Fashion is slowly beginning to value South Asian craftsmanship

Daphne Chouliaraki Milner explains how the expertise of weavers have been historically ignored In favour of designers, and how this is changing.

by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
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15 July 2022, 2:20pm

This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Earthrise Issue, no. 368, Summer 2022. Order your copy here.

A major shift has happened in fashion in the last decade. Craftsmanship – once considered a slightly tedious contrast to creativity – has become the word on every designer’s lips. They will tell you about the hours of handwork that goes into embroidery, and the skills passed down from generations to artfully cut and weave expensive handbags. However, beyond light-filled European workshops, very little is said of the craftspeople around the world who produce the vast majority of luxury goods.

You may occasionally see them in behind-the-scenes videos – anonymous villagers with restless hands – but rarely have the names or faces of these craftspeople been celebrated as enthusiastically as those who draw on their skills. Yet their knowledge and expertise have shaped entire collections and generated healthy margins for brands, even if they are routinely subjected to short-term, seasonal contracts, long hours and low pay.

So, when Seno Tsuhah, along with her team of seven weavers, helped found Chizami Weaves – a livelihood program under The North East Network (NEN) in India – the aim was to promote the economic empowerment of rural women while bringing the art of traditional loin weaving to a larger market. Seno, who belongs to the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland, is a teacher, farmer and an Indigenous women’s rights activist, and has dedicated her life to creating opportunities for – among others – Naga women artisans. Since its inception in 2008, Chizami Weaves has worked with brands to produce a variety of traditional garments, home furnishings and fabrics for shoppers across the world.

“Though fashion’s biggest players have regularly relied on the expertise of skilled craftspeople, these artisans have been routinely underpaid, undervalued and uncredited by the industry at large.”

“When collaborating with people from outside our community on textile weaving, we’ve had some good experiences,” Seno says. “But we have also had people who have just asked us to weave and then used those designs for other products without any mention of where it was made.” Seno’s experience is emblematic of the fashion system’s challenging relationship with cultural appropriation. Though fashion’s biggest players have regularly relied on the expertise of skilled craftspeople, these artisans have been routinely underpaid, undervalued and uncredited by the industry at large.

These practices are part of a system that continues to let Western-centric criteria determine what constitutes luxury. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the outdated hierarchies of 'Made in' labels. While goods branded 'Made in France' elucidate impeccable artistry and those marked 'Made in Italy' demonstrate fine leather, 'Made in India' assumes lesser quality and lower price. So much so, that buyers have been known to cancel orders on goods made in India in favour of those made in Europe. This was the experience of Shivam Punjya, founder of Behno, a handbag label that partners with Indian factories for production runs, who alleged that U.S. retailers axed their orders to make room for Italian brands instead.

Drawing creative inspiration from and working with global artisans doesn’t have to be exploitative or exclusionary. However, for this to happen Western brands need to depart from their long-standing habits of borrowing designs from marginalised cultures in the name of “cultural appreciation” without redistributing the rewards they reap. It’s a narrative that has today become tired and obsolete, a shift catalysed by more nuanced understandings of colonial legacies, greater calls for responsible consumption, and social media activism. Now, brands must step carefully to avoid being called out or cancelled for appropriation.

Besides, shoppers are becoming engaged in the logistics of where, and more importantly, how and by whom, their clothes are made. “When we work with certain mills or manufacturers, we make sure that their information is visible, for example through dual labelling, so that people know the whole process behind where a fabric has come from or how our shoes are made,” says London-based designer Nicholas Daley, who partners with local artisans across the U.K. and Japan on his production runs.

Nicholas is part of a wider movement of designers working towards redressing the historic imbalance within supply chains between brands and the craftspeople they collaborate with. In addition to prioritising environmentally-friendly production processes across largely traceable production lines, many of them also draw on their respective cultural heritages to seek out the support of Indigenous artisans. The partnerships are as much about tapping time-tested skills as they are about celebrating the creativity of the craftspeople, and even the clothes and their histories. For the rest of the industry, however, the question remains: how can the fashion system rebalance its supply chain to place just as much power in the hands of craftspeople as it does creative directors? And why should the two be mutually exclusive?

“When we think about the artisans, when we think about the people who are working in [garment] factories, there’s often this inverted supply chain mentality where it’s the designer at the end who is getting all of the credit,” explains Rebecca Hui, the founder and CEO of Roots Studio, which links Indigenous artists with fashion brands to foster partnerships that are mutually beneficial. “Our aim is to invert these power dynamics of authorship. Instead, we centre the question: ‘Can the artist, with their creativity and knowledge, be the author of what they create? Especially on topics they’re experts on such as sustainability?’”

