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Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

The fashion industry in Ghana is very rich in traditional styles of making fabric despite western influence. Their clothes are mostly hand-woven, hand-dyed, and hand-sewn by professionals. One of the most widespread methods of production is weaving. Locals use wooden handlooms to produce intricate patterns. We had the opportunity to speak to Maryanne Mathias, Co-Founder Osei-Duro as she talks more about the beauty of producing and manufacturing in Ghana.

Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

Can you describe the process of making Osei-Duro fabric?

We experimented quite a bit with fabric when we started in Ghana since we could only access cotton. Therefore, we were working with cotton but later realized that our market, which is mostly the US, loves garments with unique and drapery fabrics such as rayon and silk. As such, we use silk and that is how we started to do the batik on rayon.

The first step is developing design ideas from the internet, books or our imagination.  We would do a sketch, then send it to the batikers who would work on the samples and then send it back. We would continue making the changes until we get the final products; however, the process of batik is a wax resist. Our batikers use foam blocks that they cut out and then dip in melted wax before printing the fabric with the wax and then dye it in a vat dye. Afterward, they remove the wax, and wherever the wax was, would leave an impression of the color that was underneath; that is our main technique for fabric.

How have people reacted to the release of the new Imperium dress?

Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

My business partner and I sort of split the design. We both design prints and silhouettes then decide which silhouettes would look good with which print. Nonetheless, I designed the imperium dress selfishly because when it is summer, in Vancouver, I often want to throw on a dress and ride my bike to the beach. The dress allows me to change my bathing suit underneath the clothing and have my shoulder and chest area covered from sun exposure. Therefore, that is why I designed it; but yeah, it is selling quite well, especially in the larger sizes, which is exciting. Moreover, we are going to do it in new prints as well since we had only done it in two prints; we will add two new ones.

How do you decide the type of hand dye you want on a certain piece of fabric?

Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

We have used natural dyes in the past and we liked it but it is super problematic. For instance we have gotten a lot of complaints that it comes off on the skin or white couches, and so, we eventually had to stop using it. We have also experimented with onion skins and it was cool but it changed color with the heat from the body; it would turn kind of yellow so unfortunately, we do use chemical dye.

Does the dye from your clothes come off after some time of washing or is it permanent?

No, it is permanent but just like any dye if you wash it repeatedly, put it in the dryer, use hot water or wear it a lot, it will eventually fade. Or rather, if you hang it in the sun for quite a bit since the sun is a very strong bleaching agent.

Why did you establish a presence in Ghana?

Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

In the early 2000s, I had a clothing line based in Vancouver and Montreal, Canada where I used to hand-dye and sew everything. I liked how hand-dying worked on garments. Then in 2006, I got a bit sick of the fashion industry and decided to travel around the world. At the time I had a friend living in Ghana, so I visited her. The tailors and small-scale fabrics inspired me. Ghana has a very big Cottage industry for dying and sewing and so I decided to do a small collection in Ghana and sell it in one of the shops in Canada. I ended up doing that in a few countries around the world including Ghana, Morocco, Egypt and India and from that, I realized it would be cool to go back to one of them to set up.

That is when I reconnected with my business partner who was a high school friend; she came to Ghana and we started it. Although originally we had wanted to work in a bunch of different countries, like do a collection in different countries using handicraft, when we got to Ghana, we realized that we would have to be there permanently. We wanted the quality to be up to our standards and so we eventually ended up staying in Ghana to invest in training and resources.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have experienced setting up in Ghana?

We started by saving $7000 each because we never received any outside investments from loans; for the past like eight years, we pretty much did not have any money. We also did not know how to live in Ghana. I lived there for five years and when I first started, I think about the times when we did not have a water tank and the water went off every day or that we did not have a generator and the power went off a lot.

We did not even have ceiling fans because we did not know they were relatively cheap to install and there were a bunch of us living in an apartment; I guess you can say that the living condition due to lack of funding was quite challenging. That would also add the stress of doing business in a new country and learning the diverse intercultural differences and lack of funding and dealing with production challenges. 

I do not know how it would be different in Canada I think it would have been easier because I would have had a larger network and know-how the country sort of functions; but at the same time, what I was doing in Canada was sewing and dying by myself and I’m not sure we would have been able to find the beautiful batik technique here in Canada.

What motivated you to keep going despite the challenges you encountered?

I think for a long time, it was stubbornness and wanting to prove that we can do it. Our family and friends saw that it was quite challenging for us. Additionally, the fact that we were constantly in debt to friends and family and we knew if we stopped we would have to pay them back from our own money or get different jobs and pay back. We never wanted to do that so we kept going.

