Social enterprise meets high fashion

Ghana’s vibrant culture, colours and textiles contrast sharply with the exacting demands of high-end fashion.

Yet, Sauder School of Business graduate Maryanne Mathias has been able to merge these worlds.

She co-owns Osei-Duro, a Ghana-based social enterprise that emphasizes hand-dyed fabrics and offers employment opportunities and job training for women in West Africa.

Osei-Duro, which in Ghana’s Fante language means “honour” and “medicine,” produces distinctive women’s clothing and accessories. The collection has been featured in high-end shopping outlets such as Barneys New York and Selfridges through collaborations with a design company called complex geometries. This March, Mathias was in Paris showing pieces for the fall and winter season to international buyers.

Mathias started the company with high school friend and fashion designer Molly Keogh in early 2009—around the same time she began the 16-month MBA program at Sauder.

Linking fashion to social, economic and political change is an exciting challenge, says Mathias, a Vancouver native who had for many years called Montreal home. “I decided to attend Sauder because of its strength in sustainability.”

As well, Mathias thought it necessary to get a handle on strategic management. Early on in the program, she took an entrepreneur course that stressed extensive preparation, product and market analyses as well as careful cost and revenue forecasting.

“We were told that it’s certainly not a good idea to start a business with your friend from high school,” laughs Mathias, who holds a bachelor’s degree in fashion design and technology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Jumping in feet first meant having to learn from her mistakes, says Mathias, who was named the 2010 Entrepreneur British Columbia champion by national charitable organization Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship.

“But over analyzing can also deter people from taking risks and getting started.”

Mathias says Osei-Duro’s next steps will be to incorporate fabrics such as silks and wool knits along with the famous cottons produced in West Africa such as bogolan or “mud cloth,” which is grown, woven and printed in Mali.

“In the future, we hope to work with printers to apply Ghana’s ancient tradition batik printing techniques in new ways.”

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