Can Indian Fashion Make Migrant Lives Matter?

Can Indian Fashion Make Migrant Lives Matter?

Can outsourcing skilled jobs and training of the unskilled by fashion houses generate new rural livelihoods? Not as moral agenda but sustainable progress for both sides

A litany of collaborations between fashion designers and rural crafts creators, based on mutual growth strategies exist in India. Some are ideologically lofty, others plain profitable. The jointly created fare by the two sides is what the world recognises as “Indian fashion”. Printed, painted, embroidered, dyed, tailored, sculpted, draped, embellished in India. Imagined in cities by urban design minds. Often made in villages or semi urban setups with local resources, skills and materials, many of those handmade and traditional.

Sustainability pursuits, CSR obligations, the search for an authentic design signature, demand for embroidery and other crafts techniques in the pretty procession of Made in India fashion are some of the many reasons city designers and fashion houses work with karigars and weavers in villages. Seldom are these equitable partnerships when it comes to sharing of profits, credit and recognition, signature or copyright. Yet they carry on.

Some of “Indian fashion” or fashion sourced from India for global brands is made at grimy sweatshops in cities where through invisible supply chains, men, women, and illegal child labourers produce beautiful embroideries and finishes. They are the favoured victim visuals of international welfare groups or fashion media, popping up on our feeds every few months with a new, provocative headline.

It is an ebb and tide scenario.

Some designers work with rural clusters for one or few collections, ferrying from Kashmir to Kerala seeking new ideas every season or two. Others work consistently, creating robust models of livelihoods over the years.


A vintage image of designer Ritu Kumar exchanging notes with an artisan.

Fashion-Craft: Known Collaborations

There are many mutually profitable collaborations. Ritu Kumar’s five-decade long work with hand printed and painted textiles of India, created by artisan clusters; Sanjay Garg’s work with the Chanderi village; designer Rahul Mishra, among the foremost champions of reverse migration who says “80 per cent of my work is done in villages” are among them. As is Aneeth Arora of péro who creates textiles with village weavers and versatile embroidery techniques in collaboration with artisanal clusters. Top bridal couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee regularly gives sustainable work to karigars and local artists in and beyond West Bengal. Shani Himanshu and Mia Morikawa of 11:11/eleven-eleven work with artisans in Kutch. The distinctive fabric innovation by Rina Singh of Eka would be incomplete without her work with rural weavers. Anavila Misra has her fine linens woven in West Bengal. The design DNA of A-list couturiers like Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla and Tarun Tahiliani includes the fine technique of Lucknawi chikankari, sophisticatedly reinvented to suit global clientele. On the other hand, Abraham & Thakore have not just worked with Maheshwari textiles, tussars, bandhinis and Banarasis, but have reimagined existing weaving skills with contemporary interventions that benefit the artisan creatively and commercially.

This is at best a shortlist, as there are many more worthy instances.


Photo: Prateek Patel

Seamstresses of the Jawhar tailoring unit, who have been trained and engaged by The House of Anita Dongre.

Fashion and the Rural Unskilled

This story though is not on ongoing collaborations. Instead, it is based on a set of explorations in the wake of COVID-19’s impact on craft as well as fashion.

It is to ask if the kind of work attempted by Anita Dongre for instance, who trained more than 70 unskilled women in tailoring in Jawhar town in Maharashtra’s Palghar district can be replicated by others. The House of Anita Dongre then offered sustained livelihood to these women by assigning tailoring jobs for the designer’s popular labels Global Desi and AND.

On the other hand, sari designer Gaurang Shah along with master weaver Annaji Rao of Srikakulam worked with 60 unskilled, vegetable vendors on 20 looms in the Gandhian village to create 150 count khadi saris with woven interpretations of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. This was for the Swar-Santati exhibition co-curated by Lavina Baldota earlier this year. In both cases, fashion reached out to the unskilled.


Photo: Gaurang Shah

Women weavers trained by designer Gaurang Shah and master weaver Annaji Rao of Srikakulam.

Fashion and the Returned Indian Migrants

In the wake of the migrant exodus back to villages from cities and the battering of livelihoods across India’s economy, can Indian fashion and design houses reskill and reemploy workers who have returned from cities to their home states?

Can city designers outsource embroidery, embellishment and tailoring jobs to villages after conducting design workshops oriented to their specific businesses?

Can simpler jobs like finishing and seaming, working with buttons and zips, tailoring, packing, prepping or lining be given to the rural workforce?

Can the fashion industry obliterate exploitative intermediaries and instead bring in a new breed of trained interpreters from established NGOs and cooperatives to hone the design language and open a post COVID-19 dialogue to negotiate profitability for both sides?


Photo: Narinder Nanu / AFP

A policeman gestures towards stranded migrant workers as they gather for a medical screening before taking a train to Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh state to return to their hometowns after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Amritsar on May 20, 2020.

The Data

A World Bank report released in the end of April estimated the COVID-19 lockdown impact on nearly 40 million internal migrants in India. By the end of May, most estimates put the number of reverse migrants to 23 million, with a majority to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two states that contribute most to the number of interstate migrants. According to the National Account Statistics 2017 and the Government of India’s last labour survey from 2017-18, the rural economy supports 70 per cent of India’s population but contributes to less than half of India’s net domestic product. Overreliance on agriculture and lack of diversification also makes the rural economy inelastic. According to facts from the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Generation Act) portal reported today, June 3, by The Indian Express, 2.19 crore households utilised the rural job guarantee scheme in May, the highest in the last eight years. All these are for unskilled rural jobs even though a section of migrants now back in their villages include those from textile units and diamond cutting factories of Surat, the garment factories of Tiruppur and Kochi or the embroidery addas of Mumbai and Delhi run by fashion designers.

