The economic and foundational issues that have long permeated fashion have been the source of much division, discrimination and delinquency in the fashion system for over nearly two centuries. The industrial and technological progress that advanced (access to) our means of production – the material goods needed to create fashion, such as natural resources, tools and techniques – have often come at the large cost of neglecting the social relationships, people and environment involved in the production of these goods. Much of our mass market clothing and furnishings are made in conditions and countries where labor rights are minimal to nonexistent; and where artisans are almost always divorced from the creative processes of production. Some of the most pronounced problems in the fashion industry have continued to be those of poor wages, endless working hours, prohibition of workers’ unions, unsafe health and working conditions, and child or forced labor. The catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory (24th April 2013) in Bangladesh that killed over 1130 garment workers manufacturing clothing for several major fashion brands revealed the vast complexities prevalent in the system, and has become a caveat for the fashion industry in the last few years to take measures towards the betterment of the working conditions of its people and within their factories.
The industry’s complex value chain and systemic inequalities compelled us to be(come) vitally involved in working to reform its structural practices and building awareness about sustainable and ethical fashion, and we began IKKIVI to encourage the conscious consumption of beautifully and mindfully made products that would create minimal negative impact on the environment and its people. Since our inception and the employment of specific (values and) means of production in 2015 – handcrafted, organic, fair, vegan designs, local or traditional technique and minimal wastage – we have seen that a conscious shift in one strand of the supply chain can ripple consequent shifts in its entire scheme and mode(s) of production, particularly at the level of everyday lived experiences and practices. With Fashion Revolution Week this week, a time where brands and producers are urged to give consumers an insight into their production processes – what goes on behind the scenes at their brand – we interviewed the makers and designers of our sustainable brands to understand their ethical fashion practices and the corresponding effects these have had (and are having) on their artisans, the environment and the market.
Fundamental to our designer’s experiences with their artisans in their studios has been the understanding of their shared need to engage with work meaningfully, such that artisans can exert a certain creative influence upon the garments or designs they work with. Our designer Neha, from Maati by Neha Kabra tells us, “our artisans love creating, but the most inspiring and enjoyable part for them (and for all of us) is when we are sampling and exchanging ideas. The actual process of designing can become a little monotonous, and ideating together breaks it and makes our artisans feel included in the project, which brings meaning to the everyday work”. Mahima, the designer of our label SUI iterates another aspect of this attribute with her own artisans. “Something we’ve noticed is that our artisans really love the kind of garments they make and are always interested to learn about new fabrics and embroideries; the printing we do and their complexity.”
In tandem with this facet of meaningfulness that we see come forth is that of the connections and associations artisans are able to build with each other, with the designers and with their work. Our designer at Core, Sayesha, says, “we find it very valuable to work with a small team and group of artisans. In a big team, a lot of times you don’t even know who you are communicating with. Here, none of us or our artisans are restricted to only one job role in a very strict sense, which helps us discuss ideas and see what we’re all talking about. We [our artisans and design team] want to care about what we are doing, not only produce and deliver alone, and being able to work in a small team really allows us to do so.” At an analogous end, Kanchan, from our label Ahmev says, “our artisans want to work. It keeps them excited. They want a proper environment and space to work, as well as to be treated respectfully. And small (yet obvious) things such as paying their salary on time, asking them if they need anything, matter. It makes the relationship reciprocal – an actual give and take between two parties.” But the value of connections is not limited to the artisans alone. Our designers express that they receive much comfort from their partnership with their artisans too. “While we generally get to learn from each other, I have learnt a lot from them. They have given me the confidence to go ahead, to work and to not worry – particularly since the pandemic. To not glorify our problems or go very deep into them, but to acknowledge them and move ahead”, says Neha when discussing the kind of influence her artisans have had on her work. In parallel, Sayesha affirms that “If you treat them [the artisans] well, they really go above and beyond for you and your business. It becomes a win-win situation.”
