Indian artisans struggle to survive in fashion’s ‘invisible supply chains’


Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Before the pandemic, Gayatri Khanna’s Mumbai-based embroidery company worked on luxury clothing and accessories for some of the world’s biggest fashion houses.

Now, she says, some of them won’t even answer her calls.

“These are people we have spoken to for years and years,” she said in a telephone interview. “And suddenly there’s no news, or even a ‘What’s going on?’ Or, “How are you?” “

Amid a coronavirus crisis that is pushing Indian hospitals to breaking point, the collapse in demand for clothing in the West is also having a devastating ripple effect on artisans in the country. Luxury brands that have long depended on the intricate work of embroiderers and bead artists are cutting production, leaving some suppliers unable to cover costs or pay workers.

Khanna, who is the founder and director of Milaaya Embroideries, said her company’s export business was down 70% from the previous year. Although there were relatively few canceled orders at the very onset of the pandemic, new work quickly dried up as labels shifted their limited activities to “one or two” main suppliers, she said.

The role of South Asian ateliers in fast fashion is well documented. But Indian artisans also have a significant stake in some of the world’s most expensive luxury items – including the ready-to-wear and haute couture collections seen on red carpets and catwalks.

If this subcontracting is in part due to the comparative cost of labor in Europe, Indian artisans are particularly sought after for their artisanal work, often passed down from generation to generation. Milaaya Embroideries, for example, specializes in intricate styles of hand embroidery called “aari” and a technique called “zardozi,” which uses gold, silver and metallic threads.

The company manufactures everything from bridal wear to embroidered dresses, listing luxury brands such as Givenchy, Gucci and Ralph Lauren as clients. And while Khanna did not point the finger at individual brands, she called on all of her luxury clients to support the struggling artisans on whom they depend.

“The first thing they should do is look at the suppliers who are a vital part of their supply chain, like us – even if we were one of three, four or five suppliers – and see how they can continue. to offer us even a small amount of business, ”she said.

“So I think there should be a conversation between luxury brands and suppliers to say, ‘Hey, what can you do? What can we do? “”

LVMH, Kering (the parent companies of Givenchy and Gucci respectively) and Ralph Lauren did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on their activities with Milaaya Embroideries or the current situation in India.

Industry in free fall

Milaaya Embroideries was able to recoup some losses by producing masks and launching a new retail brand which sells casual wear and other everyday fashion items. Khanna said she continued to pay 300 artisan workers, albeit with reduced wages, throughout the pandemic – although there was little she could do for contractors or those who returned in their villages when India went into lockdown last year.

“We were able to take care of it, but we can’t go on forever,” she said, predicting that at the current rate, the company may only be able to support employees for six more months.

A craftsman works on a face mask at Milaaya Embroideries. As luxury brand orders disappear, the company has had to find new ways to generate income and pay its employees. Credit: Milaaya embroidery courtesy

Many other garment workers were less fortunate. The textile sector, which directly employs 45 million people and 60 million more in associated industries, were wiped out by the pandemic.
During the country’s first wave, textile producers were the worst affected part of the manufacturing sector, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. the think tank reported that the total wage bill of salaried textile workers – a measure of employment levels – fell 29% in the second quarter of 2020.

According to Shefalee Vasudev, editor-in-chief of Indian fashion magazine Voice of Fashion, lax labor laws in India made it too easy for manufacturers to downsize artisans and craftspeople as business disappeared.

“Essentially, the millions of workers who work in the belly of the luxury industry… are not on contract,” she said, adding: “If written contracts are in place, they often don’t include not working hours or whether someone will be notified before being fired. “

Even though luxury houses wanted to support workers, their supply chains are often too complicated for them to even know who makes their clothes, she added.

“You could have 500 people doing extremely skillful and intricate embroidery, which will then be sold for thousands of dollars,” she says. “But when it lands on the table of the Creative Director (of a luxury label), they may never know who did the job, because the first entrepreneur has a subcontractor – there are these many. invisible supply chains that come into play. “

No business as usual

Although the domestic Covid-19 situation in India is worsening day by day, with nearly 400,000 new cases recorded on Saturday alone, the resumption of consumption in other markets offers a ray of hope for artisans besieged country. Kering and LVMH, parent companies of some of Europe’s biggest fashion houses, have both reported a rebound in sales thanks in large part to returning buyers to China and the United States.

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The new demand is expected to quickly translate into increased production in India, Vasudev said. But the editor, who has widely reported on the impact of Covid-19 on clothing manufacturing in India, warned that resuming orders may not mean a return to wages or working conditions before. the pandemic.

“What I see happening is that after the takeover these people will be exploited (because the employers will say), ‘It’s about survival for you. You used to have 50 rupees to do this, now do it for 25, otherwise you won’t get anything. So I actually see the problems increasing next year.

“A number of (people working in manufacturing) have told me that they say to people, ‘Why are you asking for raises and promotions? Remember you still have a job.'”

This article has been updated to clarify an interview quote.

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