She Was Once Homeless, Now She’s Changing The Global Perception Of African Fashions

Mariatu Turay’s life reads like an inspiring Hollywood film. A civil war drove her out of her native land as a teenager, she fled to the US where she worked as a hair braider. Along the way she experienced homelessness, but struggled to get back on her feet, and now she is the owner of a successful business. It may sound too good — and simple — to be true, but it is. The London-based African-Caribbean fashion designer opened Gitas Portal, a London-based fashion brand specializing in ready-to-wear apparel and accessories for women featuring Ankara/African wax prints in 2011. But becoming an entrepreneur was a long journey.
Turay was actually born in London but was raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, until the age of 16 when she and her family were forced to flee. Her father was a government official so her family was a target during the civil war. The family moved to the United States, where a teenage Turay started working as a hair braider to make ends meet for her family. Off and on her family experienced homelessness and, anting to do more for her family, Turay learned secretarial and office skills so she could enter corporate America. Eventually, she returned to the UK, and while there Turay decided she wanted to become an entrepreneur. But she wanted to go back to school first, so she used her hairdressing skills to pay her way through college. Turay earned a BA in Economics, Politics and Public Administration and also studied law, though she decided not to qualify for practice. Instead, she taught herself design.

Turay used her dual Sierra Leonean and Barbadian heritage to make her fashion line stand out and, after launching in 2011, she opened the first Gitas Portal boutique in London in 2016. Turay talked to MadameNoire about how she went from homelessness to entrepreneurship.

MadameNoire (MN): What prompted you to launch Gitas Portal?

Mariatu Turay (MT): I started GP for a number of reasons. I’ve always loved African print–I grew up with prints all around me as many of my Sierra Leonean aunts were sellers of cloth. I would visit their market stalls and shops and get cloth to tailor styles. So when my mum gave me a hand propelled singer sewing machine at the age of 11 or 12, of course little did I know then that my talent would make way for me in the form of Gitas Portal. So GP is a celebration of my rich and diverse Sierra Leonean and Barbadian culture but also my gift to create. Gitas Portal allows me to share my gift with Africans and non-Africans to promote African aesthetics.
Secondly, I want women to stand out. I went through a phase in my early career where I was afraid to stand out because I believed that I had to blend in with everybody else to be accepted. This was the false belief that the less African and Caribbean I was, the better it would be in the corporate game. So I did the usual corporate dress–muted colored dress, hair a certain way, etc. And it then dawned that I could only ever be me, not somebody else–and my style, culture is part of who I am and what makes me interesting and unique. So for the women out there (and there are quite a few)–BE BOLD, win every time by being you, WEAR COLOR–be unapologetic about your beauty and express your style with confidence.
Finally, the “big picture” issue was to challenge the persistent generalizations and perceptions of poor quality associated with “brand Africa.” The propaganda that anything African led by an African is more likely to be inferior; that we can’t compete globally, even though in all fairness Asia, Europe and America have had a good head start. So Gitas Portal is defying all the bashers–we do beautiful, quality that stand out.

MN: How did you fund the startup?

MT: GP is self-funded. We took this approach because it involved minimum risk and stress from a financial point of view; but it has taken a lot of discipline and resilience to juggle a full-time career, family, husband, and business–with ridiculous working hours. So although the pace of growth has been slower, it’s been steady and solid.

I’ve had to say goodbye to my government career to focus solely on GP, but it’s been one of the best decisions I made in 2016 and now I’m ready for the next stage–growth and a stronger global presence.

MN: What were you doing prior to starting Gitas Portal?

MT: Before Gitas Portal was Gitas Portal, I was still engaged in other forms of business. I believe in diversifying income streams as my mum taught me never to put all my eggs in one basket. So I would braid on weekends, sell lace, shoes, jeans. I would always sell something to make a little profit and reinvest that over and over again.
MN: What were some startup challenges?

MT: There were many: 1) The absence of tailored financial packages that focus on women (particularly over 30) and that take into account the particular challenges that most women face while setting out in business, e.g. having loans for mothers who might wish to stay at home and try their hand at business but giving them some breathing space to get their businesses up and running before loan repayments start; grants for career women wanting to try their hand at something else; 2) Knowing when to take the next expansion leap. Some months I’d have a good run with good income coming in and then some months very little coming in. Sometimes this unpredictability can affect investment decisions; 3) I mentioned the brand Africa perception issues, but there is also bias in the mainstream fashion industry whereby there is a predisposition to mostly celebrate and recognize African aesthetics when some established mainstream designer or fashion house dabbles in African print. Then all of a sudden, it’s trendy, exotic and beautiful. Designers like myself and our business contributions are often overlooked.

