An interview with Betty Margai – Housing officer and shoe maker!

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Betty works for Notting Hill Housing. She is a Housing Officer and looks after 130 tenants in Hounslow. But she started out in Fashion, so we met up to talk about it.

Tell us about your background in fashion, Betty

I did Art at O and A level, then a Foundation course in Art and Design, followed by a degree in Fashion at Hertfordshire. The course included designing, pattern cutting, illustration, business planning, and clothes making for men and women. For my final show I chose Geisha – I created a range of clothes using origami techniques, including Kimonos and Obi belts and I used a Chinese model made up to look like a Japanese Geisha. My parents are from Africa – Sierre Leone and Ghana  – and I am currently mainly working with African fabrics, but at Uni they wanted us to avoid cliché and to try something outside our knowledge and comfort zone.

Young African woman in a yellow home  made dress
Modern dress with tied skirt

Sounds great – how come you ended up working for a Housing Association?

Originally I wanted to go into buying, but it was hard to find work. I worked in the Thomas Pink Shop (high-end shirts) – I loved the product –  hoping to get promotion to visual merchandising (window dressing). I wasn’t successful when I applied for a job internally and in the end my Mum, who is a Housing Manager herself, suggested I try housing. I really enjoy my job, especially going out to meet tenants and helping people. Now fashion is something I do in addition.

Young woman in Ghana dress
Betty plays host at Notting Hill Summer party

So you are still making clothes?

Yes! I go to quite a lot of parties. In my culture we are very keen on the correct dress, especially at funerals, and weddings and other church occasions. There is a strong dress code and often the family will insist on a certain fabric being used. At a funeral of an older, venerated person a special black and white print will be used.

Ghanaian funeral outfit
Betty at a funeral

If there has been a terrible tragedy, say someone younger is killed in a car crash, then black and red will be worn. For a normal funeral, plain black will be worn. At weddings and funerals the whole family try to wear the same thing, a phenomenon known as Aso Ebi, originating in Nigeria. The person organising the wedding or funeral will send a photograph of the fabric they have chosen and tell you to get it at Liverpool Street, which is the place to go for African fabrics. I make all my African clothes – tops, dresses, shoes – and also outfits for special occasions.

I love following new trends. I love it that African fabric is fashionable at the moment and its great that it is so popular for weddings.

Tell me a bit more about the funerals, Betty

We are evangelical Pentecostalists, so there is the service which is really about giving thanks for the person’s life, and celebrating. We then have a party!  The family sit at the high table, all dressed in the same fabric. We have a proper sit-down meal, a DJ, dancing. It’s more like a party. It takes a whole day, maybe two. It starts with a wake, then the burial, then the reception. Dressing appropriately is part of the event, and it is very important to show respect to the person’s family, and your own connection with the deceased.

Young woman in black and white African funeral outfit
Black and white funeral outfit

Why is African fabric sold is six yard pieces – it can be expensive, and who needs such a big piece?

That is how much you need for an outfit! A blouse or jacket, a long skirt, a head tie, and a wrapper. It takes a lot of fabric. I don’t normally bother with the wrapper, which is worn around the hip. I find it breaks up the design too much. But my Mum insists “You have to have a wrapper”, it is part of the outfit and it is traditional. The main reason for it is if you have to pick your baby up and carry him on your back.

You make shoes?

Yes! I found a way to wrap shoes in African fabrics, then I decorate them with rhinestones. You can wrap just about anything in African fabrics. Not everyone wants to wear them head to toe. So you can wrap books, bangles, phone cases – you don’t always want to go mad with these strong colours and designs ! Just a pair of shoes can look great. I have an Etsy shop Betsboutique, where I sell the shoes and a few other products.

hand made African fabric sneakers
Hand wrapped shoes by Betsboutique





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