I know Flora Nabena, designer and owner of Mas With a Difference for beautiful expert wire bras. She has been on the London Carnival Scene for years. She has been designing for years, honing her craft becoming experienced and skilful She designed that very memorable blue Atlantis costume with the mohawk and leg pieces modelled by Kimhia and the Chocolate Nation band launch in 2016. She had brought something different to the carnival table. No one had really seen the feathers going down the leg, facing outwards. I think this cemented her place on the London designer map. But last year was not a good year for Flora at Notting Hill Carnival. She disappointed her masqueraders due to unforseen circumstances. She did what she could but these things happen sometimes. This is something she remains extremely upset and ashamed of, even today.
Flora has sections in Berlin, Miami. She designs for Vincy Alliance Mas and Island Mas UK. She does individuals for masqueraders who play mas internationally. Then she has her band with Chocolate Nation UK, one of the largest bands on the road for Notting Hill Carnival. In the run up to the Chocolate Nation Band launch, I meet up with her at her studio and we talk.
I know you for wire bras and I know you have been on the London Carnival Scene for a long time. How did you get into costume making? Officially? I went to Trinidad in 2006,2007. I was playing in a band. And I had nothing in terms of titties. My boobs are still relatively small. But I had nothing! Barely nipples. My mum used to call me ‘poached eggs’. It was that bad. I joined a band and when I went to pick up my costume, they obviously miscalculated and gave me an ‘B’ cup. When I looked at it, it was not my size. They agreed to give me two bras because told them ‘Even if I have to make something, I’d like to have a something that I can keep. So I had one dibby dibby pink boob tube. I took the stones off the bra the night before and stuck it on the boob tube. Was nothing special but what I noticed was when I went out on the road, everyone was looking as if to say, ‘Who dis, why you different?’ Cause back then, everyone was wearing the same thing, even the section leaders with the exception of the individuals. So the next year I thought, I am definitely not going to wear what they give me. So, I changed things and had the same response. And it was the third year that when I went back, I said to a friend of mine, ‘Why is yours made of wire, it’s not a traditional cut’. She said, ‘That’s a wire bra.’ She showed me how to do it and I just kept on doing it. Every year I kept on doing it. For Notting Hill, I used to model for Poison at the time and the leader Wendel in 2010 liked what I did and gave me a section with Poison.
And your sections in Germany and Miami? Well I approached Germanyinitially to make a section and they turned me down flat. No disrespect to me but they said, ‘We believe you might have something strong, but you are still too new, our t-shirts are going well.’ The second year I remember I did a blue and white costume with Poison for Notting Hill. As I a got off the plane coming back from Miami, I’ll never forget this, it was October. My phone is ringing, and it is a German number. I am thinking ‘Who dis?’ they guys from Germany spoke to me saying they wanted me to do a costume. And that’s how I got Germany. For Miami, one of my friends messaged me and said, ‘Can you making us something?’ It was a family. What I thought was going to be two or three people ended up being twelve people. And I felt shame as I hadn’t asked my friend, Giselle’s the band leaders permission. And she said, ‘This is it, this is your section, you’re in. You just proved to me that you can do it. You get a bligh this year. Next year, you gotta come hard’. And that’s how I got Miami. I tend to play down Miami as it is after Notting Hill Carnival. But I have put more effort into putting Miami on the map for me as a designer.
So, you design for Notting Hill, Germany and Miami. Do you do other places? Well I design individual pieces for masqueraders who travel to other carnivals internationally. For the first time this year, I designed for Jamaica Carnival and it was very well received. It was only for four individuals, but the costumes were very well received.
Would you want to produce a section for Jamaica? Well not really. I don’t mind doing individuals, but it only depends on when Jamaica falls. During that period, I have Berlin and launch season for Notting Hill, so I am usually busy anyway.
Why do you like designing wire bras? Honestly? Because I didn’t have any titties. I wanted to have something I wasn’t ashamed of. Not having boobs as a woman….unless you don’t have breasts, you will not know what it feels like. As a woman, in carnival, you look around and everyone has a cleavage, it’s demoralising. And you’re felt to believe, it you haven’t got something up there, your costume is not going to look good. And I’m not going to lie. I’ve got boobs now, it’s a different experience. The wire bra gave me a little bit of tatas. And it was ‘yeah, look at my boobs, yeah, they are small, but they look amazing!’ I have the design and send it to Lincoln. Who is Lincoln? The wire bender. I don’t bend wires.
