Maryanne Mathias is co-founder of Osei-Duro clothing, a social enterprise that produces fashion-forward clothing in Ghana, West Africa, that emphasizes hand-dyed fabrics and offers employment opportunities in the local community.
But Ghana's vibrant culture, colours and textiles contrast sharply with the exacting demands of high-end fashion. Although their collections had been featured in Anthropologie, Barneys New York, and Selfridges, Osei-Duro was struggling to meet the quality standards of their international retail market and were losing orders as a result.
"For the first three years we have struggled to achieve sufficient, consistent quality during the entire production process of our garments," says Ms. Mathias.
She and her business partner Michelle Keogh would begin each process by supplying white, prepared-for-dye (PFD) silks and rayon fabrics to their Ghanaian employees to be hand-dyed.
"Often we found little flaws within the PFD fabric that had to be fixed," explains Ms. Mathias. "Then during the hand-dying process, it was really hard to get consistent colours, resulting in stains and discolorations on the fabric. For example, we would end up with a shirt that had a body one colour and the sleeves in another. It was very frustrating and made it difficult for the cutting."
Their problems didn't end there.
"The sewing was a catastrophe," continues Ms. Mathias. "In 2010, we expanded and contracted tailors from a local workshop. We discovered they had never encountered the fabrics we use before, having only sewn heavy cottons and polyester twills for mining uniforms."
With no education in sewing delicate hand-dyed silks and only machinery and cottons designed for heavy, industrial material, Osei-Duro's tailors were unable to produce garments that passed the stringent quality control demanded by the high-end U.S. retailers.
"Our technicians didn't know how to adjust tension of thread and fabric correctly while sewing," says Ms. Mathias. "They also weren't using standardized thread colours. We often found that when a skirt was hemmed – the stitching wouldn't start and end at the same point. And because of the thick thread and needle, unpicking work would leave noticeable holes."
At the first stage of quality control in their production, Ms. Mathias and Ms. Keogh regularly had to send 90 per cent of their Osei-Duro garments back to their tailors to be re-worked. Even then they were suffering a 20 per cent rejection rate from retailers.
"This was unacceptable since stores like Anthropologie only tolerate a reject rate of one per cent," says Ms. Mathias.
Osei-Duro needed to improve its production process fast or else risk losing the big American retailers they had worked so hard to win.
Osei-Duro, which in Ghana's Fante language means "honour" and "medicine," produces distinctive women's clothing and accessories. Since establishing the company four years ago, Ms. Mathias has called Accra, Ghana's capital city, home.
"I was doing fashion design in Montreal independently and grew frustrated with that particular industry," she recalls. "I wanted to study textiles around the world and design capsule collections in Ghana, Morocco, Egypt and India."
After researching textiles in different countries, Ms. Mathias moved to Vancouver in 2009 to pursue a UBC MBA, specializing in strategic management and sustainability. At the same time she started Osei-Duro with her business partner, high school friend and fashion designer Molly Keogh.
"It was a pretty intense time. Molly had to pick up a lot of the slack while I was studying. But as a fashion designer, I knew I had to learn about running a sustainable business if I wanted to move forward with Osei-Duro," says Ms. Mathias.
The pair progressed with their goal of designing and producing fashion lines in developing countries. "Ghana has a lot of cottage industry in textiles so it has been a great starting point for us," she says.
Ms. Mathias and Ms. Keogh are committed to operating in a sustainable and ethical manner. Having begun by employing women's sewing co-operatives, giving them a fair wage and necessary skills and training, they additionally brought on tailors in a local workshop, as the business expanded.
"Linking fashion to social, economic and political change is an exciting challenge," says Ms. Mathias.
In 2012, after careful analysis of their production process, Ms. Mathias and Ms. Keogh realized that by focusing on individual problems, they were missing the bigger picture.
"We would just bring our technicians a sample and the cloth and they would have to start without us. By the time we encountered problems during quality control we were dealing with them retrospectively and so the cycle kept being repeated," says Ms. Mathias.
The business partners started the change process by giving their employees the correct production tools. "We arranged to have all the needles, threads and buttons for Osei-Duro imported," says Ms. Mathias.
Next they decided to introduce each garment to their employees with a training package, and educate them carefully on each production point ahead of time.
Says Ms. Mathias: "Each package includes a detailed drawing of the garment, accompanied by colour swatches, with in-depth instructions for stitching, hemming and finishing. We specify what type and size of buttons, thread and needles to use (even down to the brand names required).
"We now ask that our employees create a production sample before they work on the garment proper. Then we can solve any problems before the real production starts. "
From having to ask their tailors to re-work 90 per cent of garments at the first stage of quality control, and then an additional 25 per cent following final production, Ms. Mathias and Ms. Keogh have reduced the damages to five percent by July 2013 thanks to their changes in production.
"The quality control time has gone down at least 50 per cent," says Ms. Mathias. "It's a lot less stressful now and our profit has gone up. Per 1000 garments, we're now selling 150 more each time. Our Fall/Winter collection just shipped out and we've had no orders returned which is a first."
Earlier this summer, the First Lady of the United States was photographed wearing Osei-Duro's 2013 strata panel skirt in green Rubiks at a round-table discussion on education and technology in South Africa, part of the first family's tour of three African countries.
"Having Michelle Obama wear our skirt to such a high profile event proves we are on the right track and our hard work is paying off," notes Ms. Mathias.
Jeff Kroeker is a lecturer in the accounting division at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.