Caving its own niche in high fashion, somewhere between Italy and China, India seeks to position itself as a premium manufacturing destination. There are many, however, concerns to that end
By: Dimitria Vitanova
Posted on: July 29, 2016
Vaunting fabrics and garb-making techniques with geographical indication status – the World Trade Organization’s certificate of indigenous quality and endemic essence – India’s traditional garment industry is a rare marvel, decked out in fine silks, cashmeres and leathers. As the global clothing sector swells with the tides of globalization, the tally of international labels tapping into India’s crafts and artisanal expertise surges. The country is slowly positing itself as an affordable manufacturer of haute apparel, vying against neighboring China, which now produces for Prada, Armani and Coach among others.
Still a long shot from the upper echelons of international high fashion, India’s bid is already raising all sort of queries – from the state of the subcontinent’s textile and clothes segment and the importance of brands’ coveted image to economic considerations and political incentives. The responses are often complex and nuanced, if not contradicting, as LuxuryFacts finds out in its conversations with Glyn Atwal, associate professor at the Burgundy School of Business, who specializes in luxury enterprises, and Shefalee Vasudev, fashion editor at Mint Lounge paper in India.
Welcome to India
Despite its economic outlook of an emerging power, India, as a manufacturing hub, attracts Western high-end fashion brands not as much with its low labor costs (even if those do play a role in the wider economy) as with its superb craftsmanship and raw supplies, over which India boasts a competitive advantage. Although much has been veiled due to the typical secrecy around the industry’s inner codes, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Fendi and Bottega Veneta among others have been purportedly outsourcing to India.
Mr Atwal says: “[I]f luxury brands are wishing to shift production to India, I think, one of the reasons may be, and this has often been underplayed, the scarcity or shortage of skilled labor in their home markets. So, they are seeing a lot of craftsmanship available in India. Looking for skilled labor, India may offer many opportunities.”
However, international brands’ search for creative ingenuity in far-off states is not novel. Ms Vasudev stresses on the longevity of that dynamic: “…India has always been a great sourcing center for materials and a great sourcing center for certain skills. From [what] I documented, I don't see that's changed. What has happened is [that] more brands are now sourcing these skills in India – that is all there is. … But are we talking about a massive influence of these brands on Indian skilled workers – no, not at all. In fact, more and more embroiders and more and more weavers do not want to do this work anymore.”
India is country of artisans – with their numbers varying anywhere between 7 million to 200 million, according to philanthropy organization Dasra. Nonetheless, despite the current revival of garment-related handicrafts that Ms Vasudev has observed, the paltry local demand – partially due to the rise of fast fashion – has pushed craftsmen away from what are often family legacies.
Where the West meets the East
International high-end labels, albeit keen on wielding Indian artisanal heft, might not be able to reverse that trend. Ms Vasudev says: “I don't think international brands can do too much, but they can do a bit…because the kind of crafts that we are proud of or the kind of textiles this country produces do not really have any use or place in international garments. I do not see Alessandro Michele from Gucci making garments from Kanchipuram silk, or Raf Simons, wherever he works, making garments from cashmere embroidery, or making so many garments that it changes the fate of cashmere artisans. I do not see Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton to start relying on India for entire collections.”
An Indian line – no matter how refined and worldly – would inevitably reap the carefully stitched narratives of Western luxury labels. When maisons have spent decades to muster the designs, styles and qualities that have turned them into multi-million ventures, a “Made in India” tag would feel undeniably uncharacteristic to garments swept in European – or American – luxury sensibilities.
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Mr Atwal explains: “[H]eritage is key to any luxury brand. The brands' stories is where European brands have an advantage versus non-European brands. So, “Made in France” or “Made in Italy” is key.”
So what can international high-end brands, producing in India, do?
Ms Vasudev: “[T]hey can have piecemeal capsules inside their larger collections, let's say, inspired from India [and] made in India. But can [Indian] skills and textiles become the core, the spine of an international collection – I do not see this happening, because the whole evolution, change, experimentation, revival, sustainability – all these words that we apply – have a different narrative and a different story in an international brand. That story cannot be just replicated or picked from India and placed there, because it doesn't have a use. So they can use embellishments, they can use embroidery, they can use our designers, they can use our craftspeople, but they can use them just so much.”
