When singer-songwriter H.E.R walked down the red carpet at last month’s Oscars ceremony, fashion critics across the world were impressed. Her Dundas World jumpsuit, a bespoke piece created as homage to Prince, had struck all the right style notes with its rich, bright purple embroidery. What few talked about, despite its designer being vocal about it, was that the artisans who spent hours doing the hand embroidery were based in India.
That’s not a solitary instance. For years, India’s craftspeople have been the stagehands in the production of global luxury fashion. Leading international labels have made millions by outsourcing production, beadwork and embroidery to Indians to get exquisite work done at low costs. Their contribution, however, hardly ever gets discussed.
At a time when India is struggling with its second covid-19 wave, especially the karigars and artisans in rural parts, while most fashion capitals, like New York and Paris, are reopening, it would have been heartening to see the global fashion industry extend support to a community it has long been dependent on. Only a handful like Louis Vuitton, valued at over $16 billion, which pledged $360,000 to Unicef towards covid-19 relief, offered help.
There are some luxury houses quietly working with Indian partners to support craftspeople but many do not feel the need to “worry” about how their suppliers are coping, says Maximiliano Modesti, the founder-managing director of India-based embroidery atelier Les Atelier 2M and the Kalhath Institute. Modesti, who’s been in the business for three decades, has produced garments for labels like Hermès, Chanel, Isabel Marant and Oscar de la Renta. He estimates the annual value of crafts work done in India for international fashion houses is $200-300 million dollars.
“What makes bespoke pieces from most luxury houses special is the Indian craft. Only India can produce these pieces at the costs and volumes needed,” Modesti says. “One can make out how essential India’s role is by looking at the dresses at this year’s Oscars; you did not see many pieces with embroidery (due to the covid-19 impact artisans were unable to work).”
H.E.R’s dress was an exception. Its designer, Peter Dundas, who has earlier been at the creative helm of Emanuel Ungaro, Emilio Pucci and Roberto Cavalli, is among the few who have been vocal about the India connection. “Covid has affected the fashion world at every level. Luckily, our partners in India have still been able to create beauties like H.E.R’s outfit, which felt more special considering the times,” he says.
Last year, he joined hands with quaran-T, an initiative by Swedish brand incubator Bozzil and Mumbai embroidery house Saks India, to launch a charitable T-shirt label. Dundas isn’t sure why Indian artisans’ work is not recognized: “I don’t know why any brand wouldn’t acknowledge India’s contribution in a global environment.”
London-based Osman Yousefzada, who has dressed the likes of Lady Gaga, Emily Blunt and Beyoncé, might have an answer. “India provides a skillset to European luxury fashion, which is seen as craft and not design. That’s why it is not given the credit it deserves,” says the designer, who’s long been carrying the torch of South Asian aesthetics. Though Yousefzada is constantly providing work to Indian artisans despite the present market condition, he’s worried about his next collection because of India’s covid-19 crisis. “I cannot get hold of many artisans that I work with regularly.”
New York’s Bibhu Mohapatra is struggling too. “India is one of the major lifelines for the luxury fashion business. Its role may be a silent one, as it has always been in the backstage of the multi-billion dollar industry. My brand is 12 years old, and I have never experienced such a negative impact of supply-chain collapse,” says Mohapatra, a regular at the New York Fashion Week. He recently started a crowdsourcing fund, India Need Oxygen.
Missing in action
Besides Louis Vuitton, sportswear brand Lululemon, well known for its yoga pants, has acknowledged its connection with India, even though it does not produce here, making a donation of $200,000. But that’s not enough.
Mohapatra says, “As luxury brands, small or large, we have a responsibility to stand up for India. We need to understand the value of our collaborators from India.”
The use of Indian crafts on a “whims and fancies” approach by luxury fashion houses is at the core of the problem, believes designer Rahul Mishra. He’s currently gearing up to show at July’s Paris Haute Couture Week. Like Yousefzada and Mohapatra, he’s struggling to complete his collection. “We are struggling to sample,” says Mishra, predicting that people will turn to fabric manipulations to make up for the absence of embroidery.
The only way things will change, suggests Modesti, is when global brands recognise India’s role. “European brands are very particular about supporting their workforce in their own countries of origin, but not when it comes to the outsourced supply chain.”
Since labels, collection notes and fashion reviews do not even mention the work done by Indian hands, it is easy for brands to stay silent on their connection to the subcontinent.
Yousefzada says, “If we produce offshore we are also responsible for the well-being of those craftspeople and workers, just because it’s offshore, doesn’t mean we ignore it and ignore our responsibility.”
Labels on luxury clothing should read, Made in Italy or Made in France, with the added line, “Hand embroidered in India”, suggests Modesti.
“We need to tell our stories and the artisans in India need to be an integral part of that story,” says Mohapatra. “Change is needed and the consumer needs to be educated.”
Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what they mean to us.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and a mindful fashion advocate.