From $100 To Obama

Mariama Mounir Camara is a Guinean designer in the US, working with such names as Tory Burch and Liya Kebede, and her prints have been worn by Michelle Obama.

She used to be a constant fixture at her late uncle’s tailor shop.

Today, Mariama Mounir Camara is a fashion designer with an eponymous label and is the founder of an African handmade textiles and accessories company in New York.

“I would go and collect pieces of fabrics cut from [my uncle’s] customer’s clothes to dress my doll. I had made the doll out of papaya stem. I also always wanted my dress to be different from that of my friends during the holidays,” says Camara.

Guinea-born Camara is the fifth of eight children, from the Nalu tribe in the region of Boke. She went to the United States to visit her sister Tigui Mounir Camara, now founder of the Tigui Mining Group.

“My parents are hard workers who gave a lot to our community and country. I used to be in Senegal and I moved to New York in 2001 with only $100 in my pocket,” says Camara.

But she decided to stay on after she found love and got married.

“Like every other person visiting the US, I was excited to be in a land where people can make their dreams a reality with hard work. The transition was enormous because I was coming from Dakar, Senegal. New York City was bigger and faster-paced. Yet, I loved it because it is one of the fashion capitals of the world. Even though I was intimidated, I knew that staying here was a great opportunity to become free and become who I wanted to be,” she says.

The family fashion bug was difficult to fend off.

“I always loved fashion without even knowing it was called fashion. I mean I grew up in Guinea, I had no idea what that word stood for then. My mother’s family was also very passionate about making prints. I would sit and watch them make fabrics. I really wanted to join them in the tie-dying process but I couldn’t because I was too young.”

It was after she moved to Senegal she finally understood the true essence of fashion. She founded Mariama Fashion Production in 2012.

“Seeing the success of women tie-dyers of Kindia, Guinea, and traveling to several African countries made me realize other artisans needed similar opportunities. I also realized African textile needed to be revamped into something fresher, with new colors and silhouettes, to compete with other textiles and be worn daily as every other print. I wanted to make African handmade textile accessible to the design world while creating sustainable jobs for local artisans in Africa and preserving their artisanal work,” says Camara.

Today, she boasts of being featured on Dream, Girl, a film on female entrepreneurs in leadership.

“My biggest achievement is being able to take my childhood passion and turn it into a career. Through hard work, I am able to continue the legacy of my family.”

She works with international brands and designers such as Tory Burch, Lemlem by supermodel Liya Kebede, and EDUN.

“We receive a lot of demand from African designers all over the world and really respect that because we now know our work is impacting the next generation of African designers,” she says.

Camara is also a humanitarian. She co-founded, with her sister Aissata Camara, There Is No Limit Foundation, to promote the dignity and security of women and girls, through entrepreneurship, education, and elimination of gender-based violence.

The organization has helped over 20,800 people in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

“I am proud of the work. Mostly for being able to provide small interest-free loans for groups of 300 women in Kindia through the Association of Women Tie-Dyers project. I am also thrilled my younger sister Aissata Camara and I became the first people to introduce the work of Guinean artisans to the international market during New York Fashion Week in 2013 through our collaboration with designer Tory Burch. This collaboration was a huge success and attracted international media; it also resulted in First Lady Michelle Obama wearing our prints,” she says.

As Camara focuses on growing her brand, she encourages aspiring entrepreneurs from Africa trying to make it abroad to stretch their horizons.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from; what’s most important is where you expect to be. Dream big; believe in yourselves, and know the only limitations are those set by you.”

Camara carries Africa abroad.