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Fashion’s search for meaning

Fashion by itself is no longer in fashion. To be desirable, it must be transparent, socially inclusive, good for both the planet and the person

Actor Jane Fonda with Gucci’s eco-friendly Econyl bag. (Gucci)

As 2020 changes into nightclothes, deconstructing fashion’s blanched look only through the pandemic would offer a flawed story. The global lockdowns, the shuttering of stores, the human cost of halted production, grim reminders that fashion is a discretionary purchase, did lead to stupendous upheaval. Yet the metamorphic relationship between equality and exclusivity finally chose a side. It turned fashion, as we knew it, into unfashion.

Shoes, clothes, bags, trends, celebrities, OTT series, glamour-spiked (virtual) events—nothing resonated unless tagged with something meaningful. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) started a fund for artisans, celebrities spoke for recyclable fashion, Meghan Markle gave up her duchess tiaras for free Californian skies and cropped pants, fashion magazines put doctors on covers to convey courage, Gita Gopinath, the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, was Vogue India’s cover girl in November. That was hardly all. Actor-singer Zendaya won the fashion visionary award at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Italy, for being “a trailblazer in diversity, equality and sustainability”. Designers Mia Morikawa and Shani Himanshu of the Indian brand 11.11/ eleven eleven showed a film at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s season-fluid edition in October without a single fashion model. Instead, they showed artisanal hands at work, from hand-spinning to yarn-dyeing, exhibiting the “seed to stitch” journey of garments. An NFC (near-field communication) button stood for transparency, helping locate the exact destination of the spinner, dyer, weaver and artisan who made the garment.

What mattered is the spirit of our times. Dignity and equality for those who slave in fashion production. Circularity instead of the more-is-merry doctrine. Leadership and storytelling that is sensitive to race and diversity. Design that does not favour only the naturally pretty, tall or able-bodied. Clothes made without toxic dyes and polluting materials, their manufacturing process reimagined in socially just and environmentally safe ways.

Rise of dark stories

The pandemic has accelerated such transitions. But so has the Black Lives Matter movement in the West and sobering lessons from the migrant exodus from Indian cities. Among the stark questions that manufacturers and designers must answer are those about the miserable daily lives of migrants, a section of whom are allied workers in the fashion industry. What indeed is the real cost of beautiful clothes when those who work in the bottom rungs find themselves disowned and homeless in a crisis as unprecedented as this? An October report, titled The State Of Circular Innovation In The Indian Fashion And Textile Industries, by Fashion for Good, a platform for innovation, collaboration and community, reports the Indian fashion industry employs about 300 million people across the supply chain, 80% of them women. “As a production hub and a labour-intensive geography, worker empowerment is a critical area of innovation in India,” it says.

There has been a surge in dark stories. Just last week, a report by the Washington-based Center for Global Policy found that over 570,000 people from China’s minority groups are forced to labour in the Xinjiang region’s cotton farms, which supply one-fifth of the world’s cotton. It says some of the most-known fast-fashion, sportswear and luxury brands source their cotton and products from China. In India, a number of skilled and unskilled workers (including underage workers) are part of invisible supply chains for Western firms, where an order is sourced out to a vendor who outsources it to an unverified intermediary who “gets the job done”. Fashion brands barely know the hands behind their handbags, so to say, leave alone tracking welfare, wages and working conditions.

Not everything, though, can be laid at the door of ignorance. Recently, The New York Times reported the bankruptcy of top league Indian designer Manish Arora, alleging his company had not settled the dues of a section of employees, many of whom had continued to work even as the business spiralled out of control. The delays in salaries had begun in 2017 and some are still waiting to be paid.

Migrant lives matter, women’s lives matter, Dalit lives matter, farmers’ rights matter. And they are all linked to material, manufacture and supply of what eventually becomes fashion.

If you look at 2020 fashion through these prisms, it has been an unnerving year.

