National

Firm's chic Bangladesh-made bags make splash in Japan, spotlight skills of developing world

by Akiko Yasuhara

Kyodo

When it comes to style and quality, the clutches of Paris or the shoulder bags of Milan are not the alpha and the omega.

Another option is being fashioned in Bangladesh from staple materials by skilled local workers.

For Eriko Yamaguchi, 35, the designer and owner of bag maker Motherhouse, developing countries are not places to exploit for cheap labor just to expand her business. Her philosophy is to create high-end products from underdeveloped countries that support the local economy.

“The concept of Motherhouse is to produce bags that are bought not because our customers feel sorry and want to aid the Third World but because our products are actually trendy and good quality,” Yamaguchi said.

In the fall of 2003, when Yamaguchi first traveled to Bangladesh, she never imagined launching a business that would now have 21 stores across Japan and six in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

She was an undergraduate majoring in development studies and was interning at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, but was not exactly sure what it really meant to assist the Third World, since she had never seen a developing country with her own eyes.

Bangladesh had become her destination of choice because it was the first country that appeared in an internet search in which she entered two words: “Asia” and “poorest.”

What Yamaguchi saw was nothing close to what she had imagined the “poorest country in Asia” would be.

Seeing people living in slums beyond the pale of human existence, the question that Yamaguchi had never stopped asking herself suddenly came to the fore: “Everyone has a mission, so what is mine?”

She knew that she needed to search for the answer in Bangladesh.

During her two-week trip, Yamaguchi passed an exam to enter the graduate school of BRAC University in Dhaka, returned home to finish her studies, and was back in Bangladesh six months later.

Motherhouse’s story began with Yamaguchi’s introduction to jute, a natural fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads, at a product fair. She began to sketch bags that could be made from jute and took them to factories across Bangladesh.

Yamaguchi’s diminutive frame belies an unbridled enthusiasm. But it took quite a while, she said, before she was taken seriously and was able to have her bags manufactured.

Even back home in Japan when Yamaguchi returned to sell her products, she received many discouraging comments to the effect that bags made in Bangladesh would never appeal to Japanese.

And then there were the times that she had to start from scratch, like when the factory, located in a region about two hours’ drive from Dhaka, was literally empty when she arrived for work one morning.

Security, too, has been a big issue in a country where terror and demonstrations occur frequently and state emergencies are commonplace.

But Yamaguchi has stayed true to her heart and intuition, according to the vice president of Motherhouse, Daisuke Yamazaki, 36. “It’s not that she’s not scared, but she will just never stop until she has achieved her objectives.”

While Yamaguchi spends half the year abroad, Yamazaki, a former analyst at Goldman Sachs Japan and an expert in finance, manages the business at home.

Since launching Motherhouse in 2004 with jute products when Yamaguchi was 24, the company’s main product has become leather bags, stoles and jewelry using materials from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

The company expects sales of over ¥1 billion (about $9 million) for fiscal 2016.

Motherhouse has been able to successfully expand its business in part because it has established its own production plant in the country, Yamaguchi said. The company takes pride in the strong ties it has with factory employees.

“We’re not foreign buyers that just leave with cheap production from poor countries and do not come back,” said Yamaguchi. “Our local workers know that we are here to stay forever to produce the best products.”

In Bangladesh, 31.5 percent of the population was living below the national poverty line in 2014, while the proportion of employed people living under $1.90 per day was 73.5 percent in 2012, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Motherhouse provides a working environment where “people can work humanely,” Yamaguchi said, not like machines for cheap production, as is the case with workforces in many developing nations.

The company’s employees are paid up to twice the average local wage, while their benefits include medical checkups, factory lunches, plus meals at night for overtime and company trips.

A corporate loan is funded by factory workers to financially assist colleagues in need of money for family matters as they are usually restricted from borrowing from banks. The company had been providing a factory tour for Japanese about three or four times a year, but has discontinued the service due to security concerns.

Yamaguchi said workers in developing countries are perceived as people of limited craftsmanship, although they actually possess skills comparable to those who make top European brand bags. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“At the beginning, nothing was sell-able quality-wise. But I sit down with our local workers and make products with them and listen to their stories. It’s really exciting how new ideas keep popping up after we connect through all the discussions.”

Yamaguchi continues to search for original materials in developing nations that can be turned into high-end products.

She is eying new stores in countries in Europe and one of the world’s fashion hubs, New York.

“I hope to show how diverse the world can be through our products,” Yamaguchi said. “I’m excited about the new challenges waiting ahead.”