in due time the separation we see will be a non-issue.
Based on your vision of how you define your brand, how would you describe your targeted consumer? Who is she?
Koko Nanga consumer is an Afropolitan at heart. Throughout my journey I have met/spoken to a variety of people from different countries, cultures, races. With this I have realized that you don’t have to be black to be Afropolitan. You simply have to have an affinity for Afro culture. So whether you are a single socialite, an eccentric mother/father, culturally inclined individual or that grandparent who just enjoys rocking the Print, Koko Nanga has something for you.
You use the popular African print fabric, Ankara, along with other textiles unique to African culture. Do you source these textiles directly from Africa? Where do you cut and sew, where are your goods made?
Koko Nanga textiles are bought right here in the United States. Our sources can have them shipped from either Africa or abroad. One can find variety of textiles such as Wax (Western Africa), Kente (Ghana), Bazin (Senegal), Batik (Gambia), Shweshwe (South Africa) and Mud-cloth (Mali). Koko Nanga clothing are also cut, sewn and made here.
Exposure is the key in building brand awareness. A fashion business has many options of exposure. How do you communicate your brand to your audience and what means of exposure is most effective – fashion and trade shows, celebrity product placement, internet, social media, etc.?
As an emerging designer, I haven’t ventured into trade shows yet. In due time, I believe. So far my most effective exposure has been word of mouth, fashion shows and the brand’s self or partner organized pop up shops. There is beauty in all these including social media, when you find out someone new has just discovered your brand. It is a fabulous feeling! The brand is continuously working on product placement and partnerships with a few gifted celebrity and influencers. I believe a steady mix of all these is always important. I am thankful to God for his continued blessings.
Your beautiful designs are obviously influenced by art and culture, given your degree in Architecture combined with your rich African heritage. EDGE is about advancing the field in fashion in artistry and cultural significance, exposing emerging designers like you. Maryanne, how would you describe the collective look of your brand as it relates to an artistic and cultural perspective? As an artist, what message or impression would you hope resonates with those who are engaged with your work?
I would describe my work as colorful, bold, and rich in pattern and versatility. I have always been inspired by geometrics and swooping patterns. When I ask my customers about dresses they would like me to make for them I say “How do you want this dress to make you feel?” My expectation is always any one of these responses: Regal, Fierce, Classic, Structured, Funky, Retro, or Playful!
Any thoughts on the future of fashion?
The future of fashion is bright! Very bright! I am hopeful. We all love to dress in things that make us feel good. I hope people will find comfort in the fashions at Koko Nanga.
EDGE congratulates Maryanne E. Mokoko of Koko Nanga and wishes her continued success.
Photography: Cindy Ceballos