S3 Ep 6 Using Fashion to Heal, Empower Women to be Bold and the Importance of Telling Our Own Stories with Mariatu Turay-Akar
In this episode, I chat with Mariatu Turay-Akar. Mariatu is the founder of Gitas Portal a London-based mid-luxury fashion brand that uses vibrant African wax cloth textiles to celebrate diversity in culture. For Mariatu wearing colour is all about having the freedom to express yourself, and her company has a particular focus on inspiring and empowering women to make bold, winning choices in their lives, and to not be afraid to tell their stories.
We go all out to inspire and empower women. – Mariatu Turay-Akar
Starting Gitas Portal was an organic process. Born in the UK Mariatu grew up in Sierra Leone and recalls always being creative and being surrounded by creative family members especially on her mother’s side. Receiving a Singer Sewing machine from her mum when she was 11 /12 years-old transformed her life as she began making things, teaching herself how to sew. The civil war in the 1990s forced her family to leave Sierra Leone and first settling in the US she returned to the UK. And there she began creating clothes, first for herself, then for friends, using her front room as a studio. This eventually got to be too much for her family so she moved to trading at market stalls, festivals, and events. And used these outlets to test her concept. A website so followed, which helped her expand to the US, then having made the decision to leave her day job to concentrate on Gitas Portal full-time came the opening of a physical shop.
Having a shop was an opportunity for Mariatu to welcome and serve her clients in person and to get them to experience her brand. The shop has since closed, due to a number of factors. But while she had it she realised it was becoming a sacred space for her female customers to release so she set up ‘Girls Talk’ an evening of conversation and togetherness where women could come together after hours and talk and help each other out. Mariatu connects this to growing up and seeing her mum and aunts getting together to talk about what was on their minds. And as they were talking they were also healing. And somehow her customers saw something her that would make them open up and experience healing.
Mariatu sees what she does as a gift, something she doesn’t take for granted. She is a Christian in business and uses her gift to serve and be there for her customers. The name Gitas Portal is an acronym for ‘God Is Truly Amazing’, and is her compass to guide her through the ups and downs of running a business.
Gitas Portal is also about sharing a positive narrative about brand Africa. Mariatu does this through the fabrics she uses and the stories she seeks to tell of her heritage. Through Gitas Portal Mariatu wants to challenge the negative perceptions of the continent and show that African brands can be high-quality, and can deliver exceptional customer service. And she is doing that one beautifully made garment at a time.
What we are about as a brand is sharing a positive narrative about brand Africa. Promoting brand Africa is literally just stepping up and being at the forefront of telling our own stories. [Because] Who can tell your story better than you? – Mariatu Turay-Akar
We talk about:
- Gitas Portal as a platform to empower women and using it to tell their stories
- Her role in promoting a positive image of brand Africa and telling our own stories
- What led to her starting her own business
- The politics of African fashion and prints
- The impact wearing colour has on ourselves and those around us
- Managing negativity and flipping that into positive
- Growing up with role models who were fighters in what they believe in
- Standing her ground in what she believes in
- How nurturing and listening to her customers has helped her stay relevant in changing times
- Practising self-care in business
- The meaning behind the name Gitas Portal
- Realising when it was time to leave her business
- Recognising the signs that you are meant to be doing something
Whatever I do, however I approach my work, it will be to celebrate who I am as an African, and to celebrate what is great about us. Mariatu Turay-Akar
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
Where you can go to find out more about Mariatu and Gitas Portal:
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes (iOS) and Stitcher (Android)
And before you go I have a favour to ask, if you could take a few minutes to do the three R’s that is: rate it, review it, and recommend it to anyone you feel would benefit. It will really make a difference and I would greatly appreciate it.