“African prints are a fashion trend for some brands but at MamMaw it’s a part of the very fabric of who we are”
- Shantel MamMaw
The Early Years
Style, fashion and dressmaking runs in Shantel’s blood. Her earliest childhood memories are of visiting her Jamaican grandmother, Dotty, in North London where, as a five-year-old she would watch, and sometimes help, as she sewed garments for big brands. A talented dressmaker in her own right, Grandma Dotty learned the craft from Shantel’s great aunt Mara back in Jamaica before she embarked for England during the Windrush tide.
Great aunt Mara was hugely successful, sewing for the High Society women of Jamaica, but on arriving in London as an unwelcome immigrant, albeit by invitation of the State, it was tough for Grandma Dotty to find a premium sewing job and so she found Piece Work to make a living. Such work, where established fashion houses delivered pre-cut ready-to-sew pieces of garments to freelance dressmakers who would sew the various pieces together, provided a reasonable income and regular employ.
But more than anything else, it fascinated a young Shantel who already knew she wanted to do the same.
Although Shantel helped Grandma Dotty it was mainly by tidying up and fetching pieces to help with her grandmother’s workflow. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when, after realising Shantel’s desire to follow her grandmother and great aunt, her mum bought her a DIY sewing kit. A fluffy pink pig cuddly toy.
It was a surprising choice of toy, considering the household was culturally Rastafarian on one side and Christian on the other, but none of this deterred Shantel who set about sewing all the pieces together with hugely ambitious enthusiasm.
Carefully, a young Shantel gathered the body, the ears and the tail – sewing them to form the shape of the toy, before then stuffing it with the supplied fluff and stitching it all together to create her first ever masterpiece. A thrilling achievement for a painfully shy, seven-year-old.
Even now she fondly remembers the overwhelming sense of accomplishment it gave her and remains deeply proud of it to this day.
Making the cuddly toy boosted my self-esteem and confidence. It made me see that I can achieve anything - I can create stuff. And I started to wonder what else I could do
She didn’t stop there. As Shantel continued to press on with her newly realised abilities, friends and family began to provide support and her skills blossomed. One poignant example of this was when a friend’s aunt returned from a trip to Ghana and gifted Shantel some African print fabrics she had brought back for her. Not a fridge magnet or tribal carving – material!
Shantel decided she’d use the material to make some outfits for her younger cousins. But she’d never done this before. The patterns on the fabrics were so intricate and detailed. They were unlike any of the materials she had worked with before. What would she do? How would she cope?
Shantel made them into stunning jumpsuits. All by hand. All by herself. And all by the tender age of twelve!
The Precocious and Formative Years
Shantel went to Notting Hill Carnival every year in her teens. But not for her was the dilemma of what outfit to wear and which store to buy it from. As a precocious young fashion designer, she already knew what she would be wearing 10 months in advance. Unwittingly, Shantel was already developing and planning her designs in the same seasonal cycle as professional designers.
Armed with a new domestic sewing machine bought for her by her aunt Yvonne, the now 14-year-old Shantel, and best friend – fashion stylist Denise Brown, would start to develop concepts with which to dress their 10-deep crew of girls in October – for Notting Hill Carnival the following August!
The Carnival outfits were always themed and each girl’s outfit was designed in a way that complemented their own unique style, and silhouette. One year they chose the iconic Red, Gold & Green colour scheme representing the Rastafarian identity and another year they used African print fabrics styled into ra-ra skirts and halter neck tops.
It’s impossible to overstate the magnitude of this. An untrained, teen fashion designer already creating her concepts 10 months ahead of show. Because, at the time, Notting Hill Carnival was the biggest fashion show available anywhere in Europe. It gave Shantel the opportunity to conceptualise her collection, design it, measure it, fit and refit it. She would cut, amend and adjust. Year-in, year-out. And like any haute couture designer on event day Shantel would be making last minute adjustments to her designs on the models (her 10-girl posse) before they stepped out onto the catwalk that was the streets of West London.
As her models danced, and writhed, and shook everything they had for an entire day, Shantel was able to learn what worked and what didn’t. What needed more flexibility here, or more contour there. Which fabrics were more resilient than others. Which allowed the body to breathe more efficiently. Which shapes and cuts were more forgiving and which lacked the necessary support or structure. Those were the formative years in which Shantel gained the infinite riches of experience one could never buy.
So it comes as no surprise that Shantel’s favourite class in secondary school was her sewing class. During most of her other lessons, when she actually turned up, she found she would always be doodling and scribbling kaleidoscope-style drawings reminiscent of Ankara prints and counting the hours until her next sewing class. Either that or in the library where she would spend countless hours reading history books on ancient Egypt or fashion tomes about the greats like Coco Chanel.
After leaving school, Shantel enrolled at a Fashion College to study Pattern Cutting and Fashion Design. There she learned the theory and technical methods behind what she had already been doing since she was a child. This included an understanding of fashion as a discipline. Designing conceptual collections based on research. Creating mood boards and blocks. Organising and taking part in fashion shows and producing products from design concepts.