Can Fashion Houses Reskill India?

Cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, triggers at least three questions that the fashion industry can ask itself.

Who are we and what do we do?

What are our challenges?

How do we meet them?

When these are stacked against the values Pinker argues for, the fashion industry cannot turn its backs on India’s migrant situation. This is not a moral agenda. This is the only way to progress. What Richard Dawkins called “reciprocal altruism” and Pinker may describe as “enlightened self-interest”, is something India’s fashion industry and dozens of unemployed, skilled workers in villages need for sustainable development.

The Voice of Fashion spoke to a cross-section of designers and crafts economy experts for their views on fashion employing village workers. Some shared experiences from their own collaborations.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Ritu Sethi, Chairperson, Crafts Revival Trust, Delhi

“Fashion houses paid, trusted and relied on middlemen whereas the highly skilled embroiderers in cities remained faceless people, now lost. Fashion houses, designers and all of us must find them. How to find these workers back in their villages is a serious question.”


Jaya Jaitly, Founder-President, Dastkari Haat Samiti

“Skilling or training villagers can’t be done the way most city designers do. They go to the best artisans for the best work. Among villagers though, those who are least skilled and the most miserable also have potential. It is about building the unskilled and having a conversation with the unglamorous.”


Photo: Kora Design Collaborative

Members of a natural fibre product-making cluster in Srikakulam.

Satish Nagendra Poludas, founder Kora Design Collaborative, based in Visakhapatnam, works across India

“Rural reconstruction is an excellent idea as argued by Gandhi and Tagore, but it will take 15-20 years to attain it. We should focus on domestic production, improving local economy and ecology and must rethink how we work. Craft is a resource, while designers try to make it a beautiful product. Designers should stop working with village artisans for brief projects. Artisans barely understand the context when designers arrive with the idea of making 1000 products from one sample and the aim of making it easily available. That is an insult. Most workers who earn ₹ 20,000 in cities like Mumbai are okay with ₹ 7000-8000 in villages but it has to involve slow, respectful and mindful ways of work. We work with least energy consuming technologies and with local materials. Our approach is flexible, to yield enjoyment for the spinner or the weaver so that it is not just labour. Weavers are technical people after all. We mobilise inspiration and initial processes. We argue for a holistic process, not just piecemeal work for collections or projects.”


Photo: Swati Kalsi

Designer Swati Kalsi with craftswomen.

Swati Kalsi, designer, Delhi, works with Sujani women artisans through city workshops

“I have a workshop model that works on community building and design exploration, with the promise of food, stay and wages. Since this group of women has been working with me for a long time, from 2008, this short period cannot disintegrate it although that part of my work is at a complete halt right now. This is a different kind of relationship with the craftswomen. Initially there is resistance and excitement, but once they go through the period of building, then artisans start questioning me more. It is very important to distinguish this work from labour. . In villages, I tried to work through a mediator/intermediary but the wages would not reach on time and various levels of hierarchy came up. I found it easier to work directly with artisans. Doing sustainable couture, which is what I do for my one-of-a-kind pieces in Sujani, is not easy. However, their work with me got the artisans a lot of credibility, a kind of certification as other private clients reached out to them. Initially I tried to work with all sorts of people, semi-skilled, skilled and highly skilled. Working with the unskilled is a different kind of engagement. There, social workers help.”


Rahul Mishra, designer, Delhi

“Although a craftsperson is one who lives in a certain habitat, it doesn’t mean that when a bandhini artisan or an embroidery karigar shifts to a city, they stop being a craftsperson. However, we need to focus on the quality they are capable of and the importance of human sentiment. Eighty per cent of my hand embroidery work is done in villages and for me, WFH (work from home) for karigars began several years ago when I enabled my Mumbai unit embroiders towards reverse migration. I have several setups across villages where workers live in their own homes, eat home cooked food and do not have to travel. I have created clothes for Paris Fashion Week and for Colette (the French store) with hand embroidery completely done in villages. In Baundpur, West Bengal, for instance, my karigars can even do sampling for me. Only the main ideas and three-dimensional work is done in my Noida workshop. By outsourcing work to village units, we save on rent and electricity, and the extra two days for couriering is worth the excellent quality you get when a karigar works from home. A lot of skilled work for some of the world’s top fashion and luxury brands takes place in Dharavi in Mumbai but look at the conditions the artisans live in. These slum dwellers must all go home.”

Gaurav Gupta, couturier, Delhi

“I would like to explore doing half of our work in the city and half in villages, but it may not be so easy in my kind of design and couture. I have to sit with pattern makers and tailors. The kind of sculpting, draping and tailoring we do requires me to work with a team. Some of our embroideries can surely be done in villages.

What I am interested in is “authentic sustainability”—the use of Ahimsa silk, Indian georgette instead of Chinese georgette, ocean plastic packaging. The current ambiguity of the situation is scary. There is no road map. My designs are ready for our next collection, but we do not know what kind of collection will give us results in the near future. We are happy to be flexible, do more custom-made and accessibly priced clothes given customer demand.”


Photo: Instagram/dastkar

Laila Tyabji with a group of women artisans.

Laila Tyabji, chairperson, Dastkar

“The idea of fashion outsourcing work to villages or skilling workers deserves a dialogue. However, it cannot be done unilaterally without the right interpreter whether that is a person, an organisation or a cooperative firmly entrenched in the grassroots. Also, what is very important is careful and sensitive matching of skills, capabilities and interests between a designer and a karigar, clarity on ownership and a demarcation of production and design. Matching and handholding on both sides of the spectrum is important. Much of the success we have with design intervention at Dastkar comes with these clarities.”

Banner: Artisans work on a upcycled lehnga designed by Amit Aggarwal.