‘Sabyasachi x H&M: a wake-up call to the design fraternity’

The crafts activist’s response to the designer’s note today says communities with age-old creative traditions deserve much more than ‘crude shortcuts’

Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s response to the joint letter by a collective of Indian craft organisations, voicing concerns about his digitally-printed Sanganeri and Kalamkari lookalike collection for global brand H&M, had lots of words — basically saying that by putting Indian textile traditions in a mass production medium he hoped it would then generate a demand for the authentic artisanal product. Well, here’s hoping!

Laila Tyabji | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The trouble with global clothing chains is that their existence depends on creating new trends on a seasonal basis in order to maintain a constant demand for their products. What’s ‘in’ today is not ‘in’ next season. Old stock is junked. That’s why it is known as fast fashion. Seeing a new range promoted by H&M in malls and high streets across the world creates avid demand at first, but then comes the saturation. Will customers really clamour for genuine handblocked Indian prints once they’ve bought the H&M versions, or will they simply move on to the next latest thing?

Nurturing artisinal luxury

I too have an H&M story. About 18 years ago, Action India, an NGO that works with deprived women in Delhi and its environs, approached Dastkar for help. H&M, under fire for sourcing cut-price merchandise from Asian sweatshops, had funded a project with women in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, to train them to make beaded wristbands, then greatly in demand at their stores. The brand committed to placing orders once the women had mastered the skill. The accessories department at New Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) was commissioned to do the training and develop designs. However, when the project ended, the Swedish company decided that there was no longer a demand for the bands.

A quick recap

  • The recent Sabyasachi x H&M collection, Wanderlust, is flying off the shelves. But away from ringing cash registers, debates are raging about mass-produced designs and artisans not getting their due. The open letter to the designer highlighted the crux of it. ‘Many of the publicity statements speak of this collection as linked to Indian design and craft, while carefully omitting the fact that it has not been manufactured by any artisan’, it stated, adding that while Wanderlust talked about being traditional, nothing in it was handmade. In his response, however, Sabyasachi shared that the line was not meant as a substitute for the artisanal; it was meant to reach more people. ‘The H&M collaboration was part of a different mission, a mission to put Indian design on the international map… Just as ‘Make in India’ needs to be encouraged, so should ‘Designed in India’.’

The Hapur women were left with a skill but no orders. So they came to Dastkar and, along with the NIFT students, developed lovely beaded jewellery and decoratives aimed at the Indian market. A Dastkar Bazaar was imminent, and the women worked tirelessly to produce stock. Their products were a runaway success and, elated by their first foray into the market, the women went home each night to make more pieces. The group, Agaaz, still continues, travelling to bazaars all over India.

A happy ending, but there’s a moral to the story too. Global markets and international chains have their own imperatives. Quick turnovers, cheap production, constantly changing looks and product ranges. These factors do not necessarily match those of traditional craft communities because what craftspeople excel at is making one-of-a-kind products, in small quantities, with unique techniques and identities. This (and I agree with Sabyasachi here) is a luxury we need to nurture and market. Trying to turn it into mass assembly-line production doesn’t work for them, nor does replicating it industrially. The two streams should be kept separate, and each must have its own identity. Blurring the lines doesn’t help anyone.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

No shortcuts, please

Sabyasachi, whose play with Indian textiles in his early collections I remember with pleasure, has the talent and creativity to fashion a distinctive Indian look without appropriating and digitising existing textile traditions.

Our Indian colours, flora and fauna, patterns and motifs in architecture and sculptures, carvings, etc, are more than sufficient design inspiration. Simply chastising Sabyasachi on social media is not the answer. It’s a wake-up call to all in the design fraternity, especially in a country where millions of craftspeople themselves have no voice and GIs (geographical indication) are only on paper. India is fortunate to have a huge pool of living craft traditions. How we promote it, give craftspeople due respect, make craft a profitable profession, and sensitively preserve cultural identity while bringing it into the 21st century and the contemporary marketplace, is the real challenge.

Sabyasachi’s response to the letter | Photo Credit: @sabyasachiofficial on Instagram

When working with communities that have centuries-old creative traditions and practices, there should be no crude shortcuts, however tempting. The fact that more and more people are turning away from the short-term agendas of global brands — wanting to turn us, every season, into identical clones of each other — is heartening. Only the hands of Indian craftspeople can make each of us look both different and stunning.

Laila Tyabji is chairperson of Dastkar, an NGO that works to support traditional Indian craftspeople.

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