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Indian Craft: A bumpy ride on the high streets of fashion

Narayan, Sarika has been associated with the crafts sector for the past ten years. She currently works for a retail consultancy.

One can not overstate the contribution traditional craft skills make to weaving, printing and ornamentation in contemporary fashion apparel and personal and home accessories in India. However, as being someone who is particularly fond of hand crafted products and a compulsive shopper of the same; many apprehensions come to my mind. Why is it that so many craft forms, alive and vibrant as they have been over the years are really deadpan and colorless and it requires a particular designer / fashion body to really elevate it to the status of it being an exciting fashion statement?

The craft skill of khari is a case in point. The so called 'ethnic', 'crafty', 'alternative ' consumer has been patronizing it for years, albeit through boring kurtas bought at monotonous 'craft' Blind School exhibitions. Yet it took designer labels to really contemporize it interestingly so that khari printed garments now find their way to the wardrobe of the trendiest style icons of today! Another example is chikan embroidery. Granted that in the 1980s, many NGOs promoting traditional craft skills as means of income generation for low income artisans pulled it out from the depths of degradation and gave it a new lease of life but how come they still make their outfits in the same, boring shapes that they did a decade ago? Again it is only when chikan was adopted by big labels and adapted to suit contemporary taste that it has been incorporated into high fashion garment ranges.

It is healthy practice for large design houses to revive and reinterpret traditional craft forms, but designer prices can seldom be afforded by the burgeoning middle class. It is this consumer group which currently has spending inclination for conveniently retailed machine made brands. A large part of the money spent could be redirected to the craft sector. To achieve this goal the product line has to be trendy yet retain the essential character of the craft form, has to be competitively priced and must be conveniently located.

Larger artisan organizations can actively achieve this because they have direct access to their target customers (including both retailers and end consumers), have access to design experts from the best design schools within the country and have considerable marketing expertise and know how vis--vis their market base. Many Rajasthan & Gujarat based cooperatives of printers, weavers and embroiderers have used the services of design talent from National Institute of Fashion Technology & National Institute of Design. The sample collection is generally brilliant but the actual produce falls way below the sample range in finish, quality, cut and fit. The organizations still make great sales due to lack of alternatives for that craft range, but upgradation would be hugely appreciated by consistent consumers like me.

The middle class customer today is willing to pay premium prices for products which are high on aesthetic and style. This premium price would still be far below a 'designer' price tag. I would love to buy a hand-woven silk/ tassar skirt ornamented with khari motifs from a regular craft outlet (so in vogue today) and would not mind paying a price commensurate with the cost of the upgraded fabric used. But unfortunately it is available only at designer stores where prices incorporate a premium that the designer brand commands. The more mainstream craft stores continue to stock khari printed skirts in cotton, thereby losing the opportunity of upgrading the product and riding on a prevailing fashion trend, which could have translated into greater per unit margin.

Mainstream retailers would be happy to retail craft, provided the product adheres to a standard quality (the standard could be decided mutually by the retailer and craft producers, while leaving enough room for individual innovation), the product range is appropriate for the season and target customer, allows an optimum retailer margin and is delivered on time in adequate quantities. Though this might not seem an unduly difficult goal, there are instances where a prominent retail chain of lifestyle goods (who has a store each in all the metros and in many larger cities) placed an order of home furnishings with a weavers group. The theme based collection included cushion covers, floor cushions, bolster covers and floor coverings. The consignment that arrived included random pieces with no color-wise nor size-wise coordination. Needless to say, it made a poor visual presentation in the store.

It is often argued that since craft is handmade and is labor intensive, it is difficult to churn out the volumes required by large retailers, and hence it can be sold only through 'boutique' stores. The same reason, the predominance of the human element in its production and how craft is not assembly line, is cited for non consistency in deliveries. Then how is it that craft, when exported, acquires large volumes and consistency in quality and delivery? Do the factors vary while retailing craft in the domestic market? We might cynically ask what use are the much touted and often foreign funded training programs that are supposed to resolve the eternal problem of quantities.

Agreed that all the above mentioned problems related to the production and marketing of hand crafted products are also associated with mill made mass products and brands. Also agreed, that handlooms and handicrafts have come a long way post independence in the areas of design, production and marketing. Hand made products provide a viable economic, functional and aesthetic alternative to mass brands which today dominate contemporary fashion and lifestyle. They provide for a vital human buzz, for that dash of individuality that assembly line cannot. But to save craft from sinking into mediocrity, it is time to take yet another carefully calculated leap forward by appropriately modifying, adapting to and integrating within current retail and marketing processes so as to maximize outreach and promote a healthier alternative to the 'McDonaldization' of our lives.



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