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Pivot or perish

  • Published at 08:35 am August 21st, 2020

Will local brands and craftsmen survive the pandemic? Three young designers share their experiences

Sashiko is a well-known decorative needlework technique among the Japanese. It is a tradition handed down from one female family member to another, where they mended holes and worn out areas in garments with patches covered by distinctive running stitches in geometric patterns. The more patches an item of clothing acquired, the more durable and decorative it became. This sustainable practice has now become a mainstream fashion statement.  

If there is a takeaway from the success story of sashiko, it is that slow, steady and precise can be both profitable and trendy. Bangladesh has made the headlines again and again in the past two decades because of its RMG industry – from the rapid growth of fast fashion, to the controversies over workers’ rights in the wake of industrial disasters, the biggest being the Rana Plaza tragedy, and most recently, for igniting the #PAYUP movement when news broke of international fast fashion brands owing and refusing to pay Bangladeshi garments companies $3.7 billion, during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. This of course, led to massive unemployment and starvation amongst our local RMG workers. Fast fashion might look cheap and trendy, but it costs us more in the long run.  

What doesn’t make the news more often is the other face of our local fashion industry: home-grown boutiques, brands and ateliers employing artisans who uphold a rich heritage of textile traditions that are deeply rooted in sustainable practices. These houses already lacked the international exposure, and suffered doubly when the pandemic hit and corona concerns overtook all other topics of conversation. Photo: Sumaya Khan

With renewed focus on climate change, the economy, and the future of fashion, Avenue T approached three versatile young Bangladeshi designers Sumaya Khan, Saba Khan, and Nishat Khan to understand how our Bangladeshi brands can adapt to the new normal. 

The pandemic effect

One of the immediate changes all three designers noticed over the past few months was the reluctance of the customers to shop physically. With the health concerns forcing people to stay indoors, shopping trips were quickly designated to the realm of an unnecessary luxury. Hence in concerns of everyone's safety, the three Khan ladies (unrelated) migrated their businesses to online platforms.  The initial challenge was to get the customers to switch to this new mode, as, particularly with bridal and couture lines, trials and tactile previews are the norm. Gradually, as the social distancing period extended, more people migrated to the digital platforms.

Even with the option of online shopping, it was a system shock for Sabah and Nishat. Both designers are known for their intricate, detailed work, and had invested heavily in their Eid-ul-Fitr collections, and the unanticipated drop in sales incurred massive losses. To this Nishat Khan said: “When you hear big names like Chanel and Hermes discontinuing production, brands like Zara closing down stores and filing for bankruptcy -- one can only guess at the struggle small brands like us are going through.”

Sumaya Khan, who maintains a core product of minimalistic casuals, however, was happy to report that she was spared from a lot of the financial damage. Her big regret has been the inability to conduct the artistic portfolio shoots and media she bases her brands on.  To her, photoshoots are a piece of art. This expressive medium that helped her business to move forward has sadly been put on hold. 

Saving the artisans

Just as the future of our nation’s progress depends on our businesses and services -- the fashion industry relies heavily on the work of our artisans, who carry a precious legacy of heritage arts and culture.  Our three respondents in particular, had built their businesses keeping local artisans as a key cornerstone, investing heavily in skill building and resources, with a long term vision for mutual growth and expansion.

The vision seemed too blurry and unattainable at time point to Sabah and Nishat as they were already reeling from the huge setbacks brought on by 2020. As much as it tormented them, they had no other option but to let go of some of their karigors. “Karigors suffered the most during this time of crisis. It became extremely difficult to financially support workplaces full of karigors. If local brands continue suffering like this, the chances of karigors shifting to other profession increase. If that happens, we might lose the profession of craftsmanship that helped to hold on to our heritage and gain international recognition,” said Sabah Khan.

In May, Sabah Khan initiated a campaign called 'Save the Artisans'. The campaign involved several local brands encouraging people to buy local products. Sabah sensed that now, more than ever, it was necessary to spread awareness about buying local and helping the artisans sustain. Other than the campaign that received an overwhelming response from a lot of clients, Sabah reached out to her friends and family for relief. She was happy to receive a generous amount of relief from 'Feed a family' and three other campaigns that helped both her current and former karigors, along with their families to survive for the next few months. Nishat Khan too provided all her karigors with food relief, bicycles for safe transportation and funds for those with newborn babies. As for Sumaya Khan, she shifted her karigors to a Gulshan 1 workplace, where she created a safe space for her artisans to work, providing them with food, medicine, and extra money to support their families.

