NEW YORK, United States — We had been corresponding with a buyer from a reputable Los Angeles-based store for a couple of weeks. After reviewing our latest lookbook and several phone and email exchanges, he made plans for an appointment in Paris. We never got to meet.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to cancel our meeting. Just saw that the bags are ‘Made in India’,” he wrote.
Ouch. It felt like the band-aid was being ripped off just as the wound was closing.
I was puzzled because, after weeks of back and forth, the buyer was clearly excited to learn more about our brand, Behno. Meanwhile, we were thrilled at the prospect of having our products stocked in specialty stores in Southern California.
We soon followed-up, asking for at least a review of the collection, assuring that the brand is challenging traditional notions of "Made in India." We received a quick response: “[I] have other bags which are made in Italy which I must buy first.”
Friends in fashion have shared similar experiences. Jay Lakhani, who manages his wife’s India-made brand Deepa Gurnani, recalls receiving pointed notes from western retailers “unable to stock” the collection even though they positively reviewed it season after season. The brand’s eponymous designer meticulously handcrafts her jewellery to a luxury standard, prompting the question: was there an open-to-buy limitation or a deeper issue at hand?
As emerging economies like India’s continue to develop rapidly, I wonder about the powerful stigmas surrounding countries, so far removed from the stores where the products they make are sold.
I founded handbag label Behno in 2013 as a social enterprise committed to sustainability and ethics. Since then, I have had the privilege of interacting with textile weavers and it has always been important for me to get to know them as humans first, artisans second.
'Made in Europe' and 'Made in USA' labels have asserted themselves as the gold (or should I say white) standard of luxury.
But I soon learned that "Made in India" prompts three presumptions from fashion industry leaders outside the country: that "Made in India" products are low-quality, assembled in sweatshops and pertain to a “hippie dippie” or bohemian aesthetic.
The first two presumptions need to be understood, not just for their inaccuracy, but also for what such generalisations mean for the country, its communities and their people.
Understanding the ideologies behind these stereotypes is also important. The third presumption I will not address, because to relegate India as a space for spiritual awakening is a tired conversation. Assigning an uninformed descriptive to a country’s dress sense simply lacks cultural sensitivity.
Though I address "Made in India," I acknowledge that "Made in Asia" carries similar sentiments. On the flip side, "Made in Europe" is assumed to be high quality — with products originating from Italy, France and the UK trumping the hierarchy — and "Made in USA" is on the rise. Over time, these labels have asserted themselves as the gold (or should I say white) standard of luxury.
Is there truth in the stereotypes? Some — it would be simplistic of me to think otherwise. Could the stereotypes be challenged? Yes, as any stereotype should be.
So much of the world’s fast fashion is produced in Asia, where multilateral, competing forces have long made it — and continue to make it — a lucrative continent for the manufacturing sector.
There are several forces at play. Tenuous labor regulations, rampant corruption, low civic engagement, leverage afforded to foreign investors, often one-sided trade policies and a general lack of social consciousness have united to make developing countries hotbeds for sweatshops and exploitation, or what many dub “low-cost manufacturing.” Within these broken systems, perpetrators are allowed to thrive, with Bangladesh’s 2013 Rana Plaza disaster being a prime example.
There are international players such as Belgian Dries Van Noten, who proudly speaks about India as a part of his supply and value chains, capable of producing luxury pieces that compete on a global scale without the worry that this fact might impact his brand’s business.
Miuccia Prada has also been equally unconcerned with the provenance of her pieces as production becomes increasingly globalised. But unlike small or homegrown brands, Prada didn’t see a rapid withdrawal of stockists. Rather, consumers and buyers coveted and celebrated their limited run "Made in India" bags.
The dismissal of India is the dismissal of a history that its people have grappled with, tried to flee from, and strive to overcome.
Many other western luxury houses depend on South Asia to embellish their runway dreams. Seldom though, do those communities and their producers receive credit for their work — Indian bridalwear masters Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Anita Dongre are among the few designers working against the grain. Brands by Indian manufacturers Arvind and Raymond create elevated, tailored offerings with a meticulous attention to detail.
Needless to say, the presumption of poor quality is moot.
What’s more is that not all factories in Asia are sweatshops. The continent’s manufacturing hotspots are a changing landscape. There have been factories focused on humanising India’s manufacturing supply chain that lie under the radar; since 2013, I’ve seen a surge of new-age factories focusing on improving their manufacturing standards and code of conduct.
Meanwhile, factory businesses in Asia — often family-founded by (predominantly male) baby boomers — are being passed over to Millennial heirs, who are being asked tough questions. How will the new generation of proprietors, increasingly value-driven and looking to find greater purpose in the work they do, reconsider how their factories operate and interact with their local communities? Consumer demand will only increase the pressure on such businesses to evolve.
The dismissal of India — a place that is able to produce the finest handbags, couture and ready- to-wear — is the dismissal of a history that its people have grappled with, tried to flee from, and strive to overcome.
But the acceptance of India’s value in fashion is the acceptance of a history vibrant in its offering, nimble and articulate with its hands, and deserving of equality.