His name rings a bell and his edifice (the MUDI Africa Complex) speaks volumes about his taste and class. From a one-room apartment in Ketu, Lagos – which doubled as home and office – he rose to become one of the biggest names in the fashion industry in Nigeria and Africa. With an impressive track record of over 25 years, an intimidating list of high-profile octane clientele and branches all over Africa, Clement Mudiaga Enajemo, the man behind MUDI Africa, stands tall as our torchbearer for today. In this interview with Nkechi Ibeneme, he tells the story of his rise from grass to grace

What was growing up like?
I grew up in a town called Ughelli, in Delta State. I was born into a polygamous family. My father, who was a local contractor, married nine wives and had 27 children. My mother, a food vendor, is the fifth wife and she had nine children, with me as the fifth. So, you can imagine how that played out. My mum was somewhat comfortable because, her food business thrived and she did her best to make sure we were okay and that we went to school. But, I made up my mind early enough to seek greener pastures outside Ughelli. So, on completion of my secondary education, I left for Lagos and there has been no looking back ever since.

How old were you when you left Ughelli for Lagos?
I was 22. That was in 1990.

Were you already making clothes before then?
No, I didn’t even think of that. Though I was very fashionable and creative, I didn’t think in that direction. When I arrived in Lagos, I got a job at a factory at Ikosi, Ketu area. But, along the line I was retrenched.  It was after I lost the job that I discovered the fashion designing aspect of my life.

How did it happen?
After I lost my job at the factory, things got very tough that I lived off goodwill. Then, any time my friends wanted to go and buy clothes in the market, they took me along to help them choose what clothes to buy – I was that fashionable. One day, two of my friends asked me, Mudi, why don’t you go and learn sewing? Or don’t you think you’d make a good fashion designer, with your fashion sense?’ I took that suggestion as a divine directive and quickly went and registered with a tailor where I learnt to cut and sew for nine months. That was the beginning of the journey.

How has the journey been so far?
Well, I thank God for where he has brought us. It wasn’t easy at the beginning.  When I started, I was living in a one room apartment in that house (pointing to a photograph on the wall), at Ketu. That was where I started. I would design clothes, take it to offices to sell. From there, I would get new orders. One day, as I went to an office as usual, Richard Mofe Damijo (RMD) saw me and really liked the clothes I was putting on. When he enquired and was told that I was a designer, he wanted to meet me. But I had left. So he left a word with the receptionist that I should see him any time I came around. I would say that my meeting with RMD was the game-changer. His clout in the movie industry helped the image of my designs and he also helped with my savings by agreeing to hold on to my withdrawal booklet for me so I couldn’t go to the bank to withdraw indiscriminately.  I was very frugal with money and I shunned parties. I had zero social life because I saved every kobo I could and worked really hard in order to succeed. Despite that, it took me four years to save enough money to rent a one room shop at Anthony (the same area where his magnificent head office is located). After I got the shop, I didn’t have carpet to put on the floor and I had no fan either. It took me another four months to buy those items.

Did you feel like quitting at some point?
Never! The drive to succeed was greater than whatever difficulty I encountered. I set my eyes on the goal and never ever thought of quitting. There was a day I got back home demoralised and depressed due to a disappointment I had suffered. My friend who was squatting with me in my one-room apartment then, called me and said; ‘Mudi, this thing wey you dey do, naim you go take buy car?’  He wanted me to dump tailoring and enter the ‘fast lane’. But, I refused to be swayed because I knew that with hard work and dedication, I would succeed someday.

How many outlets do you have?
Apart from this office (the head office, where the interview held), I have another outlet in Lekki, then, Abuja and Port Harcourt.  I also have outlets in: Accra (Ghana)  Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Dakar (Senegal), Nairobi (Kenya), and Johannesburg (South Africa).

What are your plans for the future?
The future belongs to God. I will just keep doing what I do and allow God to work it out, the way He worked out this complex for me.  This complex (his head office) came by divine intervention.

Having conquered Africa, do you have plans of opening outlets in other continents?
Africa is a huge market with limitless potentials. I may eventually launch out but I’m concentrating on the African market for now and it is quite huge.

Teenagers are known to play pranks, could you recall one naughty thing you did as a teen that landed you in trouble?
As teenagers, we used to go and help out after school in my mom’s restaurant.. There was this cake they sold in Kingsway stores in Warri then which I liked so much. So, every now and then, I would steal three naira (N3) from my mum’s drawer and travel to warri to buy the cake for one naira. I would pay one naira to Warri and one naira back to Ughelli. One day, my mum caught me and told my dad. I got the beating of mylife that day.  From that day, my cake party ceased. Fear no gree me try am again (general laughter).

Do you have any regrets in life?
Not at all!  I believe that whatever happens in life happens for a reason. Many people think that not getting a university education is a minus. But I don’t think so. Education is good no doubt, but it is a means to a good end, not an end in itself. Many people after graduation roam the streets endlessly in search of jobs. After a while, they get depressed and go into crime or get into trouble in their quest for greener pastures abroad. We are all witnesses to the Libya incidents. What is the use of the education then? Even while in school, I encourage people to identify their talents and pursue them.

If given the opportunity, what would you do differently?
Nothing! I am grateful that my adventure paid off.

What has been your staying power?
I would say creativity, passion, discipline, and plenty of hard work. I put in a lot of hard work and it paid off. Even now, I have not slowed down. I am always in my office 7 a.m on the dot everyday and I don’t get to leave until the job is done. If there’s the need to work overnight, I don’t hesitate to do that.

If not clothe designing, what else would you be doing?
I would be making furniture. I love creating things.

Do you see yourself going into furniture making in the future?
That is a possibility. Anything is possible. But, for now, I am concentrating on clothes.

What advice would you give to a teenager who wants to become a successful clothes designer like you?
First, he or she must be creative and must have the passion and drive to push through because it is not easy to succeed in anything with lackluster attitude. The person must be disciplined and hard-working. All these attributes must go together. When I was building my business, I had no social life and that really helped me. If I had been going to parties, I wouldn’t be able to focus and I wouldn’t have been able to save to grow the business. Even now, my work comes before any other thing and my clients are my priority. As a matter of fact, my work is my first wife.

You will turn 50 this year, how are you going to celebrate?
I am still thinking of what to do. I really don’t think I should throw a party. I’d rather give back to the society. I am thinking of something that will affect lives positively; something that will put a smile on people’s face.

What final word do you have for teenagers?
I wish they can minimise their social media involvement and concentrate more on productive things. Honestly, social media is causing a lot of havoc among teenagers.  Some of them cannot put down their phones for a second and it is bad. When we were that age, we got up in the morning and made our beds and did other chores.  But what do we have these days? Teenagers who don’t want to do anything because they are too busy with their phones. Send them to buy tomatoes in the market, they will be pressing phone and won’t even know when the tomato seller packs rotten ones for them. While cooking, they are pressing phone, and more often than not, the food gets burnt. If I have my way, no teenager should have access to a smartphone, – there is time for everything.

What word do you have for parents?
Today’s parents pamper their children all in the name of making them ‘ajebo’. You give a child a smartphone and you do not monitor how he or she is using it. You hold a 12-year-old by the hand while crossing the road and you expect him or her to grow up? Parents should be firmer with their children and allow them some space to grow up. They should apply more discipline as well.

•Torchbearer is a mentorship initiative of the Teens Connect Magazine. It showcases men, women and youths who have distinguished themselves in their chosen careers and tell their stories to inspire teenagers. Watch out for more torch bearers!