While anybody could see that Shantel was already an experienced fashion designer, going to fashion school provided her with the rich knowledge and theoretical understanding of how what she was, and had been, doing – all integrated within the Rag Trade.
The Rag Trade Era
Shantel took her first paying job in fashion at the age of 18 when she secured the role of a Sample Cutter for a company that was, back then, the second largest fashion supplier to Marks & Spencer. Her main responsibility was to spend days upon days cutting out samples and, though the mundanity of it was enduring, Shantel concedes that she learned a great deal from it.
Surrounded by a wealth of experienced and immensely talented seamstresses who had variously managed to find their way to London from corners of the world so far afield as Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, Turkey or China, Shantel learned how different fabrics draped and flowed depending on its weight and the cut of the pattern piece. She learned how to pick the correct stitching method according to the material and style. Above all, she learned how to work quickly. By now Shantel was rushing her food during her lunch breaks so she could better use the time to make an outfit (from scratch) to wear partying that very evening.
Over the course of the next three years Shantel picked up invaluable skills that she would carry with her for life.
After a while I got faster. Those tailors and seamstresses are part of the reason I am a successful fashion designer today. They taught me a lot. Priceless information
With time came steady progression and Shantel climbed the industry ladder, one rung at a time. Learning every step of the trade, she paid her dues. By her third job in the industry, now as a Garment Technologist, her duty was to ensure the garment correctly fit the model. She was now regularly attending Fit Meetings and contributing to the overall design process. She was responsible for liaising with her counterparts at vast factories in India and China, providing them with instructions for alterations to the garment construction. She would be responsible for quality assurance testing to ensure clothing met the appropriate British Standards, or that the correct labels were applied as per EU directives.
Shantel went on to work as a Garment Technologist for several High Street brands. Household names including Hobbs, Phase Eight, Tesco, Next, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, and New Look. In these positions she gained retail fashion experience to stack up with her years on the manufacturing side.
Ever the ambitious, and always the hustler – during this time Shantel also ran a side business of designing clothing for boutiques in two of London’s most trendy shopping destinations; Carnaby Street and Camden High Street. She had named the business Dead Gorgeous.
After several years of back-of-house work in the fashion industry where she had learned the intricacies of the craft and the nuts and bolts of the trade, it was time for Shantel to move front-of-house. And she did so by landing a dream job in New York. She became the Technical Designer for renowned fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, one of New York’s top names in fashion, where she was part of the team responsible for creating Cynthia’s catwalk shows at New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park.
And Then The Journey Really Began
For many people in fashion, a job at a top New York City fashion brand would be the zenith of their development. From there they would then vie for positions at the top European fashion houses and journey their way to the top of fashion. A well-trodden path. Not Shantel.
She always wanted more. It had always been about designing her own clothes. That had always been the dream. But in her dreams the vision had never been vivid enough for her to know how that would manifest. Then on a holiday to Ghana in 2012 it came to her.
I remember when I first saw for myself the beauty of Africa. Especially in the vibrant Ankara print clothes. I was driving along the busy streets of East Legon in Accra with my window down. In the dazzling, warm sun I remember seeing all these beautiful, bright and vibrant, colourful Ankara print dresses and I kept thinking ‘these will sell - people will love this back in the UK'
She decided to buy a few dresses at wholesale and bring them back to the UK to sell to family and friends and gauge their reactions. Well needless to say, they loved it. And because there was such a positive reaction, Shantel made the decision to design her own clothes again. But now she would do so commercially.
The journey to Ghana had ignited something in Shantel. She now had a clear vision of what she wanted to do with her fashion experience and expertise. She rekindled Dead Gorgeous but with a branding overhaul. It was now to be Afrocentric. The name had to change. The ethos had to be different. It all had to marry into something far greater than just the clothes themselves.
Shantel had returned from Africa infused with a new energy. A far deeper vibe than she had ever felt before. She felt connected to the continent in ways far more profound than ever before; back when it was the stuff of idealistic dreams she had read in all those books, all those years ago. In all those libraries and during all those hours skipped from school.
Modern African Man, Modern African Woman
I feel great – It was the best thing I did. For me as a person. I am so proud to be representing my heritage and representing women that see the beauty in our Africa, and are not afraid to represent that. It feels natural.
Pregnant with immaculate ideas and enriched with ripe concepts of what she needed to do, Shantel gave birth to MamMaw. It was beautiful. The perfect reflection of everything she represented, and everything that she is.
And she has never looked back. She plans to broaden the womenswear collection and continue to expand the brand.
The plan is to give the customer more choice. Children’s wear, menswear and even MamMaw homeware collections. As the business grows MamMaw will create jobs and new opportunities for its global community both in the diaspora and the motherland. The community that is endearingly referred to as the MamMaw Tribe on the blog and social media platforms.
Shantel’s vision would not be complete if she were not giving something back along the way. Which is why she can also be found contributing to the No Ordinary Woman Chat Show, a YouTube channel where she is the British Fashion Design consultant for the hosts of the show.
She is also collaborating with a motivational coach and designer to organise a fashion project which will help young people develop the skills to overcome social anxiety and boost their self-esteem, an issue very close to her heart.