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FashionForward with Tolu Omoyele

Last update - Saturday, February 15, 2014, 02:47 By Tolu Omoyele

Born and raised in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, today Mario Epanya is a beauty photographer based in Paris and a celebrity throughout France. Epanya is a fashion veteran, having spent so many years working in the industry as a make-up artist, creative director and photographer, and spearheaded the idea of a Vogue magazine for Africa, following similar spin-offs in Japan and India. Yet he is also modest, even after spending so much time capturing images of international celebrities, actors and fashionistas. Rather, Epanya lets his skill and talent as a photographer do the talking…

Hi Mario! Can you tell us some about the idea behind Vogue Africa, following the covers you mocked up and posted online in 2010?
Vogue Africa is part of my career now. I must admit that helped a lot to make me famous in the social media and overseas. I gave so many interviews over the years about it. Also, I am happy that I opened this discussion and dialogue about Vogue Africa.
Last year, Demeatria Boccella of Fashion Africana organised an exhibition and debate with some colleges in the US about Vogue Africa and what people think about diversity in fashion. The great thing about it is that there’s lots of wonderful feedback with some of the biggest names in the industry. And more to come in the future.

You are a fashion photographer – how did you get started?
I started photography in 2007 after quitting my job as a professional make-up artist teacher. I was free and decided to become my own boss and do something I really love.

What is fashion photography, in your opinion?
Fashion photography for me is a statement of evolution, about how we’ve dressed through the decades. It’s very important because it relates, expresses and documents how fashion changes: the trends, fabrics, technologies, institutes and more. You’ve got to be aware of all this to be a fashion photographer.

What was your background before your current line of work? And how do you feel it prepared you for a career in fashion?
As a child, I knew I wanted to work in the arts; I love music, painting, fashion and photography. I started as a painter, a portraitist to be exact, and I did my first exhibition when I was 16 years old. Then I met some people working in the fashion industry and became a make-up artist for shows and photo shoots.
I moved to Paris, where I started a professional career as a hair and make-up artist. I worked for high fashion brands and travelled to meet very important personalities. Then in 2005, I started another adventure: I became a makeup instructor for a top French hair and makeup group.
God, all these periods and experiences of my life made me who I am today. I can say I have worked as a beauty and fashion photographer, hair/make-up artist, art director, stylist – these are all important to work in within the fashion industry. You have got to know the trends, especially if you work with clients. There are so many valid components in photography but you have got to know a little bit of fashion history. For these reasons, I feel very lucky for all these opportunities that I had a chance to benefit through my career as an artist.

How did you get started in fashion?
It was in 1996 and I was doing my exhibition ‘African Queens’ during the cultural fashion week in Cameroon. Shortly before the big opening show, one of the organisers came up to me and asked if I knew a good make-up artist, because the one who was contracted to do it cancelled at the last minute. This was around 4pm and the show was supposed to start at 8pm. I told her that I could help her if she had some make-up, because with my portraitist and paintings background I was very comfortable with colours, shades and lighting. So I did – or let’s say I ‘painted’ – 16 girls with make-up, and they all looked amazing.
At the end of the show I was introduced like the man who glamorised the girls, and made good money since then. I must say that’s how I got into and began my career in the fashion industry.

What drew you to fashion photography?
I will say beauty: I have self-defined as a beauty photographer but I was also hair and make-up artist for over 15 years. Working and staying in fashion is so natural to me: I have working knowledge of all the necessary fashion components. Throughout the years, I have also noticed that the high fashion industry denied diversity, in both beauty and culture, so for this reason I aimed my work principally at promoting diversity. For me, beauty is diverse.

What do you most enjoy about a fashion career?
What I enjoy the most is being my own boss. Yes, the freedom is fantastic and not too rigorous: I decide when I work and when I am on vacation. This is priceless.

What’s been the most difficult aspect of running your own business?
Finance, finance, finance – and advertising. You can deal with rest but to start a sustainable business you need to buy the best equipment that you need to work. Trust me when I say it ain’t easy.
What is most challenging for you about your career in Paris?
Paris is definitely not for beginners – it is the capitale of fashion. All the established brands, talent, magazines etc are here and everybody wants to take a chance here. For this reason there isn’t enough space for everyone. The industry is very demanding so you have got to have a lot in store to impress here.
Even when and if you make it, you are still struggling to keep clients, bring in new ones, travel and take care of your business and other administrative tasks. There are so many others things that you can’t imagine. You have got to be very, very strong and patient if you really want to make it. Trust me, honey.

What have you found most challenging about your profession in general?
The challenge is creativity: how do you consistently bring something new to the table through your work? There are so many things that have been done before; therefore it is really hard sometimes to be fresh and innovative. You have got to go very deep within yourself to be original, and this can be very painful.

What skills are most important in your profession?
Patience, creativity, ambition, opinion.

What is the greatest fashion era, in your opinion?
Tomorrow will be the greatest fashion era. This is with all the high technology that keeps coming our way – it brings great potential, and the possibilities are limitless! I think a wonderful job has been done throughout the years to make the fashion industry affordable for everyone and I like that.

What is fashion to you?
Fashion is an attitude, in the way you dress yourself: the colours, the fabrics, the shapes and volumes, etc. Fashion tells which social group you belong to; fashion tells your perception of life and so many other things about you to the world. Fashion is also a powerful industry that provides lot of work and brings little colours to this world that can sometime be really dark and cold.
Fashion is therapeutic; it is a way to escape to another reality, to recreate your own reality and community. You can see that through blogs and social media nowadays. Fashion can also be perceived as vanity, but this can take hours and hours of argument. I love fashion and I’m happy to be part of it.

What is your opinion of New York’s Africa Fashion Week?
AFW is a great initiative and I think Africa needs this, because for a long time the image of Africa was related to and associated with war and disease. I definitely think it’s good to see that, at last, Africa is associated with glamour, beauty and all that comes with the fashion industry. This gives lot of hope because it means that the economy is growing and you have a middle class that’s aware and ready to be buyers, consumers and investors.
Fashion is first of all an industry that provides lot of work through the production of clothing, bags, shoes, advertisements, etc. Ultimately all of these are beneficial for economies all over Africa, which needs to show another face to the world.

What do people need to know about a career in fashion photography?
They need to know that fashion and beauty photography is a 24/7 job. Yes, you’ve got the glamour side, which is about 30 per cent. But the administrative side of the business makes up the rest: this includes social media, editing, blogging, exchanging, proposing, meeting, communication, travelling to locations, acquiring new clients, new gear, etc. In fact, the truth is you need to be aware of almost everything. People think you just need a camera and do a few shoots with models to become a photographer but no, sorry, this is an incorrect perception.

What do you wish you had known before entering the fashion industry?
Nothing is free. There is always a price to pay.

What advice would you give a fashion newbie or student looking to become a photographer?
Do something else! Ha!

What is your greatest achievement?
My exhibition in June 2012 in the most beautiful place in the world, on the Champ-Elysées here in Paris. I still can’t believe that happened to me! I had 50 extra-large photos all over the avenue for the birthday of advertising company JCDecaux. It was a fantastic event: traffic was stopped, it was on national television and just two weeks before, Bastille Day was celebrated in that very same spot. Even in my craziest dreams I couldn’t have imagined it could be so big. I feel blessed.

- Be sure to check out Mario’s work on his website at

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