After all, craftspeople, especially Indigenous artisans, working in remote parts of the world have closer proximity not only to the local materials they source and use, but also to the effects of climate change on rural communities. This expertise should not be dismissed by fashion CEOs in boardrooms trying to “do better” for people and the planet.

“How can the fashion system rebalance its supply chain to place just as much power in the hands of craftspeople as it does creative directors? And why should the two be mutually exclusive?”

The foundations of Roots Studio are built on three core values: respect, reciprocity and remuneration. At its most basic, respect means that the brands who seek out Indigenous craftspeople recognise where the products come from, who made them, and why. This includes fair compensation, but also authorship over and acknowledgement of their creativity.

A recent example is Canada Goose’s Project Atigi, the brand’s annual parka collaboration with Indigenous designers launched in 2018. Canada Goose extended intellectual property rights to the 18 seamstresses – all of whom were from one of Canada’s four Inuit regions: Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut, Nunavut and Nunavik – who designed and created a line of luxury parkas. The brand ran interviews with each of the designers as part of the collection launch, and all proceeds from the sales were then donated to Inuit communities through the national Inuit representational organisation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

The very least brands can do is ensure recognition and representation of the artisans they work with. It’s a sentiment Seno – who is also a Roots Studio advisor – is keen to emphasise. “The stories and the labels that talk about the communities are very important,” she points out. When it comes to reciprocity and remuneration, Roots Studio conducts scheduled profit return cycles that ensure the positive impact of a project is felt beyond those with immediate links to it.

That means cutting out carbon-intensive supply chains through digitisation, sourcing carbon-positive fibres and eco-conscious production processes as well as investing the returns into the community as a whole. “This could be [done through] community dividends that we would help set up,” says Rebecca Hui. “Then the community can nominate people to decide on how they want to use those funds or how they want to distribute them.”

Successful brand-artisan partnerships operate in symbiosis, which requires asking for the input of craftspeople, and taking the time to listen to and engage with them. This couldn’t be more important when working with motifs that may be sacred to a particular tribe or community.

That’s why Roots Studio has dedicated time and resources to cultural education across its projects. Their community engagement team helps build knowledge, consent, translation, and mutual understanding. For example, its community engagement lead Laya Chirravuru organised and translated the artists’ sentiments in this interview. Hui references one instance when a brand asked to extend a particular design of a bird to its footwear line. Her teammate proceeded to send the designs on to the Indigenous community that had illustrated the pattern, who in turn explained that the animal is sacred in their culture and can therefore not touch the ground or people’s feet. The brand withdrew the design promptly and respectfully.

Again, when establishing longer-term partnerships with Indigenous artisans, the backstories of the creative communities must align with a brand’s needs. “We want them to understand not just the aesthetics of a design, but also our eating habits, our lifestyle, our tribal cultures,” says painter Chandrakali Pusham, from the Gond tribe in Dindori, Madhya Pradesh in India, who is represented by Roots Studio. Imposing market expectations on artisanal communities without considering their needs risks further eroding customs that have emerged across generations, which in turn undermines the financial investment a brand might bring to the community. One can’t exist without the other.

“It’s about making sure that both parties have a say in what’s happening and how,” Rebecca adds. “Brands have to move on a very tight timeline, they have budgets and we help facilitate that process, but with more transparency.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as transactional, but there is an intrinsic value in products designed by craftspeople who draw on generational knowledge and techniques that have stood the test of time – sometimes centuries. As far as sustainability and durability goes, there is much to be learnt from these age-old practices.

“Some of our signature products are just very classic weaves because the fibre itself is so special – strong yet soft,” explains Dechen Yeshi, founder of Norlha, a yak khullu atelier in the Tibetan Plateau that works with local nomads. “These are the same products that we have taken to Paris and shown to Hermès and all these other luxury brands that loved them. It was amazing to see these garments that are worn by local people [in Tibet] also be appreciated by fashion houses in Paris and London.”

Yet craftspeople often remain invisible within the traditional fashion system. That’s the case even today when social media has made it easier than ever before to spotlight and celebrate artisanal communities, especially ones that have been historically overlooked and under appreciated. For independent makers, respectful brand collaborations can offer an opportunity to bring in new clientele via Instagram and TikTok. Equally, for brands catering to the next generation of conscious consumers, artisanal voices can be just as valuable ambassadors as the celebrities who populate the front row of fashion shows.

Thankfully, for a new wave of designers, authentic collaboration is simply second nature. As they rise through the ranks of the fashion system, they want to bring their communities of local craftspeople up with them. Look no further than Amesh Wijesekera, founder of Sri Lankan label Amesh, who brings design ideas to local artisans and asks them for their input: What patterns or colours do they like? What do they think will work best with their techniques? It’s a no-brainer, as he explains: “Everything I know about craft I learned from the artisans I work with.”

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