South Asian fashion is associated with color, glitz, and ornate designs. From embellished bridal wear weighing as much as the bride herself, to brightly colored sarees, Indian craft is hard to miss - except when it’s showing up in non-Indian clothing.
Did you know that Jennifer Lopez’s famous green, jungle-print Versace dress from the 2019 Grammy's was hand-embroidered in India? Or that top luxury brands, including Gucci, Dior, and Saint Laurent, have quietly outsourced much of their embroidery to South Asia for over three decades now? As brands cross borders to connect and innovate through fashion, South Asia has come to the forefront of global fashion as the go-to region for hand embroidery. In 2019, India’s embroidery exports exceeded $230 million, which was a 500 percent increase from the 90s¹. This isn’t simply because of the affordable labor and extra cushion for the bottom line – it’s a testament to the unmatched skill of South Asian artisans.
Versace dress worn by Jennifer Lopez at the 2019 Grammy Awards show that was embroidered by Indian artisans from the Chanakya Atelier. Credit: Miguel Medina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
South Asian artisans, also known as “karigar”, are the unnamed force behind a designer’s vision. They often reside in the rural parts of the subcontinent and have gathered skill, creativity, and knowledge over generations. During my travels this year, I witnessed artisans train from as young as 7 years old, who will learn to master the techniques by the time they’re in their teens. Crouched over a table in a brightly lit room, these artisans work tirelessly to adorn yards of fabric with beautiful beads and sequins, or weave glistening gold yarn into silk and cotton with sometimes nothing more than their memory to guide the motif. Some of them have little to no education and have never stepped outside of their village. Yet, hand them thread and a needle and they are among the best embroiders in the world.
Artisan from Kay Kraft Bangladesh working on an embroidered garment that will take two weeks to complete. Credit: Courtesy
Is Indian hand-embroidery as prolific as French lace? I would argue yes and more, but without the fame. Established brands and their collections have stood on the craft of these rural artisans for decades but have rarely given credit. Only few western designers, such as Dries Van Noten and Isabel Marant, proudly celebrate their relationship with Indian craftspeople. Perhaps because of this nearly silent partnership, a label that says “Made in India” or “Made in Bangladesh” does not equate to beautiful, luxurious work – rather, the complete opposite. Fast fashion may be one output, but the true strength of South Asia lies in centuries of incredibly intricate, slow, and artisanal processes.
In a Times of India article, David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore – a well-regarded Indian label – eloquently says that we must recognize the fact that India is one of the very few countries left that can still produce small lot, labor intensive, highly skilled craft and textiles. He adds, “And that is the true luxury in a world of growing mass consumerism and an antidote to the very real threats of environmental pollution, global warming and a growing understanding that we need to buy less, pay more for fashion that is more timeless, classic and responsible.”
Artisans working at the Chanakya Atelier in India
South Asia’s fashion identity is at a crossroad, and it's up to designers, especially the younger generation, to build brands that showcase the luxury and painstaking craft of South Asian embroidery, weaving and the various other hand techniques mastered over centuries. Designers like Vaishali Shadangule (the 1st Indian woman at Paris Couture Week), Rajesh Pratap Singh, and Urvashi Kaur are some of my favorites who give nod to Indian hand craft while appealing to diverse markets. It’s the hope that this recognition from up-and-coming brands, like Chaa Latte, will shed light into how much South Asia is truly lending to global luxury fashion and the rich history that makes these art forms unique to our countries.
Preparation for Vaishali Shadangule's collection for the Paris Haute Couture Week 2021
¹Indian government commerce ministry (NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/style/dior-saint-laurent-indian-labor-exploitation.html