At the same time, these connections have created a fluidity in the bounds of the professional relationships and support shared between the artisans and designers. Our Vintage collection co-curator and If You Slow designer Purnima tells us “We work so closely, that for us, it is a family like environment. We even named our master tailor’s son – Tahir.” A similar social dynamic is discernable at Core where, says Sayesha, “we all gather together in our tea breaks and discuss something new our artisans have learnt or any issues they are facing that we can help them resolve, both personally and professionally.” These revisions in the relations of production also show the potential impact ethical and conscious businesses can have on the lives of artisans in the long term. Detailing the story of one of her artisans at Core, Sayesha shares “our master tailor Guddu had initially come with nothing. He had a wife and three children, and worked with us as a finishing man. He upskilled with us, and from being someone with minimum skills to consulting for other brands, he probably now earns the most in our company.” Acknowledging this importance of offering accessibility and a developmental curve to karigars, designers Shashank and Ananta from Mianzi explain their methods of manufacturing. “We have put a lot of thought into designing our moulds. The way we design and think of manufacturing our products is such that anyone can do it with very basic training.”
The protraction of such space and social relations between designers, artisans and team members has further led to the nurturance of a certain felt responsibility towards one another. Arshia, our brand Rias Jaipur’s designer states “We do as many things as we can together. That way our artisans get more experience and evolve in their craft, which helps them get more work elsewhere as well.” Elaborating on the same lines, Kanchan shares that “they learn new things with us at Ahmev. They have the skills they have practiced all their lives. But till the time they don’t experience new things and crafts – and we don’t give them the chance to – they won’t be able to do it. And we try doing things each other’s way. I give our master tailor space to work and explore, and he also gives me his ideas on how we can make or modify a design.” These commitments to growth and change come to extend beyond our artisans to include internal team members and practitioners. “Our Production Manager worked for a fast fashion corporation before joining us mid pandemic last year. And in the beginning, it was a little hard for her to integrate with our ethos seamlessly because of the fast fashion practices she was familiar with – such as using petroleum in place of natural cleaning agents (to clean any stains) and plastic for packaging. All of these seemed to be more practical and economical ways of running a business to her then. But being with us, she too is swiftly moving toward sustainable sensibilities – now telling us about which conscious materials we can experiment with and use. In turn, she has brought in much discipline and efficiency to our brand from her previous experience – something we very much appreciate.”, informs Sayesha when speaking about how everyone at Core has been learning to create and give more consciously.
But even as our makers have been engaged in earnest and purposeful modes of production, some systemic challenges remain recurrent in economic and empirical matters. Reflecting on the prime difficulties faced in the sustainable sector and inevitably by industry workers, Arshia notes that “we are small designers right now, the big players have the money. As entrepreneurial sustainable brands, we also need our businesses to float for we are not externally funded. Ultimately our artisans need more money to keep their tables running, and so sometimes they do work for fast corporations. They prefer working with small ethical designers like us and tell us that they don’t want to or like working with fast fashion enterprises, but that they also don’t have any other choices in front of them.” Thus as revisions at the grassroot level in sustainable spaces do elucidate promise and headway for garment workers, a systemic revolution at present stands equally contingent on the reformation of institutional and market values.
The object (garment or design), means of production and the work undergone to create it mediate the social relations of production between artisans and designers. We believe that to be involved in the making of a product, but not in its creative or social processes is bound to alienate one from their creation, as well as from themselves in the process. And this degree of involvement or affinity in the creative process rests on the essential social relations of production, governed often by a patron or the institution. For us, at IKKIVI, the nuances and care taken in the professional practices and everyday experiences of our makers by our brands form the genesis of an honest, progressive and powerful fashion revolution at the micro, and eventually, macro scale. This Fashion Revolution Week, we wanted to show with our labels and designers, that fashion and design, when practiced ethically and mindfully, hold the means to herald positive development in the lives of its creators (our artisans) and consumers – and to change the widely held belief that to make (mass) interests businesses need to exploit, dehumanise and coerce their makers or come at the cost of their integrity.
What kind of socio-economic action we can take to propel these shifts further is what we now need to contemplate and examine together as a collective.
Interviewer and Writer
Co-ordinator and Producer
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