Do you encounter an issue with manufacturing in Ghana?

We have had challenges when it comes to production and continue to have problems but we have been working in Ghana for a while; therefore we ended up building a great team. However, we do not know the upper band of our sales since we can only produce a limited amount; but, if we could make more, we could sell more. I think that it is ok with us since we are not upset about slow growth.

How did you come up with the abstract artistic design like the one on the Dan Siney puffy jacket?

Osei Duro: Creating Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

Dan is an old friend who I have known since the nineties and he lives about 2 blocks away from the studio in Vancouver. In terms of the puffy jacket, I had another friend who was an artist who painted on her puffy jacket and put some patches on it. I loved it so much and I kept bothering her to do a collaboration but she was too busy with school and finally, after a few years, I asked her if I do it I could work with another artist and she was okay with it. That is when I asked Dan since he had been making these filtered patches during quarantine.

Therefore, we set a time every week or two where we would go to the studio and paint on the jackets and he would work on more patches until it finally came together to a finished product. It was a lot of work to find the jacket because I wanted to use thrift jackets and paint on them.  It was really fun and also, I think it just looks so fresh because in colder climates all you want to do is wear a puffy jacket and be cozy. However, most of them are so boring so it’s is cool to see the paintings on them.

How are Ghanaians adopting locally designed apparel compared to Western designs?

In Ghana, they have a rich tradition of buying wax print or batik fabric in the market and going to the tailor to design their outfits. Therefore, they have always been wearing their local designs. Unfortunately, fast fashion has sort of changed that. All the textile waste from Europe and North America gets shipped off to African countries and it is sort of diluting their traditional form of clothing. However, I think that Ghanaians are into our clothes because it is similar to what they have seen with the batik on cotton. Although our batik patterns tend to be a bit different from the traditional ones in Ghana and then having them on the softer fabric is drapey and fresh.

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How do you think the second-hand market has impacted the fashion industry in Ghana?

It is obviously good that people can clothe themselves more affordably in Ghana, but the west see Africa as a dumping ground. In the West, you can buy cheap things at H&M and if you do not like them, you can just donate the clothes so that somebody poor will be able to wear them. That is kind of the case but there is even more clothing people throw out. My business partner Molly is close friends with somebody who works in a non-profit that focuses on this and it is outstanding the amount of waste that people throw out in Ghana. It goes into the oceans and pollutes the environment. It is tough because although we want people to be clothed affordably, the traditional techniques are something that people should value.

I also have friends who work in the vintage thrift area in Vancouver and they go to these yard pickers where the donated clothes go and select all the good stuff. They put them in bales in grade qualities and then they send all the lowest grade stuff to Africa.

What inspired you to create a sustainable brand?

We are still producing clothing so I do not know how sustainable a clothing brand can be, but we are trying. I suppose that when we first studied fashion in the early 2000s, sustainability in the fashion industry was not even discussed and slowly we realized fashion is a business. Fashion is an industry and its waste. Although we are producing clothing, we sort of have to do it as sustainably as we can but still be producing something.

Talking about sustainability, I think that word can be problematic because we are doing the best we can not have any waste. For example, the offcuts from all our products are saved and given out to filters, schools and nonprofit artists. We also started a program called Reruns where if someone does not want their old garments, they can send them back to us and we will give them credit and sell it periodically on a special Reruns sample sale. Although we are still working on our dye because it is goes into sewers so we want to get treatment to purify the water. That is the next project.

What else do you make apart from apparel?

We mostly do apparel but we also do some scrunches and masks. We have also done jewelry and shoes in the past but it is primarily apparel that is our bread and butter.

Where do you source your fabric from?

For the dresses and trousers, our main fabrics are rayon and Cotton. The cotton we source in Ghana is Woodin cotton and then the rayon we source from China. We also started using this lenzing ecovero rayon that is eco-friendly by saving 50% water and using the sustainably sourced wood pulp.

Where can people be able to source for your products?

The shops are listed on our website.  We only sell in Ghana now in Elle Lokko. We also do studio appointments where all our employees work. It is kind of like a showroom. We are going to get a new space soon which will deal with appointments only; it will be like a shop.

What is your experience conducting business primarily online?

I think financially, it makes sense not to have a shop for now because of overhead. However, we do like the idea of having a shop one day in Ghana. When we have our new space we can have a nice showroom because right now it is just a few racks in our dingy studio. Although it comes down to resources, because I do not think Molly or I have the time to manage it, so we will have to hire someone to do it

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