The prestigious fashion house Dior recently premiered their pre-fall collection for 2023 at the historical Gateway of India in Mumbai. The iconic site was decked with intricate floral decorations and fashion's biggest names were in attendance. As the models strutted down the runway to music composer Anuradha Pal’s tabla beats, the audience was immersed in India’s rich heritage. While it was truly a sight for sore eyes to finally witness the country’s culture and craftsmanship to be appreciated at an international stage, it was followed by some riveting online discourse surrounding the ethics of luxury labels.
People were quick to call out journalists who labelled the intricate artistry as ‘humble’ and cavalierly declared the showcase to be the first display of Indian craftsmanship at a global scale. This cannot be farther from the truth as fashion houses like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent have been built on the hard work of Indian artisans. Their unmatched skills could not be imitated hence designers at Dior have been outsourcing the embroidery to India since 1946. Despite this, the artisans and craftspeople have not received any due credit for the past 70 years and only in 2023 did the fashion house come forward to verbalise their acknowledgement of this erstwhile hidden labour.
In her book ‘Inspired By India: How India Transformed Global Design’ writer and anthropologist Phyllida Jay noted the many ways the native design aesthetics of our country have crafted the visual language of western fashion. She detailed the ways in which the east has impacted some of the most iconic garments in the history of fashion; using designs that are intended to replicate Indian crafts. The New York Times also noted that since the 1980s, luxury brands have quietly outsourced much of their embroidery work to India.
"The country is one of the world’s largest garment exporters, with a textiles market worth $150 to $250 billion," according to the India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the Indian government’s Commerce Ministry. India’s embroidery work has been adorned by Alessandro Michele’s exuberant collections for Gucci, Dior’s iconic saddle bags, and was also used in the making of one of the most famous dresses to have graced the runway — Versace’s Jungle print dress, which was made for Jennifer Lopez. However surprisingly Indian karigars (the Urdu term for artisans) have historically been underpaid while their designs are sold at exorbitant prices at fashion houses abroad.
Unfortunately the country also has a weak employment infrastructure with little to no protection for hard working karigars. These artisans work in weak buildings that regularly collapse have often get trapped in factory fires. The same report by New York Times revealed how the workers crafting designer wear for one of the most powerful fashion brands often sewed for long hours, without health benefits, in a multiroom factory with caged windows and no emergency exit, while still only earning a few dollars a day as compared to the outrageous fee demanded by international designers.
Dior has however been compelled to take better production decisions under the guidance of creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri who has worked closely with the artisans at Chanakya International, a non-profit organisation. The Indian textile craft atelier has been a source of empowerment for many artisans, especially women. These artisans have also been the brand’s source of surface embroidery for nearly 30 years and have been duly credited and acknowledged at their recent showcase. The fashion house was adamant about making these women the centre of applause. Their craftsmanship was also extensively shot and shared with thousands via social media.
While it is a positive beginning for Indian artisans to finally be recognised at an international level, there is a long road ahead for other brands to come forward and finally credit the hard work of Indian artisans in building the world of luxury fashion. It is time for them to take charge of the inequitable exchange and make sure that the prevelant cycle of unjust labour practices ends for good. As India begins to chart their own path in fashion globally, we can only hope for the Indian karigar to finally take centre stage in conversations around design and art and be recognized as an integral part of the movement.
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