Swadeshi Up until a few years ago, I was always on a fervent mission to discover ‘cool local brands’ every time I travelled internationally. Soon, that changed to curating a wardrobe that was specifically teeming with Indian brands. I still remember the Kichu necklace I packed for an extended European trip in the not-so distant past, one that fetched compliments everywhere from Barcelona to Sofia. I found a certain thrill in saying, “Oh, it’s from this really cool Indian brand…” every time someone enquired after it.
Choosing more homegrown over high street was a conscious decision for me, largely driven by the need for quality over quantity. But it was also about buying into pieces that one could find a connect with. And while the mindset could have been considered a luxury back then, it has become an urgent necessity today. The entire planet has experienced the tremors of the coronavirus pandemic. The fashion industry is no exception, and is sure to be split into two distinct eras—BC (Before COVID-19) and its aftermath. The choices we make now will be responsible for what its future holds.
One could easily compare the ongoing campaign to support local Indian fashion with the Swadeshi movement, that used Indian nationalism as a tool to break free from the shackles of colonial rule. In its original form, the movement had called for a boycott of foreign goods, but its current possible reprieve will have the power to promote a more conscientious and considered approach to consumption. In his Instagram Live session with Vogue India, Sabyasachi Mukherjee spoke about the need for a sense of integrity and patriotism. “When this ends, we will see a new wave of fashion nationalism. Local is going to become the new global,” he said. “Right now, it is not about a rich man or poor man’s economy, or about government policy. It’s our economy and we need to come together to protect it.”
Rahul Mishra feels this is an opportunity for individuals to realise the importance of conserving and sustaining our resources and crafts. “While we eagerly wait to resume our familiar normal lives again, we must understand that the ‘normal’ that existed before wasn’t quite working well,” he says. “A homegrown brand is a way to celebrate our culture, history, heritage and art forms that represent several centuries of evolution. Consumers should understand the power they hold in uplifting their own country,” he adds, while anticipating (and being hopeful for) the onset of a new consumption pattern driven by value and need. Management consultancy Bain & Company made a similar prediction in their report on ‘luxury after COVID-19’ that spoke about emerging and solidifying consumer trends in response to the crisis, published in March-end this year. They foresee the ‘rise of a post-aspirational mindset where ethics will become as important as aesthetics, as consumers prioritise purposeful brands’ coupled with ‘heightened environmental and social consciousness’.
Payal Khandwala is on the same page. “‘Handmade in India’ should be the real purpose behind the product, not just lip service. This is what designers should truly believe in as a core philosophy.” She also feels that local businesses will not survive without help from our home turf. “It becomes the responsibility of the consumer, in a way, to buttress homegrown brands. But both parties have to feel the pride to make any real difference.”
We need to root for self-reliance as the key by-product of self-isolation. India is already a nation with a strong manufacturing infrastructure that is the backbone of several international fashion houses. Now we need to put Indian labels on the forefront, and find pride in being local; not unlike French couture, Italian leather goods and glassware, new Danish cuisine, or even the farm-to-table movement in our very own backyard.
In a world that is as hyper-connected as ours is, Khandwala reasons that being less dependent on external factors cushions us from mass disruptions. “Relying on our own resources and producing within the country will not only lessen the blow in situations like the current one, it is also the only way to build a robust economy. One that will create jobs and can become part of a global supply chain, but is self-reliant first.” According to Anita Dongre, the benefits of buying local are two-fold. First, it cuts down carbon emissions. The second, she feels, is arguably as urgent. “It generates employment that is a means to recover from the losses of these past months. This is a reset for shoppers to choose what their money will support. My hope is that Indian shoppers will make choices that sit well on their conscience,” she carries on.
The Indian textile and apparel industry is the second largest source of employment for Indians after agriculture; a sector that employs 45 million workers directly and 60 million indirectly. “We have built our brand on the love and care of millions of hours by inspirational craftspeople all over India. To keep our tradition and history alive, please support them at every level. Today, in a time of crisis, they need our help. Be Indian. Buy Indian,” said Tarun tahiliani via an Instagram post. The #VocalForLocal movement, at the end of the day, is as much about pride as it is about the sustenance of karigars. Mishra’s eponymous label, for instance, employs close to 1,000 craftsmen directly or indirectly, including weavers, embroiderers and craftsmen from craft clusters in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh among others. “The Indian fashion industry represents not only designer brands but also local businesses that have been at the bottom of our supply chains. Large populations of skilled workers are left with little or no source of income in the unorganised sector. Today, more than ever, it is our responsibility as designers and consumers of their craft to support their livelihoods.”
Everyone from established design houses to independent labels in the country are rallying together to address this crisis. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) has also established a ‘COVID-19 Support Fund’, supported by Lakmé Fashion Week, for young designers and small businesses. Dongre (whose company House of Anita Dongre directly employs 2,700 people across its five brands) was one of the early designers to announce a medical fund of Rs 15 million (or Rs 1.5 crore) to support their smaller vendors, self-employed artisans and partners who did not have medical insurance or coverage. But truth be told, macro change can only be afoot with the whole-hearted backing of shoppers.