MN: Why the name Gitas Portal?

MT: Gitas Portal stands for “God Is Truly Amazing” (in recognition that we all have at least one gift and it’s our responsibility to discover, nurture and use this gift to grow and bless others); and “Portal” is appreciating God for allowing my gift to make a way for me. It’s a celebration all around for me and a reminder that what I do hasn’t cost me a penny–I never studied fashion or anything related. The irony is that I studied Economics, Politics and Public Policy; and then went on to study Law briefly but I have found the most happiness, not in the possibility of career options that have and may have come as a result of my education, but in what was in me all along. So God Is Truly Amazing.
MN: Why was it important to show your African culture in your designs?

MT: I’ve come to appreciate in life the truth, that I am not a coincidence and neither is the various layers that contribute to who I am. I am an African, just as much as I am Barbadian. I can’t hide it. My view of life, my appreciation, my creativity is all influenced by being all of this and more. I am at my best when I’m being me and GP is just an extension of all this. I am proud to be African and what you are proud of you share. So my designs celebrate our love of colour (I really don’t remember growing up and not wearing loads of prints); our love for life and that big spiritedness that you find in West Africans and the Islands.

MN: You left Sierra Leone at age 16, what do you remember about your country?

MT: So much to say here but in short, Sierra Leone is a stunning place and people are hospitable, love life and have a laid back attitude–the one that says, “everything is going to be alright.’ This optimism is still prevalent with everything that we’ve been through–civil war, poor governance, and even Ebola. There have been some positive changes in the right direction but we need to run harder and faster to really showcase Sierra Leone for the gem it is. Do you know that Sierra Leone is a hot bed for a variety of natural resources–oil, diamonds, bauxite, rutile and many more; with soil so fertile if you stand in one place for long, you’ll grow?
MN: Did living and working in the U.S. influence your decision to be an entrepreneur?

MT: Somewhere inside of me, there was always an entrepreneur. I come from a long line of Sierra Leonean female entrepreneurs–most of my aunts were in business and this was a route to financial freedom, empowerment and respect. The same could be said of my Barbadian side of the family–strong women who also worked hard to better themselves.

Though I’d never really thought of this until now, America exposed me to a different type of Black women entrepreneur that I’d never experienced before–Oprah, Maya Angelou, Iyanla Vanzant–women who were using their talents/gifts to excel on a bigger scale and making a good living for themselves while bringing other women along with them. I’d love to meet Oprah one day. America certainly gave me a sense of a new beginning after the civil war in Sierra Leone and with sharp values of hard work and kindness I knew the only way was up and that I would make it.

MN: How did you get into hair braiding while in the U.S.?

MT: This is a really interesting one that perhaps hints at the entrepreneurial spirit that has always been in me. In Sierra Leone, school girls had to plait their hair. Every Sunday was panic station day, as all the girls in my neighbourhood would start to look for who could braid their hair. I could braid then, but it was mostly dolls that had the benefit of my skills. So I realized that if I perfected my braiding skills and range of creative styles, I could trade with the other good braiders who also wanted their hair braided. This way, I would be first in the queue by offering my skills to them, and they in turn would have access to my skills. So when I got to the U.S. as a 15/16-year-old and needed to help my mum with my brothers because times were tough, I only had one skill to offer. I walked into an African Hair braiding shop and told them that I desperately needed a job. I must have been so desperate that they offered me the job there and then and I started braiding the very next day. Proud moment but also quite humbling because little did I know that this skill would be a lifesaver.
MN: How did your family end up homeless and how did that situation change?

MT: I became homeless a few times during my journey. First, was during the military coup in Sierra Leone. We had to abandon our home because my father was in government at the time. We couldn’t risk being caught while they were looking for my father. We eventually went back home but it was then burnt down. Then in America it was mostly a result of not being able to afford adequate accommodation, so my mum, siblings and I moved around asking friends to put us up. Eventually, my mum had to make the difficult decision to separate us–sending my younger brothers to Barbados. I stayed to help her work, using my braiding skills and eventually training in secretarial and office administrative to access better paying jobs and insurance cover. We were then able to rent a two-bedroom flat and furnish it for us to live.

MN: How do you promote your company?

MT: Mostly through non-paid social media and reliance on personal recommendations.

MN: What do you like the best about what you do?

MT: Connecting and making women feel special. The feedback I get is incredible and is just the fuel I need to keep on growing. Iron sharpens iron.

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