Allure Cover Interview: Maryam Rikaoto Elisha – Beauty queen turn designer
Maryam Rikaoto Elisha was a former beauty queen turned dress maker who started her career as a model and worked her way to being Miss Valentine in 2007.
With her love for the ideal queen and fashion, the Kebbi State-born English graduate of the University of Lagos proceeded to New Jersey Fashion School, where she spent eight months learning the art and necessary skills to make elegant dresses for the ideal Rikaoto woman.
She started ‘Rikaoto By ME’ in 2009 and her hard work, perseverance and skills have seen her pieces adorned by different celebrities who seek to make a statement with their clothes. Her fashion brand, Rikaoto by ME, was one of the fashion houses commissioned to make clothes for the former president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan.
In this interview with ‘Allure’, she gave her personal account and insight into her journey as a designer and how she has grown in the industry.
Take us through your creative process?
My creative process takes a lot of sketches. I love to sit down with a client and talk about the look she wants to bring to life. We sketch from the hair style and make-up to the kind of shoes to fit the look. This way, you have a perfect, complete look.
Who do you create for?
My designs are for beauty queens, beauty pageants, new brides (wedding dresses) and for beautiful ladies who want to make an unforgettable statement in red carpet dresses.
What usually inspires you?
For beauty queens, I am inspired by how best to make a queen out of a regular girl. Every girl is different. It is finding that unique quality that gives the edge. Having started from a pageant background as a model, I know most of the things the girls are expecting and I know what the judges are expecting as well.
How’s would you describe your experience as a Nigerian designer?
It has been great. As a Nigerian designer, there is no room for ‘sloppy’. The competition is high because Nigerians love fashion. The stakes are high when it comes to giving these fashion lovers what nobody else has.
It comes with challenges too but you can’t keep wallowing in the challenges especially, if you want to be in the winning team in this highly competitive industry. Critics have said that Nigeria’s fashion industry is not well structured yet it’s this competitive. Imagine what it will be like when it is structured!
How did you start?
When I started this brand, I just wanted to make statement dresses. Along the line, the brand structured itself into what we do now based on what our customers demand for. We don’t have designers focusing on pageant girls or focusing on beauty queens that are representing us out there – in other countries – so designers just get random stuff for them. But we have to look out for those extra details that will give the queen-to-be an edge.
We research on what other international contestants are wearing or have worn or what the organisers/judges are expecting from contestants. Sometimes, we get guidelines from these organizers – from Miss World or Miss Universe. They usually give guidelines on what they are expecting for their dresses to be like.
Last Year, organizers of Miss Earth gave us details of colours for us to work with. Sometimes, it is that specific – with what they want – and they expect you to be creative with what they are giving you. It’s a great platform for me. I am having fun. I enjoy it.
Who was your first celebrity client and how did that happen?
Truth is, when I started the brand I didn’t start by making outfits for a celebrities. I started by making outfits for close friends in the industry and family members. Gradually, people just called to place orders without me knowing them.
I just randomly saw some celebrities wearing our brand – some of whom, in most cases, may not display their identity. Sometimes, when I eventually get to meet them, they tell me the price might increase if I know they are the ones ordering for a dress (laughs). But the truth is that I can’t point a finger at one particular celebrity who wore Rikaoto first.
Did your first celebrity client change your branding and pricing for your other clients?
I would know but I did not change our pricing because a celebrity has worn our brand. Every client who loves to wear us is our celebrity – not necessarily, the ones we see on the red carpet (laughs). Once a client picks you over other designers, that client deserves maximum respect and attention to details; such a client is your celebrity!
What are some of the challenges you face as a designer and are these challenges peculiar because you’re Nigerian or you would’ve faced them despite your country of origin? And, how do you handle these challenges?
The challenge that affects every Nigerian that has a business is electricity! If there is constant electricity, the job will be a lot easier. All our factories and stone machines need power supply. Also, the staff, most of them is not stable. They want to go and start their own thing. You notice you keep training people and they don’t stay. I don’t give up. I train more because it is part of giving back to society.
What would you say are your greatest achievements as a Nigerian designer?
Being able to see people ordering our brand from a different part of the world! It’s amazing to see young Nigerian beauty queens wear my brand in different international beauty competitions and emerge winners or get the award of the Best Evening Gown. It is so overwhelming considering the number of designers who work on stage.
When people appreciate your work as a designer even when they have never met you it makes the sleepless nights worth it.
Who’s an ideal Rikaoto woman?
An ideal Rikaoto woman would be that woman who wants a statement moment.