The diversity drumroll

Ritu Kumar’s campaign, ‘Equally Beautiful’, represents four religious faiths.
Ritu Kumar’s campaign, ‘Equally Beautiful’, represents four religious faiths. (Ritu Kumar)

Over the past few years, after a host of top luxury and fast-fashion brands—Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Gucci, H&M—were called out for producing culturally inappropriate fashion, corrective measures saw more brands realising there was sense in being “woke”. In 2018, H&M announced its first diversity leader. In 2019, the Italian luxury brand Prada set up the Prada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council. Gucci too hired a new head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Yet this year’s protests after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in the US, which added fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement, showed the disconnect between claims and reality, in the fashion media too. In June, Anna Wintour, the global chief content officer and artistic director of Condé Nast, the most powerful fashion editor in the world, was called out for “sidelining women of colour for years”. Wintour apologised for “publishing stories and images that were hurtful or intolerant”. Christene Barberich, editor-in-chief of the 15-year-old fashion media website Refinery29, stepped down after allegations of discrimination from employees. In August, black employees at Nike urged the brand to face up to equality issues in the organisation before releasing its You Can’t Stop Us campaign, which features top black athletes, including tennis star Serena Williams.

The outcome matters as much. Diversity concerns ushered in unseen groups of models on catwalks and hitherto ignored professionals into workplaces, opening up new opportunities. Small changes, but they have begun to shrink what used to be the front-runners in the fashion game: elitism, exclusivity and privilege. According to the Diversity Report on digital platform fashionspot.com, the Spring 2020 season was historic for the diversity at the fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Of the 7,390 model castings at 215 major shows, 41.5% were models of colour.

Indian couturier Gaurav Gupta’s Name Is Love show, which opened the FDCI’s India Couture Week in September, queered the catwalk—it was inclusive in size, gender, sexuality and age. Travel and lifestyle brand Nicobar chose the grey-haired and elegant doctor, Gita Prakash, as the protagonist of its Diwali fashion edit. Raw Mango’s Festive 2020 fashion film and campaign Moomal, shot in founder-designer Sanjay Garg’s home town in Rajasthan, features 53-year-old actor Mita Vashisht. Kochi-based designer Sreejith Jeevan, founder of the label ROUKA, featured his mother Sailaja Jeevan in a sari campaign. Just last week, fashion’s grand matriarch, Ritu Kumar, released Equally Beautiful, a campaign by photographer Bikramjit Bose, with actor Zoya Hussein representing four faiths.

Table for two

A muslin piece from Injiri by Chinar Farooqui, who does not participate in fashion weeks owing to the ‘pressure’ of the industry.
A muslin piece from Injiri by Chinar Farooqui, who does not participate in fashion weeks owing to the ‘pressure’ of the industry. (Injiri)

Noticeably, consumers have become aware of the plight of garment workers, child labour and other vulnerable groups in the fashion supply chain. Campaigns to end unethical practices and advocacy for fashion that is circular, recyclable, reusable and non-polluting are creating the biggest shifts. They make headlines in fashion media now. The State Of Fashion 2020 study by McKinsey, with online publication The Business of Fashion, found 55% of the consumers surveyed expect fashion brands to care for the health of employees in times of crisis. In a consumer survey for India Sustainability Report 2020, a white paper by the digital magazine The Voice of Fashion, 49% of the respondents said they wanted to adopt sustainable practices, while 65% were willing to pay more for responsibly made fashion.

In tandem, fashion companies are realigning priorities. Kering, the parent company of Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, released its first progress report on sustainability at the ChangeNOW summit in January—on reducing emissions, suppliers and traceability of key raw materials. H&M has been making investments in sustainability to become “100 per cent circular”. India’s Aditya Birla Fashion Retail Ltd was judged Sustainable Corporate of the Year in 2019 in the Sustainability 4.0 Assessment and Awards by Frost & Sullivan and The Energy and Resources Institute.

In India, though, the dialogue is inconsistent. Most clothing retail and jewellery brands are averse to questioning. A majority of designers feel entitled to refuse transparency surveys. The rural artisan or the weaver, one-half of the prime duo that creates the country’s fashion, remains unequally placed. From credit to copyright to earnings and technological innovation, the game remains skewed in favour of urban designers and entrepreneurs.

Vogue Italia’s blank white April cover, the first such in the magazine’s history, was a response to the covid-19 crisis. “White is rebirth, light after the darkness…,” said the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Emanuele Farneti.

A blank slate is what Indian fashion needs. To document its search for meaning, beyond the fevered crossroads of 2020. A sensitivity vaccine would help.

Shefalee Vasudev is editor of The Voice of Fashion and author of Powder Room: The Untold Story Of Indian Fashion.

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