Recently, I travelled to Jaipur in India for the annual conference of the International Federation for Fashion Technology Institute. The theme was Fashion Beyond Borders, which enabled speakers and delegates to look at the role of technology, globalisation and craft in the industry and the implications of this for fashion education institutions around the world.
Never having visited India before, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and diversity – suffering sensory overload. In a land of blatant contrasts – rich and poor; tradition and modernity; craft and technology – the overall impression is a country striving to maintain the balance between competing needs. It symbolises both the balance between people and the planet and the struggle we have to maintain equilibrium between our instinctive thirst for advancement and the quality of nature surrounding us that we need for our survival.
The very essence of the country affected the speakers so that many brought out the tensions bound up in the duality of human nature. In India the sole aim of too many people is merely survival, so they cannot aspire to a different quality of life or individual fulfilment – a vital part of the fashion industry. In an inherently entrepreneurial country with an extraordinary range of skills, modernisation might empower many, but it also moves people from self reliance to reliance, a factor compounded by globalisation. How can the extraordinary hand-weaving skills of organic materials in this country compete with cheap industrial textiles that are often off-loaded from mills elsewhere? The discussions around the role of craft in a contemporary technological global and economically interdependent society epitomised both the symbiosis between humans and nature and the inherent contradictions in our human nature. We want the advances and are prepared to exploit our land and nature to achieve them – yet then we cry what could be portrayed as crocodile tears when human skill and nature pay the highest of prices.
A keynote speaker, Rajeev Sethi, set us this challenge. He is renowned across the world for bringing contemporary relevance to the time-honoured skills of traditional artists and crafts people from South Asia – creating a basis for their livelihood in a contemporary industrialised and globalised world. He believes we must find ways to balance the relationship between the high and low tech and we should not make machines replace what hands can do more effectively. By doing this, we devalue not only the human but also the machine. We have to find ways to produce low cost good quality clothes without compromising either the design or the production values. As he put it we need to “be more wise about what we don’t know”.
This is not about trying to withstand advances in technology or holding back industrialisation. To move people out of poverty and ensure we can clothe people, we must use contemporary methods. However, increasingly we are coming to recognise that we need to balance quantity with quality and find ways to produce good quality garments which combine a number of strategies that at their heart exploit and utilise craft skills. The conference threw up some interesting examples. Spandex, a stretch fabric used in many garments, is made by some Indian manufacturers with a combination of materials that use 80 per cent corn, which is both completely renewable and easy to grow. Similarly, many of the Indian fashion industrialists highlighted developments around reduction in water usage and the creation of zero discharge plants. While we heard numerous examples of the production of high quality textiles that are avidly sought in luxury markets, there needs to be rethinking about the production of lower cost garments. Many contemporary Indian designers such as Manish Aurora or Abrahan and Thakore take traditional skills, garments and influences and reinvent them – not by just westernising them but creating fashionable clothes that are inherently Indian in philosophy, colour, texture and, at times, form.
Those of us with more westernised fashion systems are learning from a country that is at the edge of breaking down the barriers between craft and fashion, tradition and the contemporary. They are encouraging us to look at the craft skills we have in our own cultures and traditions to find ways that we can revive them and link them to contemporary technology and production. I hope this will increase the overall quality of global production values and encourage consumers to think more carefully about the quality of their products. As countries such as India develop their approach to fashion that utilises and incorporates traditional iconography and surface decoration with a contemporary fashion vision, it might encourage consumers to embrace a diverse range of global fashions. We also want to stop designers based in the west from simply appropriating the craft skills and traditions in countries such as India to then get them produced more cheaply elsewhere.
As Rajeev said:
“Westernisation is not modernisation”.
Article for Sublime Magazine