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When Hingham sisters Margeaux and Severine Fortin were preparing for a visit with relatives in Ghana earlier this year, they resolved to make it their business to interact with the local culture and economy in more ways than one.
The teenagers started researching the country online and talking with their relatives who live in Accra. They quickly learned that abundant clothing donations from wealthier nations had the effect of stifling employment for many of the country's women who had previously earned a living working as seamstresses. The girls also learned that brightly colored, high quality and uniquely patterned cotton fabric was readily available in the city markets. Putting together a line of fashionable clothing seemed like the perfect way to capitalize on their travels.
pics:sexy evening dresses
"I find clothing to be an art form and I do love fashion as a form of personal expression," says Margeaux, a 16-year-old junior at Hingham High School. "But this was definitely more about the entrepreneurial opportunity that we saw."
Starting a company is a tall order, even for seasoned entrepreneurs. Margeaux and Severine (an 18-year-old freshman at UMass Amherst) understood from the start that they could benefit greatly from the guidance of experts in the field. They looked no further than Hingham to locate an experienced fashion designer, a technical designer and a seamstress - each of whom provided invaluable mentorship in their areas of expertise.
Entama - which means "unique fabric" in Twi (the primary language of most rural villages in Ghana) - is the name they chose for the line."They asked me for my advice, and they took it," says Jill Palese, a Hingham-based fashion industry consultant who began her career studying at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and then working at various design houses before launching her own business in 15 years ago.
The girls contacted Palese early in 2016, well in advance of their trip. She instructed them to take sketches of their ideas to a seamstress who could make actual samples to take with them to Ghana. A product in hand can be useful overseas so that nothing is lost in translation, she says.
Another Hingham connection - technical designer Paula Fortin (no relation) who has worked for Talbots and J.Jill - helped the girls refine their sketches and create sizing standards. Meanwhile, Sarah England, a retired high school guidance counselor who now works as a seamstress out of her home on Elm Street, helped them design and adjust patterns based on their ideas. She also created samples of their designs out of African fabric they had purchased at a specialty store in Dorchester for its similarity to Ghanaian fabric. England continues to consult with them on their work.
"They were extremely well organized when they came to me," England says. "I enjoyed watching them refine their ideas as we tried different things. They were very open to the process."
By the time they left for their trip in June, Margeaux and Severin were able to pack several workable samples that had been made by England. Their first stop in Ghana was the Makola Market in Accra. There, they were able to purchase the fabric they needed with the money they had raised for this purpose babysitting and doing other odd jobs. Each sister had brought $1,000 on the trip to be used for buying fabric and paying seamstresses.
The next step was engaging several seamstresses they had located through word of mouth. Their first experience with two individual seamstresses was moderately successful, despite the fact that these women did not work from patterns or speak English.
"They were good at imitating some of the samples we brought," Margeaux says. A few days later, however, they found a more established sewing operation. This was a more formal shop with an English speaker in charge, and the rest of their pieces in their line were sewn there. Even so, Margeaux says she felt good about the experience with the first seamstresses: "They told us the wages they earned from working with us was enough money to last them for a year."
As Margeaux and Severine explored Ghana, they visited other villages and markets. They gathered beads for necklaces from the The Accra Art Center market, which is a winding accumulation of vendor stalls for artists, craftsman and antique collectors. Their trip also included plenty of time for exploring villages and beaches, meeting people and visiting with family.
"Everywhere we went, people were very interested in what we were doing," Margeaux says. "They were all so friendly."
By the time they came home to Hingham, they had assembled 125 pieces for their clothing line, which consists of four styles of skirts, two styles of shirts, shorts and children's sexy prom dresses
, as well as leather chokers with African beads. Entama - which means "unique fabric" in Twi (the primary language of most rural villages in Ghana) - is the name they chose for the line.
The next few months were spent seeking out retail opportunities at various events and trunk shows, some of which they hosted. To promote, professional photographers Allison Cottrill and Alyssa Fortin (Margeaux and Severine's mom) photographed the girls and friends sporting the clothing in various scenic locations, including Cape Cod, Florida and New York's Central Park.
Only a few Entama items currently remain in inventory. All of the proceeds from sales are accumulating in a business account to fund their next trip to Ghana for the continuation of their venture, Margeaux says. For more information, follow EntamaDesigns on Instagram.