In conversation 

Are people reluctant to shop from local brands or do you see them shopping from them now more than ever? 

Sabah Khan: Because of the pandemic people were reluctant to shop in general. As understandable as it is, to them shopping seemed a luxury. However, as time passed by they remained cautious about what they wanted to buy and the campaign ‘Save the Artisan’ helped them understand the value of local products, and why they should be shopping more from these brands. They also do not have the option to step out of the country. Hence, now they are keener to shop locally. 

Nishat Khan: Support has been limited. As they [customers] don’t have any ceremony or occasions to attend there haven’t been any demands for luxury dresses. Nevertheless, I am receiving orders for bridal wear. 

Sumaya Khan: There has been a positive trend towards people supporting the local brand now compared to how it was ten years back. As a local brand myself I have always received admiration from my customers. If you look at bridal wear, most people want to purchase something from a local designer now. I think all artists globally should be celebrated, as art is the best form of giving. Hence I do not differentiate between any artists.

Where do you see your business in the next two years? 

Sabah Khan: The next two years depend on the next three months. After Eid, I can finally understand the client's shopping pattern. However, I have noticed that nowadays clients are more interested to buy comfortable attires with less heavy work, as now people barely have places to go like before.

Nishat Khan: I hope to survive but it’s very uncertain. However, I do plan on focusing more on online marketing and further work on my business to help it sustain and survive. 

Sumaya Khan: Our main priority is to maintain quality and customer service, which will ensure the customers to keep purchasing from us. This will be the main catalyst behind our actual growth. As a brand, I would like to see ourselves globally available to consumers and this would be my next big step after successfully winning the heart of our local customers. Photo: Sumaya Khan

Currently, Sabah Khan is heavily relying on her client’s demands to understand their shopping patterns and needs. She is offering them some of her exclusive designs that are comfortable and light wear to pull off on any occasion. In regards to giving priority to her client’s demands and making sustainable attires, Sabah is designing her recent pieces in cotton and other washable fabrics. The focus on minimalistic glamour is also being applied to her couture and bridal wear.  

Nishat Khan, on the other hand, is receiving orders for bridal wear that she is mostly known for amongst her clients. Her detailed intricate designs are followed in her signature bridal designs. As she meets her clients' demands, she moves forward to keep them satisfied and making her mark constant in creating exclusive bridal wear.  

Sumaya Khan has been spending the pandemic researching, innovating her products. Her upcoming lines reflect that growth in terms of fresh patterns that marry local embroidery traditions with global influences, with a healthy dose of her personal artistic quirks tossed in to make it truly Sumaya Khan Couture. As someone with a background in law, and close personal experience of having had her designs copied, she's getting all her signature motifs copyrighted to ensure her clients get a truly exclusive product. She's hopeful for the future, and not particularly invested in a speedy growth, and says this philosophy has been a cornerstone for her brand from the beginning. "As they say, the day you stop racing is the day you win the race" she says.

Words for the readers:

Sabah Khan: Time, effort, and respect - if these three can be kept in mind and invested in karigors, then definitely we can enhance their skills and see their potential. We need to highlight them more rather than keeping them in the background all the time. Till date, my designs have proved that our karigors have the capability to work much better than our neighbouring country. If the economy drops, the local business might not sustain. The karigors who have been working for the longest years might end up working for another profession. If this keeps happening, our culture and art will fade away. Buying local products would help businesses, artisans, and our arts to sustain. 

Nishat Khan: Artisans have always played an important role in history and our culture, such as innovating muslin sarees and jamdani. Local artisans have technical skills and with proper guidance, they can take this industry to the next level. It is also a dying skill because many are moving to a different occupation.  It’s important to hold and support our country’s heritage. We should truly be supportive of our local designers instead of buying from neighboring countries. We need to embrace and support our local artisan so that they can strive and sustain our economy.

Sumaya Khan: Our local quality is just as good as any international brand, if not better. We local designers also make a small quantity for each collection to maintain the quality of our work. In that way, the outfits stay more unique. The main perks of buying from the local brand are that you get to celebrate our Bangladeshi culture and remember our roots completely with saree, shalwar kameez, lehengas and all the deshi attires for every other occasion along with a wide range of western fashion which you can customize to bits as per your need. I strongly believe that buying locally also makes a direct contribution to the national economy, which will eventually be beneficial for the end customers. 

With these statements it becomes clear that the three designers have noticed superior craftsmanship skills in their karigor. It also becomes inevitable that these artisans can help keep our culture and arts alive, only if consumers come forward to buy local products. They might not be inexpensive but will hold a great value, worth the price tag. 

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