By Christy Anyanwu
Chito Mark makes hats and other head gears. Her Graces Hats has been churning out the latest trends in exotic head gears. Recently, her business clocked 26 years and the milliner had a thanksgiving party to celebrate her journey in business. The soft-spoken woman described her business life as a grass to grace story in this interview with Sunday Sun.
Could you reflect on your journey into hat making?
After my school certificate examination, there was nothing for me to do at home and I was really idle and bored. I believed it’s God’s plan for me to make hats and I started fiddling around with my hands, and before I knew it, I came out with something that looked like a hat. Initially, people laughed at me because back then, there was nothing like made in Nigeria hats and there was no place to learn or improve on what I crafted. I had to go into the market and source materials for hat making. At nights, I imagined people wearing hats and saw myself drawing. By the time I woke up in the morning, it seemed to me that I had done something that looked like hats. It was not easy. A lot of people did not accept what I was doing, because there was nothing like made in Nigeria hats at that time. People laughed and they scorned me, saying they wear only imported hats. That tendency did not last, because the Buhari-Idiagbon regime came on board and started talking about made in Nigeria products and people started embracing the products. As an undergraduate, I made hats and sold to my peers after telling them my auntie from London made them.
How did you make your breakthrough in business?
After the national youth service scheme, my father wanted me to work in a bank, because I studied Cooperative Economics and Management and I was very good in Maths but I refused. I think God called me into hat making and initially when I came to Lagos as I told you nobody accepted my hats except Mrs. Abbah Folawiyo of Labanella Fashion. It was at her shop that I first met Funmi Ajila Ladipo. Immediately she saw my work, she said, little girl, come in, I think you can do great things. She saw the today, then. She said she would give me fabrics to do various designs. Mrs. Folawiyo was the woman that really introduced me to lots of people because she makes clothes for the top and mighty. By the time I finished making hats with the materials she gave me, my work came out in the catalogue and everyone was excited about it. When people visited my shop, they said they already saw my designs in the catalogue. But first, God is the foundation. Without God, I would not be where I am today.
You started this business 26 years ago, what has been your driving force?
What has kept me in this business is determination. When I started making hats, it was just English hats that were in vogue. People got tired of English hats at a point and shifted to gele. Our people liked our native attires and that changed the face of fashion. Subsequently, I started thinking of what to do in order to accommodate these people. My Creator gave me the design of what to do with the knotting of the gele. I can turn anything into a head tie. Without God you can do nothing. I am too focused and I knew what I wanted. God helped me all the way and I’m a dangerous giver. I can give out anything. I’m anointed of God, I fear God and I love people. One of my customers has more than 300 of my hats in her closet. She’s never satisfied and when she comes to my shop, she buys all the big hats. They are the ones that have encouraged me, without them there will be no Graces. Anyone that wants to go into business but doesn’t have a clue should just be focused. Don’t look at the economy, don’t be afraid and rest on the word of God. Hold on to the word of God and do not waver. These are things that have sustained me. I don’t look at the economy; I don’t look at what is happening in the country, my focus is God. My husband has been of great support to my business and also my children. My son is a great designer and another designer, Kola Kudus, is mentoring him.
My business has evolved from grass to grace these 26 years. Though we have had our ups and downs like other businesses but the main thing is just being focused and determined.
What does it take to be a milliner?
The hunch is that I could make hats. I tell people to sit down and ask God what He wants them to do. If it’s fashion, go with it, as long as you can create.
Could you tell us your worst moments in business?
When my shop got burnt in 2003, I lost everything. The inferno was caused by power surge overnight and before firefighters came, it was too late. I was not in the country when it occurred. They alerted my husband and he was not even in the country either. It was my neighbor that called to alert us and by the time the firefighters came it was too late. When they called me on phone about the incident, to be frank with you, I gave thanks to God, because I had been praying for a bigger shop. I didn’t know God was preparing a bigger shop for me by allowing the fire accident so that he could give me a bigger space. By the time I renovated the shop, it was like almost twice the space I had before. It’s when you’re alive that you make more money. Like I said, I gave God thanks after receiving the news and I started making hats afresh. You know it’s something inside of me. I’m the creative designer of the hats, people are not doing it for me and so it was easy for me to regain my losses.
What’s the latest trend in hats?
Fascinators. In those days they called it pillboxes. Some people prefer the full hats but a lot of these younger women love fascinators. You could match it with your skirt and blouse and also with your boubou or kaftan.