The employment of Indian aesthetics should not, however, equate exploitation – a common plight in yet developing markets. Venturing in India, a country of vast social contrasts, foreign brands ought to guarantee much more than the bare minimum of fair working conditions and livable pay in order to avoid the stereotypical trappings of third-world fashion manufacturers. The reward, nevertheless, Ms Vasudev says, offsets the throes: “Essentially, brands that are coming in India to make in India for India will have to work from the ground up [and ask], ‘Has the artisan slept at night or has he come to work without sleeping at night because there was no electricity in his household? Has his child gone to school? Can he get the benefit of clean washrooms inside the [factory]?’ You see, there are so many issues in manufacturing in India that you need to really start from that level to then say, ‘Now, yes, there is temperature control; the artisan has eaten; he or she has slept; has been assured of certain wages per week, per month; there is stability in the job environment.’ I think from the point of view of socially, culturally and object-wise, physically making them comfortable, to then work with them. If companies are able to that, the skill and the ability in India [are] unparalleled, perhaps, compared to anywhere else in the world. And I do not see us becoming another China because we are culturally not China. I do not think we are going that way. I do not think our craftspeople, our artisans will go into the China way.”
Mr Atwal, nonetheless, points at another facet of China – away from its infamous work practices – that could possibly reveal the direction India is only now heading toward.
“I think what is going to change over time [in India] is what we see in China [nowadays] – we no longer see cheap manufacturing. We are seeing Chinese influences in technology and in other areas, where from Western point of view, we are changing the perception of “Made in China.” Now, India is a different story - India is able to compete in terms of a country of origin for fashion brands. … But if we look at China, [a]nd if we had this conversation 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, that luxury brands were shifting productions to China, we would say, ‘No way. It's impossible. Never.’ Now, we are accepting the fact that luxury brands are or have shifted production to China and therefore, why can't we ask about shifting production to India. And, in fact, [if] we have this conversation today, or in 10 or 20 years’ time, we may again be looking at India as we are looking at China today.”
Fashion through politics and economics
To follow the lead of its neighbor, nevertheless, India needs reforms – not only of its apparel manufacturing sector, but of its wider economy. This is a task, which requires political initiative. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already rolled out several highly publicized campaigns to that end – from “Made in India” to the controversial 30% decree, which compels foreign brands selling in India to derive 30% of their materials locally (a policy, which Louis Vuitton has protested, according to India’s The Economic Times). No action would, however, spur long-term betterment without first addressing a single core proposition – the ease of doing business.
Mr Atwal: “If you look at the World Bank's ease of doing business rankings, it demonstrates that India is not a very easy place to do business in in terms of bureaucracy, red tape, legislation, corruption and so on and so forth. Modi is attempting to change that in terms of making it an easy place to do business and get rid of bureaucracy, red tape and improve the overall conditions…If it [India] is an easy place to do business in, then, I think, that would be an important step forward in terms of attracting foreign investment.”
To stream up the trickle of foreign money into the country’s manufacturing sector, the government could consider an all-inclusive marketing strategy. Think of it as a peculiar Amazon-meets-Lonely Planet guide to India’s vast textile and clothes industry, a one-stop shop to pique and quench foreign demand for domestic specialties.
Ms Vasudev expounds: “The country can make that demand with the help of the government organizing a market place, both online as well as physically, in brick-and-mortar environment. For instance, if you come to India, you should have 20 or 30 offices, which tell you what is available in India that you can pick up. So, it is really like shopping for a skill. These skills should be bought online in a special site made by the Indian government [that says], ‘You want leather soles made in India, this is where you go; these are the retailers, the manufacturers, the sourcing centers that you have to go to.’ It needs a large source and reference list to be put online as well as to be available in various places in India, so that when international brands come to India they know where to go and for what. If that happens, I think, the ease of trade, the ease of manufacturing collaborations between various countries, designers and Indian craftspeople will become highly enhanced.”
When it comes to silhouettes and cuts, techniques and expertise, work conditions and economic gains, the cleave between the West and India, yawns large. Even if a slew of concerns still throb for sustainable solutions, the county is already slowly staking a spot on the global high-fashion radar. Lured by India’s know-how, foreign brands are increasingly looking to the subcontinent as their potential manufacturing grounds. If the country’s and the industry’s interests align to beat the hurdles of today, India might well turn into haute fashion’s big story of tomorrow.