Fresh off a shoutout in the New York Times, Detroit designer Mapate Diop tells SEEN about DIOP, his West African-inspired apparel brand
By Nicole Glynn
Featured photos via weardiop.com
Interview has been edited for tone and clarity
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your professional background. My name is Mapate Diop and along with Evan Fried, I am the co-founder of DIOP. We make ready-to- wear clothes inspired by the African diaspora.
2. What inspired you to start DIOP? Evan came up to me at a barbecue three years ago and asked where I got my shirt. My mom is from Nigeria and travels to West Africa a lot where she buys fabric to turn into garments. I was wearing one of these shirts and Evan inquired if there was a way to make it ourselves.
What makes our brand stand out from others is not just the bright colors and bold patterns but the people who support us. We’re very fortunate to have such sensitive and engaged people who want to build community with us.
3. What’s your favorite thing about your job? The opportunity to build a community. We have the privilege of meeting a lot of different people from various backgrounds with many interests. Whether they are customers or partners, someone who has shot photos for us or modeled our clothing, or even just someone reaching out to offer a kind word, they really drive us forward. They give what we make meaning and when it comes to work, it’s tough to imagine a purpose better than that.
4. Can you share some of your career highlights? With our mask sales, we’ve been able to donate over $80,000 to over 40 different local, regional and national relief efforts and charitable initiatives focusing on COVID-19 relief. We feel very fortunate at this very moment to continue to make clothes that people not only like but that help them feel like themselves. And while we wish it were under better circumstances, we’re happy to help in our own small way. There are lots of people who serve our communities day in and day out with little fanfare and we’re proud to support their efforts, especially at a time like this.
5. You’ve been covered by the New York Times for your batik-printed Ankara face masks. What makes the masks so unique? Our masks are three layers of 100% woven cotton. We use elastic straps that stretch behind the head; this allows for longer wearability and more hands-free versatility. We look to source a broad range of prints, including many we had used previously in other garments. And like our other products, because of the bright colors and bold patterns, our masks tend to stand out. Masks have a bit of an anonymizing effect due to the functional effects of just a piece of cloth. The flexibility of working with wax print, mud print, and dutch wax allows us to add a little more flair and make something people want to wear and show off.
6. What was your biggest mistake or failure and what did you learn from it? There’s no single biggest failure in part because we screw things up all the time. Evan and I come from startups where most of the time things don’t work out. For example, we tried working with influencers to show how our goods can fit into a lifestyle. It turned out that it wasn’t what people wanted from us nor how they liked the brand to be presented. Relative to our size, it was one of the bigger sums we spent. But fortunately, we had metrics around it to measure the efficacy and were quickly able to conclude it was a mistake and change course. You shouldn’t be afraid of mistakes. We don’t learn if we don’t try.
7. DIOP stands by inclusivity. What’s your take on cultural appropriation? We don’t educate people on cultural appropriation; we offer a position shared between both us as individuals and the brand itself. We don’t think it’s appropriation to wear what we sell; however, we speak for ourselves. This page on our website goes further into why and it mostly has to do with the nuances of what we’re selling, how it’s sold and to whom. Others are free to feel differently and or disagree.
What makes the page? work is that it puts into words what people feel or grasp intuitively, whether they are people of color or not. It’s a thoughtful question that deserves an equal, if not more thoughtful, interaction. It’s not a permission slip to go out and do whatever you like; it’s an entry point into an ongoing discussion that precedes us and we hope continues long past us. What’s important is that everyone is welcome to think critically about the issue and what it means. Broadly speaking, we believe that’s the first step to combating it.
8. Can you share a little bit about the “DIOP Circle” and the types of people that you interview and showcase? Any especially memorable stories? We spend a lot of time trying to find more ways for people to see themselves in our brand; one of those ways is hearing themselves. We simply turn over the keys to the platform for those around us to talk about what is meaningful to them. I find every one of them memorable; each feature is special in its own way. There’s no prerequisite to the Community Story and we’ve been fortunate so far to include everyone who has asked. We typically start with a 30- to-45-minute interview covering a wide range of topics but mostly focused on their lived experiences. Then we’ll take the notes and create an outline to work from. They fill in the details and add more context through the photos they provide. All told, it takes two to four weeks to put together.
9. What’s your favorite piece from your collection? I don’t have a favorite but I’m most proud of our shorts because they were really conceived, developed and driven by customers. They were the first product we made outside of our tops or bandanas, which we had been selling for a year. We put them through the wringer during testing; we wore them for days on end, worked out in them, swam in them and so on. We were concerned about their durability. We were very worried they would rip. We were worried a 5-inch inseam might be too short for our customers so we settled on 7-inches. There’s a lot of small details that go into making things people wear and live in.
10. If you weren’t a business owner and clothing designer, what would you be instead? I suspect I’d be developing reality television shows.
Now onto some fun…
11. What was your first job growing up? Both of my parents are college professors so I’m actually still their research assistant to this very day.
12. What’s currently on your playlist? I’ve been listening to a lot of Parcels. They are five Aussies in Berlin who dress like the Bee Gees and sound like the Beach Boys. They just put out a delightful live album and when we can attend concerts again, they’re at the top of my list.
13. What was your favorite TV show as a kid? I watched a lot of “The Simpsons” and feel oddly thankful because, in addition to incredible humor, it has a lot of dense intertextual references. You can watch it anytime, anywhere, with your brain on or off.
14. Three things you can’t live without? Coffee, AirPods, and shorts with an inseam under 5 inches.
15. Dream vacation destination? I enjoy surfing and would like to visit places that are off the beaten surf path like Chile or Senegal.
Local Love Questions…
16. Your current favorite local spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner? For breakfast, Detroit Institute of Bagels in Corktown. For lunch, Yum Village in New Center. And for dinner, Flowers of Vietnam in Mexicantown.
17. Your favorite place to shop locally in Metro Detroit? My favorite place to shop locally in Detroit are bookstores. In particular, Source Booksellers and Detroit Book City offer not just a wide range but a deep selection of goods. There’s a lot of seriously great writing about Detroit and their curation is first-rate.
19. What do you love about Detroit? I like how open-minded everyone is. Detroit has a very firm sense of self and I think it encourages a curiosity you can only find here.
20. Favorite quote or words to live by? “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” is something we say in regard to our work but can also apply outside of that. Overcoming challenges and solving problems can take time and that’s okay, especially if learning is involved. There’ll be mistakes but the key is to keep making new ones. And eventually, you’ll be shocked at how much progress you’ll make.