Mariam Elisha is an ex-beauty queen, winner of the 2007 Miss Valentine Nigeria and Chief Executive Officer of Rikaoto by ME, a burgeoning fashion outfit. Though raised in Kano, a graduate of the University of Lagos, the entrance of the Kebbi State born Mariam into the fashion business has been greeted with a lot of success as her fashion line recently received the Qhue Concepts’ 2016 Designer of the Year Award. She chronicles her rise, among other things, in this interview with Newton-Ray Ukwuoma. Excerpts:
You won Miss Valentine Nigeria in 2007 and afterwards signed a modelling deal with MTN. At what point did you decide to leave modelling?
First, I started modelling at a very young age. It was something my agent then convinced me to go into. I was a regular girl, walking on the road when the agent saw me. He told me I would make a good model. He took me to an agency which signed me a contract worth N40 million. I didn’t even know what a contract looked like; my sister had to sign for me. Then, I just wanted to see my pictures on the screen; that’s all. I got to love modelling and went to pageantry. Winning Miss Valentine in 2007 was a big one for me. I was given a car, a trip to South Africa and some huge amount of money, which, as a young girl, was a lot. When I won the MTN and the Vmobile deals, there was a lot of money also. However, I felt at some point that one should go into something more professional. You don’t have to stick to one line of your career. You should explore other things as well. I thought fashion will do it for me since I loved it.
How old were you when you won the N40million modelling deal?
I think I was 16. The modelling agency was Rosabel Court and the deal was for a year. It wasn’t just me. We were three different girls. I had the opportunity of seeing myself on TV, smiling and saying what I was asked to say [smiles]. To me, it was fun.
You have become one of the successful fashion designers in Nigeria. What will be your advice to young models who might not branch out?
The truth is, right now, modelling is not what it used to be. Modelling in Nigeria is not very rosy owing to the fact that a lot of brands use movie stars and artistes as brand ambassadors, a practice that wasn’t popular during our time. However, my advice is, if you want to do something, whatever it is – whether it’s modelling, beauty pageantry, anything at all – first, believe in yourself, believe you can do it; check out the steps other people have taken. These days, we find out that not many a young people want to go through the hard steps others have taken. They just want to appear there. It doesn’t work like that at all time. You have to pay your dues. You have to pursue your dream vigorously, go for auditions, eat right, etc. In summary, believe in yourself, do the right things as doing the wrong things will put someone in trouble.
Growing up as a young person, did you ever think you would have the opportunities you have now?
I never thought that I will be doing what I am doing now. I never thought that I will end up being a fashion designer. I never thought that I will be on TV or on billboard. Everything was a wish, but gradually they are coming to reality.
As a fashion designer, how many international outings have you had?
I think it is about four outings, Washington DC Fashion Week, Maryland Fashion Week, Dallas fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. I have had other fashion weeks in Nigeria. The audience were not as expressive as foreign audience. But I really like fashion weeks in Nigeria because it always feels like home. You know, beside wider market opportunities, you have friends around, family members watching. So it is always exciting for me. The ones I did abroad were quite official. There I was feeling like, “This is not where I belong, but let me see how the market goes”. However, they accept African designs and every other design out there. It was fun. It was exciting too.
Are you affected by the economic recession?
Yes. Now, we have to slash the amount for our outfits. Customers now ask for almost half the price of our materials. When it is convenient, we do what they ask. Our challenge is getting the fabric abroad due to the exchange rate. But we are trying to cope.
Do you use African fabric?
We make use of African fabric, but not so much. Sometimes we use them in form of lining and other times we blend them with English fabrics.
Do you design?
Yes, I do. I love to do it. At the early stage of the business, I was doing it. I went to the New Jersey Fashion School, after learning from my own machine at home. When I was in school, I would use the holiday to make clothes for myself so that when I resume I would be outstanding. I did a lot of personal designs back then. But I needed to have a professional experience and knowledge about fashion design.
Do you have outlets in Nigeria?
We do not have a showroom in Nigeria yet. But we have a massive factory that produces here in Lagos and distributes to stores across the country.
What is the signature of Rikaoto?
Our designs are very detailed. There is always some sort of bling in the fabric. The finishing speaks for itself. We don’t do much of everyday wear; we do more of red carpets, wedding gowns, costumes and other occasional wears. We do casuals for people who request for them.
What is the meaning of Rikaoto?
It means fruitful. Rikaoto is my other name. I am from Kebbi State. It is my tribal name. When I was looking for a name for the brand, I didn’t want to use Mariam; Mariam is a common name. I wanted something different. Rikaoto was different and not common at all. I asked few people how they felt about the name. Some said it sounded Italian and French, etc. So, I decided to use it. Beside that, it has some good meaning. The ME is Mariam Elisha.
Do you speak some Hausa?
Yes. I still speak Hausa. I love culture. There is a part of my culture in me all the time.
Did you get the nod from your parents initially?
Not at all. My parents did not want me to go into fashion; they wanted me to become a lawyer.
What did you study?
I studied English at the University of Lagos. I wanted Law, but I got English. It was difficult for my father to accept I was going into fashion design. He felt people looked down on fashion designers. He also felt it was not a serious business. He wanted me to do something more professional. But now, they love it. Also, participating in beauty pageantry then was like hell for me. My dad is very strict. He didn’t like anything body exposure or even being out there and people looking at you. He believed that going into modelling or pageantry was a way of selling one’s self to men or exposing one’s body. But I had to make him realise that things have changed. With the support of my mum, I went into modelling. It turned out that I didn’t become wayward. I still go to church; I am a worker in my church. I dress decently. I don’t go to wrong places, places that he wouldn’t like me to go to. I am still me. This is something l love to do and I want to do it in a respectful way.
You have been here for over six years, any recognitions or awards so far?
First of all, I am happy with the fact that Nigerians and Africans have accepted the brand, which is my ultimate goal. The fact that I have been getting recognitions lately makes me feel I am doing the right thing. It has encouraged me to do more. Currently, I am the 2016 Designer of the Year. The award was presented to me two months ago by Qhue Concepts, the outfit responsible for Miss Tourism Nigeria. Experience Humanity Awards also recognised me as the 2016 Pageant Couture of the Year, which is really amazing because we have had girls who have won beauty pageants wearing the Rikaoto brand.
Many admirers may want to know if you’re in a relationship.
Yes. I am in a relationship.
Any marriage plans this year?
Talking about marriage, I don’t know yet. It depends on what the future holds for me. For now, I don’t know. Hopefully soon.
What do you appreciate in men most?
I like God-fearing men. Men with understanding, you know, regular guys. I am not the type that looks out for a tall, dark, rich and handsome guy. I am not that kind of girl. I am one who is looking for a God-fearing man, someone who is understanding, who loves other people. Someone with a good heart and can affect people positively. Someone who has less drama.
What is the worst cooking blunder you have committed?
It was when I tried to cook an Igbo soup for a friend of mine. It was ofe-owerri. My friend made it for me. she taught me how to do it. And I promised to make her the same soup when she visits. Well, I forgot all the procedures. I just combined everything. It was crazy.