TIW: You previously stated that “Osei-Duro began as and still remains an experiment.” What exactly do you mean by this?

Maryanne: It started a bit on accident. In 2007, I took a break (from my previous label Hastings + Main Clothing, where I hand dyed and made everything on my own) to travel around the world. I ended up designing collections in the different countries I visited, including Ghana, Morocco, Egypt, and India.

When I came back, I applied to grad school and managed to enlist Molly into going to Ghana and doing a capsule collection. Originally, we were going to go to different countries and do different collections, and call the brand Ever Onward Osei-Duro. But, once we got to Ghana, we realized how much research, development, and management we’d need to put into the project and ended up staying. 

TIW: What originally sparked your interest in Ghana and its craftwork?

Maryanne: I was visiting a friend who was living and working in Ghana. I stayed with her for three months and was inspired by the rich cottage textile industry in Ghana. As someone who previously had a label where I dyed and sewed everything, it was an easy shift to working with local makers.

TIW: Often the image we have of a culture and the actual culture itself are drastically different. When you first went to Ghana, did you discover any misconceptions or biases within your preconceived images?

Maryanne: I didn’t have any preconceived notions. Aside from a good friend who was Ghanaian and who would tell me stories about Ghana, and reading Roots, my knowledge on West Africa was limited.

TIW: At first, there must have been unexpected challenges, as well, right?

Maryanne: There were many challenges, but probably the biggest one was lack of funding. We both saved $7000 to go and start the company and have not taken on any outside investment.

TIW: While Osei-Duro strives to be an ethical exchange of cultures, what would you say to those who question the integrity of your business and see it as North Americans exploiting less-privileged artisans and their traditional customs for a profit?

Maryanne: Since starting the business in 2009, I can say that I have learned a lot, and I continue to explore my role as a white woman from the Global North working in a Black country. I am sure we would not have approached the business as we did in 2009, if we started in 2021. Things are changing, and we’re really excited about the changes. Given this, we try to look at our situation holistically from where we are now. We’re here, in this capitalist post-colonial world, and we need to figure it out.

Osei-Duro employs 12 full time employees, pays well over living wage and provides great benefits*. Aside from our team, we contract with many more sewers and artisans who work for themselves and in small companies. The contractors set their prices, and we pay them what they ask for. I think the key word is “exploit.” The agency of the people we contract with is expressed through them setting their own prices and terms.

Also, we absolutely acknowledge global and racial inequities. We come together as business collaborators, always working towards equity in our dealings together. Though I obviously cannot speak for the people we work with, we do not feel that we are exploiting people. Part of the reason we have not put energy towards advertising the “good” we do is because we felt this would be exploiting our staff for marketing gains. However, we see now that we have to talk about it; we have to make it abundantly clear. So it’s a balancing act, and we are constantly working to analyze and change.

I would also add that Osei-Duro has helped to revitalize an interest in batik, which has been really struggling as a technique here in Ghana for many years (basically since structural adjustment in the 1090s opened the doors to the second-hand clothing trade). Young people have not been interested in learning the trade, and older sellers often lament that no one is buying their goods. The batikers we work with have been able to hire and train new young assistants, literally bringing new life into the industry. By raising batik’s profile we’ve supported a number of other West Africa brands to bring their batik wares to market. In terms of profit, we put almost everything back into the business. At the end of the year, if we do have a small profit, it usually goes to debt servicing.

*Full details can be found on the About page of Osei-Duro’s website. 
Top: Lilith print by Ilishio Lovejoy
Bottom: Kwaku doing QC by Erandi de Silva

Top: Osei-Duro cofounder Maryanne Mathias checking out a print by Ilishio LovejoyBottom: Bawah by Jonathan Alderson

TIW: You must know quite well that, no matter how pure your intentions may be, people can still misunderstand you. How do you deal with being criticized or treated unfairly?

Maryanne: Most of the criticism, feedback, and conversation is online, where it is hard to understand the nuances of what someone may be saying. Because it’s difficult to read tone online, it’s easy to get insulted or take something the wrong way. I try to read the messages from a place of curiosity about our company, rather than as attacks. From that space, I am able to respond as much as possible, without being defensive. We’ve had some great feedback. It’s pushed us to be more transparent on our About page, and we continue to add more information about what we are doing.

TIW: As a business and as creators, do you think it’s important to take into account everyone’s opinions? Or are opinions just that - opinions?

Maryanne: For better or for worse, we do take everyone’s opinions seriously. We want to look at the root of it and learn. But some people’s opinions matter more than others. A concerned customer who actually wants to know how our profit sharing works matters more than the anonymous person with no Instagram followers or friends who appears to be online just to stir the pot.

TIW: What has been your biggest lesson since founding Osei-Duro?

Maryanne: Patience.

TIW: I found it interesting that Osei-Duro has implemented a barter system as one method of payment. Tell us more.

Maryanne: We at Osei-Duro are interested in alternative economies and work towards a more balanced global system, where resources flow equitably. We find that cutting money out of the equation is one great way to do this. As a result, we are proud to have a barter option to our site*!

*For more information, please visit the Barter page on Osei-Duro’s website.

TIW: Finally, Osei-Duro’s designs display a variety of traditional craftwork - batik, tie and dye, block printing, lost-wax casting, to name a few. What has it been like to learn from the Ghanaian artisans, and do you have any favorite memories with your employees?

Maryanne: It has been incredible. I think one of my favorite memories was taking a little textile trip up to Tamale to research hand weaving and dyeing.
Editor’s Note: At The Int’l Whisperer, we do our best to maintain the original integrity of our content. Interviews are edited for clarity only. While many of our subjects are interviewed outside of their native language or use their own local variant of a particular language, we recognize this as authenticity and refrain from “standardizing” their original expressions, syntax, or spelling.