I was delighted this past March when I saw photographs of my friends, designers Rahul Mishra and Manish Arora, having dinner with Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and his wife, Brigitte, at the Élysée Palace in honor of the fashion industry’s top creative who had gathered in Paris for Fashion Week. Speaking about the event Macron told the New York Times newspaper, “My deepest wish is that creators, whether they come from India, Japan, Africa, the United States or China, will consider coming to our country.”
I was proud of Rahul and Manish, and proud of India.
Shortly after that I saw images of a celebrity in California wearing clothes from another friend, Aneeth Arora, and her label Péro. And as spring turned to summer I was excited again, this time when my own brand was featured at the influential boutique Aerin in East Hampton, N.Y.
What struck me about all of this were the similarities between the companies. While the actual products are quite different, they are all homegrown, creating and producing their original content in India. Furthermore, they all rely heavily on handicrafts and part of their marketing message is the handmade story, whether the technique is weaving, embroidery, or printing, and all of the clothes are modern, not traditional Indian silhouettes.
It then occurred to me that we cannot explore the subject of Indian design and craft in the world today, about achievements, challenges, and potential, without considering the wider context of the global fashion market in its entirety with all of its facets. And this is when India’s potential becomes very exciting because, generally speaking, the fashion consumer-goods business is deeply flawed. Some might even say that it is sick.
GLOBAL FASHION SCENE
In October of last year the Swedish fashion retailer H&M was accused of burning 12 tones of unsold garments per year in spite of their ongoing sustainability efforts. Though they denied the claim, there is strong evidence that the fashion giant has incinerated approximately 60 tones of usable, unsold clothing over the past few years, according to the journal BoF and research from the Danish television program Operation X from TV2. In July of this year the BBC reported that the British luxury brand Burberry destroyed unsold clothes, accessories and perfume worth £28.6 million last year to protect its brand from being diluted by the discounting of overstock. The report says that this takes the total value of goods Burberry has destroyed over the past five years to more than £90 million.
The global fashion industry is sick, and the illness revolves around a complex industrial economy built on competition and consumption driven by low costs achieved through large-scale production. Hungry for ever more growth this monster is spreading as international brands enter emerging markets whose aspirational inhabitants are eager to embrace the consumption so many equate with a higher standard of living. And, while consumers, mostly in developed markets, have benefited from low prices, the unseen costs are causing growing disenchantment. The ugly side of this value-chain often includes unfair wages for workers, environmental degradation, and waste.
Young people feel strongest about the destructive effects of unsustainable mass production. 66 per cent of global millennials say they are willing to spend more on brands that are sustainable, according to the State of Fashion 2018 report by BoF & McKinsey. Nearly 90 per cent believe they will help create more sustainable products by convincing businesses and governments to change existing practices, according to research by LIM College, a school dedicated to the business of fashion in New York. In the same study, an equal percentage of respondents said they would be willing to boycott a fashion brand if it was not sustainable.
Sitting alongside this alarming image of a global fashion industry run amok is India with her vast ecosystem of craft and cottage industries. As if preserved in a bell jar, the nation contains the largest concentration of skilled craftspeople on the planet. The reason for this is manifold and complex, and can be the subject of much study and debate; nevertheless this reservoir of seemingly primordial know-how exists today throughout the country, even if it is under threat and, as many believe, is in decline. It is almost as if an archaic, agrarian, pre-industrial, system of low-carbon production has been preserved in a vacuum for exactly the type of crisis we now face.
It is widely known that, from earliest antiquity until the 19th century, India mastered the global textile trade, particularly for cotton fabrics. Archeological studies reveal technological and aesthetic innovations in agriculture and the textile arts of spinning, weaving, and printing in the Indus River Civilization as early as the Bronze Age (c. 2600 – c. 1900 BCE) that were far superior to those in other parts of the world. This led to the establishment of craft-clusters across the sub-continent that dominated global trade from Rome to Africa and Japan for millennia, influencing markets through superior design and quality. The industrial revolution of the 19th century helped end India’s textile supremacy, and in the 20th century her rich handicraft traditions were thought to be a byproduct of economic dysfunction and stagnant growth (colonialism played a big role).
While it is obvious that we must seek cleaner forms of machine-made, industrial mass production, it is also apparent that, at the upper-end of the quality spectrum, India can offer the world an artisanal alternative that is flexible, sustainable, and truly luxurious. It is with this in mind that the craftspeople of India can offer the world a healing balm for its ailing fashion business, but in order to scale craft to address modern commercialism it must be carefully and fairly managed. And, while foreign designers can and do utilise the techniques still alive in India, it is the homegrown talent within India, designers and brands such as Manish Arora, Rahul Mishra, and Pero, that are best positioned to nurture this fragile, handmade ecosystem into a modern age of global importance.