The "Working in Ghana" Project

Clothing Designer and Producer

[Mr. Osei's business is located at his residence in one of the better neighborhoods of Accra. The office/retail room is detached from the house. It contains two wardrobes of merchandise for sale: men's shirts and suits, and women's dresses, skirts, blouses. There is also a small dressing space for trying on clothing, and a desk and chairs. The sewing and cutting rooms are located in the residence, where he lives with his wife and three young children. A housemaid also lives with the family. Of the workers who produce the clothing, four are employed and three are apprentices. He refers to the workers as "my boys" and the sewing room as the "production site." The latter contains several hand-operated sewing machines. The cutting room is nearly filled with a long table where patterns and cloth are cut. Mr. Osei is in his early forties. He completed his Ordinary Level certificate in Kumasi, his home town, and then took training in clothing technology in the United Kingdom. Allan Wicker interviewed him in the office and production site.]

I discovered at an early age that I had a talent for making clothing. My family had a tailor, and I watched him work. It looked easy and interesting. So at home I took some of my own clothes apart and used my sister's sewing machine to make other items from them. Soon I was making clothes for other people. I did a brief apprenticeship for six months with a tailor to learn how to make men's suits. The work we did was "free-hand cutting." We used no patterns; clothes were "made-to-measure." When I was twenty I opened a small shop in Kumasi, where I lived, to make suits and trousers. Shortly after that, in 1972, I went to Britain to receive training in the clothing trade. I attended technical school in fashion design and clothing technology for four years, then worked in mass production dress making in the UK and Austria for three more years. I came back to Ghana in 1980, but because of bad economic times, I wasn't able to get materials or do work at my profession. I started the current business in 1984.

Presently most of our work here is made-to-measure clothing for ladies and gents. I design what we sell, then we make it up for customers. Including me, there are eight people working here.

The clothing we produce is either sold at retail from my showing room, or placed on consignment at one of five or so shops in Accra that display my products.

I am the only one who cuts cloth. I do not entrust the job to others so as not to waste materials. If I have to go in to the city to shop for materials or look for markets for our products, I will get up early and cut the cloth that is to be sewn into clothes that day. I usually begin about 7 a.m. The boys come at 9 and work to 5:30. The production site is open only on weekdays, but I keep the retail operation going on weekends as well. People can come anytime, since I live here.

Just now we're making shirts for a few shops. I've sketched the designs and made patterns from which to cut the cloth. A good part of our business is still custom work. People come in to be measured, and then I make up the dress or whatever. Most customers are women, who also buy for their husbands, who are working. My ready-made goods customers include white people, Asians, Ghanaians. I try to design clothing that cuts across international and cultural barriers. For example, I don't try to do the typical African styles. I want to design items that have a wide appeal, but show influences from different countries. For example, that shirt (he points to one) has a small strip of kente cloth (a hand-woven local cloth) in it that any Ghanaian would recognize. But it is not the bright-colored type that would make it prominently and obviously African. For people who don't know kente cloth, it is just a simple decorative touch.

I have to be frank and tell you that although I am doing mostly made-to-measure work, that is not what I am really interested in. When I returned to Ghana, I intended to go into mass production of clothing, but the conditions weren't right, so I turned to this. Now, I'm again hoping to go into mass production for the international market. I won't be happy until I can achieve that. What I'm now doing, I don't want to do.

Mass production is much better because it allows for expansion. In made-to-measure work, there are serious limits--one can only do so much custom work in a day. You are limited by your energy and the hours in a day. In mass production, it's different. I have only to do the design, create a pattern, and then oversee the production. It is not a big thing to increase the output. I could cut clothes for 200 people a day.

(Would you say that you are more of an entrepreneur than an artist?)

I would say so. I enjoy my work, but the incentives are minimal. Sometimes I don't know whether to continue with the made-to-measure work. I know that my work is good, and would be well received abroad. In Britain I had some fashion shows and the response was good. Some of my designs were featured in magazines and newspapers. My work has also appeared in magazines in Ghana and Nigeria.

Earlier this year I was in Belgium, hoping to develop an export business. There was a good reception to my work. We had a fashion show and some of my designs were on Belgian television. People were even calling the TV station to find out where they could get my clothes. I also took some samples to show to shop owners.

But I ran into difficulties with the person who was my partner in this endeavor. She is a Ghanaian who is married to an Belgian. She didn't know about pricing, and quoted prices for items that were much too high--more than anyone would be willing to pay, such as 600 American dollars for a dress. She didn't understand mass production, and wanted to make a profit on 40 items. So we have dissolved the partnership, and although I want to sell to the Western market, I will next try in some other country. I've also learned that I must form a partnership with someone who knows the clothing business.

I would like to market my clothing in countries like the U.S., Germany, Britain, Canada. The real target would be the U.S. The Americans are willing to try something new. And it is a multi-racial society that should be receptive to the kind of clothes I design. In the U.S. market, I would initially give ladies wear the priority, rather than men's wear. What I would produce would be "African-influenced" designs, including accessories: shoes, hats, bags. I want to create clothing that is different--that won't get out of date like the latest top designs do. Eventually I also want to design my own fabrics.

What I need, and what I am now looking for, is an honest partner in the clothing business abroad--someone with whom I could sit down, share ideas, arrive at new designs, and who could follow through with what we arrived at. Perhaps someone who has a factory but wants some new ideas to increase his sales. We would produce some samples first, then invite fashion buyers and agents to look at them. On the basis of that, we could know whether to continue.

I have considered doing the manufacturing in Ghana, but I think it would be better to produce the goods where they would be sold. A big practical problem if we were to produce in Ghana would be getting the product out in a timely fashion. Part of this problem is having good quality fabric in sufficient quantities when we needed it. The fabric would have to be imported from Europe, where the best quality cloth is made. Textile dealers can furnish a lot of samples, but they don't keep the designs active very long. So by the time I got orders for a quantity of goods, it is very possible that the fabric that was used in the samples would no longer be available. And there would be the problems of importing the cloth to Ghana. Also, the machines needed for mass production are not now available in this country. We would have to import them--to create a factory.

For these reasons, I think it would be better to do the manufacture in the U.S. or another country such as Korea or Taiwan where there are much faster machines. They can easily produce 1000 garments in a week. Here, if I got an order for 2000 garments, I couldn't fill it in a month. For this reason I'm afraid to send out samples because if the response was strong, I couldn't fill the orders. The Asian producers are hard to compete against because they can get cheaper fabrics and their technology is in place. If you can only make 20 to 40 garments per day, and you have overhead, you have to make more profit per item. What would allow me to survive is my designs, which are different from theirs.

(How does your work affect your family and social life?)

Where I live is also where I work. At times, this affects my family life. I don't really have time of my own. People may come on Saturday or Sunday to see if they can be fitted or to get a product. That's another benefit of mass production--the factory is away from one's home. Although I try to keep some time for the family, it's hard. When I'm helping the kids to study, I may have to break to deal with customers. I do try to keep my attendance at church meetings, which are three times a week: Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. I go to church with the family.

(Do you have a philosophy of work?)

Whatever you want to do as an artisan, you can only achieve it if you are dedicated. You must concentrate on it. Success isn't served on a silver platter. You must work hard; never give up. You have to believe that there is a future for you. Some where along the line you will break through.