In terms of costumes, apart from wire bras, is there anything else that is specific to your brand? I stitch my costumes. Everything is stitched by hand so things last. Nothing will drop or fall apart. They are made to last. There is nothing like it. No one hand stiches their costumes. I like using different textures. I am Nigerian, so I am in a very different space. I have stepped into a culture different from mine. And I love it so much, I really got into it. You must love something so much more if you haven’t grown up with it. It’s a different level of love.
What else do you think about when you are designing a costume? How sexy is it going to be? Can you find that on anybody else’s costume? Have I used this before, Have I seen this before? I make costumes based on me what I like to wear. If you think of it that way, isn’t it limiting? People have different body shapes…I can’t lie. I am selfish that way. I make costumes for me. I have to vision myself in it because I am passionate about carnival and this is when my best work comes out. Myself and Kimhia.. I always have her in mind. Will that look good on her? She is my muse. I love her… What she has done for my brand is beyond words. She brings my costumes to life.
My favourite costume of yours is the blue one modelled by Kimhia. Yes, I think that is my favourite one. But I don’t think that costume did as well as it should. Why do you think that is? I don’t know, I because at the time it was first costume that hit the £300.00 mark. People didn’t expect that price, they weren’t ready for that. But some of my elements were copied in Trinidad that year. Cause we launch first, then they launched. They launch during the summer. That image of that costume was sold to companies in Trinidad. It was at the Troxy roundabout. When I was there, I pulled over like I was the police and hug the wall. It was in magazines, in flyers. I was so proud.
What influences you? Where do you normally get your influence from? To be honest, I’m not sure if I can answer that question. I don’t know what my process is. It’s normally different every year. I make it based on what I think the theme is and I go from there. Once I make it, I give it a name. And I pick a colour based on what Chocolate Nation the band has done. I never pick a colour that I am passionate about. Because I am so busy with everything else, by the time I get round to thinking about colours, all the other bands in Chocolate have already chosen theirs. So, I have to base my colours on what they are not doing.
Has anyone inspired you this year? I loved what Solange Govia did this year with Sambala.
Is there anyone who you consider competition when designing? Everyone is competition. All designers are competition. We are all wanting to sell costumes. But I would say closer to that people in my band as we are trying to get the same masqueraders.
How do you protect your designs Flora? You can’t. There is someone on Instagram selling my costumes. [she shows the website] There is nothing I can do about it. I have messaged them, tell them to take it down but they haven’t. And even worse, it’s me in the costume. Me. Flora. I feel violated. They claim they can make these at 390 Euros. It’s not just me, Tribe is in there, UCOM is in there, Shop Evolve is in there. Spoke to my lawyer by there is nothing I can do. It’s a place in Portugal but who do I serve papers to?
Are you doing this full time? I’m doing this full time since last year February. I quite my job at Apple as manager. I can get a great job full and make loads of money. But because of my love of carnival and design, doing what I am doing.
Do you do most of it yourself? I do. I’m a bit of a control freak.
When is your proudest moment? When I see my costumes on the road. The blue year, Atlantis? That was my proudest moment. When my masqueraders are crying because they feel so good in their costume. Most of the time, I am out late on the road. But when I come out and I see that? I am so proud. This is what I did.
What do you think of the new designers? It’s good that there are new designers to open up the market. It’s taken a while for me to get here but I have been designing for more than ten years now so I think I am in a position to critique. Some of the newer designers are good, Miracle Precious and Nat Elegance (although she is not new). Pfe Freedom is on fire this year. Then there are some of the other designers that need help. They need help with structure and piecing it together. Think about the whole costume, lay your feathers out properly, put an order to them. Think about the textures you are putting together. Does that go with that?? Hmm maybe not.
Flora. I tell you this lady gives people headache when it comes to waiting to see what she will bring out. I know of masqueraders who are in serious problems because of Flora this year. They are seeing all these lovely costumes coming out launch after launch. But they are waiting to see what Flora will bring out. They know they will like it but you see the waiting business?? It is not easy.
Flora and Mas With a Difference is about that personal touch; the attention to detail, the hand stitched costumes, the care, the love, the difference. She’s been years in the game so she knows her craft inside out. She’s never one to be discounted or underestimated. She cares deeply for her masqueraders. She considers last year one of her most disappointing and shameful times in her carnival career. But the way I see it, the sword has to go through the fire to come out masterfully shaped, shining and all the more dangerous. Flora right now is a dangerously creative, skilled designer. She is ready to come back swinging. And I can’t wait to see what she serves to the Carnival table this year.
For more info on Mas With A Difference, please visit www.mwdcarnival.com, Mas With A Difference on Facebook and Linkedln, mwdcarnival on Instagram, mwdcarnival on Twitter. All images were taken off the Mas With A Difference instagram page and with the authorisation of the designer.