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What Kate Spade Learned From Manufacturing in Rwanda

Tapestry-owned Kate Spade is using its reach and influence to impact an underprivileged community halfway around the globe from its New York City headquarters.

Since its launch several years ago, the Abahizi factory in Rwanda has produced more than 33,000 bags for Kate Spade and is on track to hit 52,000 this year. The bags are made by 300 women “and a few men,” according to chief marketing officer Mary Beech.

Speaking at the Fashion Tech Forum in New York City Friday, Beech said the Abahizi facility hit its stride in efficiency once Kate Spade tweaked its original production plans. In the early days, it was having the social enterprise produce nine SKUs, including scarves and handbags. Trying to do too many things at once wasn’t enabling the workers to do any one thing well, Beech explained. Now, the factory makes just two styles of handbags—like the way most other global factories specialize in a limited range of product, she noted—and is hitting its quality metrics.

Beech said the products coming out of Abahizi look and feel exactly like any other Kate Spade bag. The brand knew it didn’t want to settle for a “crafty” or “artisan” look simply because this group of product was coming out of a marginalized community in Africa, Beech said. To date, the factory has a 98 percent worker retention rate, driven in large part by attractive benefits like maternity leave, English classes and financial literacy counseling. Now, women who previously had little might own a piece of land, their own home or be able to pay for their children’s school fees.

With several years of successful operation under its belt, Abahizi is working toward B Corp certification to strengthen its social enterprise credits. As other fashion companies look for ways to effect change globally, Beech stressed that brands should be prepared for their CSR efforts to withstand what changes may come. The CMO described the feelings of panic that arose as chatter about the deal with Coach and now Tapestry started. Any talk of a “sale” strikes fear into hearts—especially when 300 women in Rwanda are depending on your brand for their livelihood, Beech explained.

But that was all for naught. Kate Spade’s new status under the Tapestry umbrella changed little for its Rwandan venture and now, even Coach will be producing bags there this summer, Beech noted.

Product from Abahizi is part of Kate Spade’s On Purpose collection, which is a driver in attracting socially conscious shoppers who might not otherwise have considered the brand, according to Beech.