Linking fashion, crafts and livelihood
Luxury textiles and jewellery are not new to India. The maharajahs patronised guilds with master craftspeople working in fine weaving and embroideries for centuries. They created custom-made clothes and saris for royalty, some of which are yet to be matched for their sophisticated concepts and superb workmanship. Indian luxury goods have always been defined by their exceptional heritage value in that they were invariably handmade, using skills inherited over generations. Bespoke textiles in India, therefore, were never meant for mass consumption, but were produced under the patronage of kings and temples.
This order has changed radically in the western world. In the last five decades, many European fashion houses, created by highly talented but a small number of designers, have been bought over by multinational companies. They then began mass producing one-of-a-kind couture collections and sold them at enormously expensive prices. Marketing and not handcrafted quality dictated the sales, and technology started playing a large and vital part in the manufacture, till they were no longer totally hand-tooled.
In the post-pandemic world, we will need to look at a different concept of luxury goods, especially from an Indian perspective. There are at least 16 million craftspeople in India, whose works are not showcased in museums. The production of Indian luxury goods takes place in modest environments, mostly villages in the unorganised sector. What is not modest is the creativity and handiwork of the artistes who toil in relative obscurity. It is remarkable that this sector still functions in India.
In the absence of institutional support, bank credit and government financial packages, these artistes and craftspeople find no space or sympathy from any quarter. Handcrafted luxury goods are our inheritance and we have to find solutions which are innovative, and not leave it to the ministry of textiles alone.
The existence of our textile heritage is almost like a miracle. It has survived due to a number of accidental factors. In its initial phases, National Institute of Fashion Technology was born, which produced the first batches of Indian fashion designers. They were encouraged to show collections, which focused on artisanal handicrafts that had survived the test of time. Part of this was due to the relatively small financial outlay required to put together collections.
Though modest in commercial terms, the Indian fashion industry was able to create disproportionate hype across the country. It influenced the film world and found traction even in the rural hinterland, creating a unique identity. There was an aspiration to belong to this new fashion phenomenon, which was purely indigenous. This is rare anywhere in the world.
The media had just found its wings and was only endlessly happy to cover the flow of new collections from young designers. Glamorous wedding trousseaus echoed the feudal styles of the maharajahs of yore. Fashion designers were on top of their game in India and the trickle-down effect led to the celebration of folk arts such as bandhini, zardozi and the fabulous embroideries of Kutch. Handwoven Benarasi saris, paithanis and patolas from Gujarat were also showcased across the world. There was a premium on handmade textiles and garments.
In real terms, before the pandemic, the textile and apparel industry in India employed nearly 45 million people, next only to the agriculture sector. Handicraft exports from India to the United States increased 2% year on year; it was $3.39 billion in February 2020.
Today, we see a tragic reversal; export orders have dried up and domestic demand, crumbled. This has resulted in large-scale unemployment across the weaving, printing and embroidery communities, which have been hit the hardest, and which have little access to credit. The communities of weavers in Benaras and elsewhere have to rely on middlemen for loans to buy yarn. This way, they get trapped in a vicious cycle which leads to great impoverishment.
We will need fashion designers to become the catalysts in an industry on which so many livelihoods depend. A lot of small enterprises that survived on hype may shut shop. But with the depth of the crafts sector, there is some hope for continuing the tradition. As spending patterns become more conservative, people’s tastes also change, One hopes they will once again opt for what they understand — more classic designs, handwoven saris, authentic embroidery.
I am beginning to see a fashion renaissance of Indian textiles. Rohit Bal is experimenting with dyes sourced from black carrots, which are used to make kanji, a North Indian drink; it gives a lovely saffron colour to the cloth. Last heard, Rakesh Thakur is looking at yarns dyed in indigo. I am yet again seeking the genius of the kalamkari artistes from Machillipatnam who created the exquisite flowers and shoots that initiated the chintz rage in Europe. I hope, in this way, in India at least, fashion will become more organic and sustainable.
The real problem then lies with the marketing of these handicrafts. The textile ministry is making a conscious effort at documenting the crafts of the country. I sincerely hope that there are enough start-ups that can make these available in the virtual world. Websites don’t need retail space or middlemen to sell India’s rich legacy of handicrafts.
They can introduce India’s vast treasure trove of luxury goods to the world. They can connect buyers with the craftsmen who make these rare luxury goods. This will revive interest in crafts. We have to think of innovative solutions to save our heritage. We owe this to future generations and to our craftspeople.
Ritu Kumar is a fashion designer. The views expressed are personal