Fashion touches the lives of literally millions of people, not just the wearer or the company that makes a garment but the person who makes the thread, the weaver, those involved in its transportation, the shop assistant…you get where I am going. If we consider all these people at each step of the design to production to selling process fashion can potentially harness a revolutionary positive means to help the world. Fortunately, some designers and brands are beginning to heed this clarion call.
Following his win of the International Woolmark Prize (previous winners include Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani), Rahul Mishra was interviewed by Business of Fashion where he explained that perhaps the judges awarded him in recognition for his Gandhian design philosophy.
In India, Khadi is not just a cloth, it is a whole movement started by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Khadi movement promoted an ideology of self-reliance. In the 1920s the British bought cotton from India at cheap prices and exported them to Britain where they were woven to make clothes. These clothes were then brought back to India to be sold at hugely inflated prices. The khadi movement boycotted foreign goods, including cotton, and promoted Indian goods, thereby improving India’s economy and ultimately helped India find independence from the British Raj.
In the head-rushing world of India, not only do enormous divides exist between the rich and poor, the urban and the rural but also in fashion. The high fashion and bridal wear market of urban dwellers alone drives approximately $32 billion in sales per year. In contrast, rural, artisan fashion, rich in handicrafts and textile-weaving, does not generate anywhere near as much revenue yet employs 34.5 million artisans across the country. To put this number in context, that is about the entire population of Canada. If designers do not engage with these existent skills that have been passed down from generation to generation they will surely die.
This is why I promote fashion conciousness, in a different sense from what is traditionally meant. Fashion conciousness to me is about weaving a sense of social responsibility into the fabric of brands. When handicrafts and textile skills are used from a particular region or village, a percentage of profits should benefit the local community. If all designers incorporated and rewarded craftsman in their work they could be a powerful force for change.
Mishra is a wonderful example of sustainable fashion and how Gandhi’s spirit can still genuinely live within fashion. His debut collection shown at the 2006 Lakme Fashion Week featured cotton hand-loomed pieces from Kerala, especially off-white fabric with golden border of Kerala mundu. This collection lauded and proved this stunning tradition is worthy of high fashion. Then, in 2009, he also included environmental sustainability into his work. He made reversible dresses, employing Kerala mundu on one side, with Banarasi fabric on the other and had them woven by traditional craftsmen.
Yet, one cannot not only support one’s own heritage; cultures can be supported internationally. The Los Angeles, California-Bagru, India based brand Block Shop founded by sisters Hopie and Lily Stockman works directly with a cooperative of 20 master printers in Bagru “…to bring hand block printed textiles to life, one piece at a time.” Block Shop’s wooden blocks are carved by hand, then used to print and dye by hand some of the most eye-wateringly beautiful scarves I have seen this year. These exact same methods have been used in Bagru for 350 years. Purchasing Block Shop scarves means you are supporting a community of block carvers, dye mixers, master printers, and seamstresses, whilst also ensuring the environmentally-sustainable future of an ancient textile tradition.
If these labels can touch the lives of a small group of people imagine what the fashion power houses could do if they tried.