Dumping of cheap Chinese-pirated Ghanaian textile designs on the domestic market may be wasting the Ghanaian textile industry, but innovative local entrepreneurs are beating a path to wealth by creating new, difficult-to-copy values for discerning global consumers, while fast establishing Accra as a treasure trove in textiles.
Mrs. Michelle Obama’sstrong fashion statements has a way of rousing our curiosity towards hitherto little-known innovators in the global fashion value chain; she may have just done that for Ghanaian textile designer and hand printing manufacturer, Edwina Assan, CEO of Edtex.
For an appointment at the Sci Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 29, 2013 during the American First Couple’s second African visit, the American First Lady wore a strata panel skirt in green rubics made from hand-dyed rayon by Edtex. In a nod to her trans-Atlantic hosts, Mrs. Obama chose a label stitched by Cadling Fashions of Ghana, which was complemented with a studded belt and chiffon blouse from a Nigerian label, Maki Oh.
“We’re really not strangers to the US market,” says an obviously excited but usually composed Edwina Assan who disclosed that Edtex works with some US based fashion designers, who have been using their designed and printed fabrics since 2010, including the green rubics (worn by Obama), blue rubics, whitmarch sheat, alligator, and binary buff.
Incidentally, it was two years earlier that Edwina’s designs first graced the Obamas. During the couple’s first visit to Africa, in 2009, their much publicized trip to the slave dungeons at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana saw Edwina’s fabric being used as the full drop and coffee table cover in President Obama’s interview.
Edwina represents a growing number of innovative entrepreneurs that are creating new values from indigenous Ghanaian textile designs and helping to counter the crushing competition from cheaper pirated versions from China over the past couple decades.
“Coming up with new designs regularly and trying to appeal to a market that will prefer our products, no matter the price, seems to be the best approach,” Edwina says, noting that purchasing power of Ghanaians are limited.
“A lot of people do not earn so much, so price is a critical determinant on what they would want to buy. Even though research has shown good quality products as the main reason for choosing fabric, affordability is gaining grounds due to dwindling fortunes of customers. The easiest and obvious choice will be a pirated version of my product which will sell about half my wholesale price at retail.
“Demand keeps going down and it takes a very interested crop with a niche market to look at this sector. Our target is therefore thehigh- end-niche-market, which is growing,” she explains.
While the Chinese competition ensured that most large Ghanaian textile manufacturers were crowded out of the mass market, leading to the demise of over 10 major textiles and dyeing firms, the new crop of small-scale but smart entrepreneurs are beating their paths to the high-value end of the international market, especially in the West.
Edwina, an art graduate of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, has designed for various fashion designers, wholesalers and retailers in various parts of the USA, UK and South Africa and has hit it with notable customers, including the iconic tennis family, the Williams, international singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, wife of US presidential hopeful, Cindy McCain, and award winning author, Maureen Orth.
“Mrs. Obama using my product is boosting appeal for my products in the US market, where with AGOA (Africa Growth And Opportunities Act), most buyers from the USA will look at taking from the African countries, which include Ghana, and get a tax waiver,” Edwina disclosed.
Her exquisite hand dyeing and batik techniques have found a perfect sync withUS designers who look out for quality. The process that landed Edwina’s textile in Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe is quite elaborate, but it is one that ensures detail and quality is not compromised.
Osei-Duro, the US designer, under whose label the skirt was created, first decided on the product and tried to figure out what choice of colour and motif to use, this was penciled and sent to Edwina who then generated a couple of ideas from the motif and made samples with various colours. The two arranged the motif for a second generation of samples and colours, which was then produced by Edwina. Osei-Duro settled on a final sample. A few yards were then hand printed and dyed by Edwina and sent to Cadling, one of the seamstresses in Ghana that Osei-Duro works with in the stitching and crocheting of its panels. Osei-Duro then sought orders in the USA, after which the textile was mass produced at Edtex and the order stitched by Cadling.
This new approach of staying at the high-value end of the market requires a steady flow of talent into the industry.
“We are aware of the need to keep Ghana at the cutting edge of the industry and that informed our decision to open Edtex up as a regular place for internship by students of textiles in the tertiary institutions,” says Edwina.
Edtex sources materials mainly locally but does experiment with other fabrics and uses them, once they pick the dye.
Trained as an artist, specializing in textile design and production, Edwina has personally been training and mentoring many young enthusiasts.
She recounts how for her, it has been a long journey. “I started sewing as a teenager and looked out for uniquely created patterns for special clothing for myself. The journey started with reading art in secondary school and further in the university to satisfy that need. Designing is a very interesting and fulfilling experience that is so refreshing especially when customers enjoy the product outcome.
“There is an endless supply of ideas in nature and all activities around us. Playing with colour and enjoying movement of motifs for various arrangements gives you endless pleasure and motivation to continue,” she says.
Edwina who sees herself first and foremost as an entrepreneur, a pacesetter, and as an innovator, with an endless supply of ideas says; “passion, passion, and passion for the work I do is what keeps me going in a tough terrain. And as an innovator and pacesetter, new ideas are pushed out regularly thereby keeping me in the sector.”
Edtex and Cadling may be focused on pushing into the global market, but other innovative entrepreneurs are strategically positioning to capture a burgeoning domestic market for quality African prints and designs.
“As Ghana is rapidly moving up the middle income ladder, the improving purchasing power of an increasing section of the population is leading to more sophisticated tastes, not least in fashion, and much as we eye the international market we’re positioning ourselves strongly to take advantage of this growing domestic market,” says Awurabena Okrah, CEO of Winglow Clothes and Textiles.
To her mind, and many like her, taste is shifting away from factory rejects and first grade used clothing that stocked most boutiques, to authentic clothing designs that make users feel good.
“The challenge as well as the shortcomings of domestic producers have been their reliance on a couple of sewing machines that are inadequate in producing the kind of sophisticated quality finishing that characterise imported clothing,” Mrs. Okrah explained.
Winglow with its massive investments over the past five years into 24 industrial sewing machines, complemented by industrial cutters, steam irons, knitting and digital embroidery machines and backed by its own power source represents the new face of clothing designers and producers that are rapidly phasing out the hitherto pedestrian tailors and seamstresses.
This crop of fashion entrepreneurs is opening shops that display their uniquely designed African clothes and textiles in all of Accra’s high end suburbs and the modern shopping malls that are changing the face of retailing in the country.
“For us at Winglow, it is all about placing our customers first and ensuring that we offer them the highest quality always,” says Awurabena Okrah.
Pirating of Ghanaian designs may be hurting the country’s big textile manufacturers; however, these small but highly talented innovators may yet catch the eye of the market and trump the competition with offerings that address the emotional needs of a growing clientele looking to feel good in what they wear.
Designers like Osei-Duro believe that the use of textiles and dyeing is modern, fresh and exciting; stuff that Edwina and her Ghanaian contemporaries love doing.