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30 Aug

Rural to Runway


Ethical Fashion is all about salvaging the conscience

(Herald, June 2012)

Rizwan Beyg

Most people in Pakistan are still confusing ‘ethical’ for ‘ethnical’ but the term ‘ethical’ should acquire the clarity and visibility of a neon sign now that it’s gaining steam all across the world. It can be incredibly pertinent to Pakistan, and Pakistani fashion especially.

What do ethics have to do with fashion? More than you think.

Ethical fashion, in Pakistan and the third world, is all about rural empowerment and it simultaneously feeds the purpose of reviving dying crafts. The chikankari and gotta work done by the women of Bahawalpur, the rilli patchwork done in central Sindh and the phulkari work done by women in northern Swat are just a few examples. There are numerous crafts that are threatened by extinction if they are not revived. Similarly, there is a mass of population that is threatened by poverty if it is not helped to sustain itself. Ethical fashion primarily targets these two issues.

While the western world equates ethical with green or eco-friendly, the term has very different connotations for the South East Asian (SEA) belt.

We met up with designer Rizwan Beyg, who recently announced the launch of Ethical Fashion Week, which would operate in tandem with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. The first EFW would inaugurate in Colombo this September and while Colombo has been devoting one day out of Colombo Fashion Week to ethical fashion, EFW would be a platform singularly devoted to it.

“Ethical for us is very different from ethical for the west,” Rizwan Beyg explained. “Europe is a complete welfare state and is already developed. In the west ethical primarily means going green. For them it’s more about recycling and its more environmental. They’re not talking about developing communities, they’re not talking about social-economic development and they’re not talking about female empowerment or craft revival. They don’t need to. For South East Asia, ethical is about social development. This is the third world and the third world is all about developing the rural sector.”

He continued to explain how EFW would create a united platform to pursue ethical causes in the South East Asian region. It already had designers like Bibi Russell (Bangladesh), Ajay Vir Sing (Sri Lanka) and likeminded designers from India like Abraham & Rathore and Sumant Chohan on board. Rizwan would be representing Pakistan.

Bibi Russell is one of the strongest supporters of fashion for social development

“Ethical fashion has been one day out of four at Colombo,” he shared, “but it has to have its own platform to take a more powerful shape. We want more and more designers to come onto that platform and show social responsibility towards empowerment and rural development. These are issues that will make fashion viable and sustainable.”

“There are a lot of people who are working on ethical grounds and don’t even know it,” he continued. “In Pakistan people are still confusing ethical with ethnic; the awareness is very low. And people are doing it privately but its not getting the right kind of projection. We need to take it forward and convert designers and a lot of stores to actually start working in terms of ethical fashion by going to the rural sector and manufacturing it.

What exactly do you think constitutes ethical fashion for SEA?

“Ethical practice in South East Asia has to have certain criteria,” Beyg replied. “It has to be about craft revival, about checking industrialization and investing in labour as opposed to technology. It’s about investing in human resource and going to areas, which are strong craft centres, whether they are in southern Punjab or the NWFP.

Industrialization is important but it has to go hand in glove with human development because who’s going to design machines and run them if you’re not investing in people? The human component is very important. I think we’re paying a very heavy price for industrialization. There’s hardly anything precious or hand made left. It’s all mass-produced. We have to move beyond selling forty-dollar t-shirts.

We are working on eliminating the middle man who actually makes the most amount of money. He’s the basic man who goes into exploitation and the person who’s making the product gets nothing.”

We may get the impression that fashion designers are working with women from the rural sector – and some may have worked on a collection or two – but no collaborated or widely documented effort is being made and that is what Rizwan Beyg said he was aiming for.

“Designers are not doing ethical fashion,” he says. “Which designers are doing ethical fashion? Which designer is going to a rural area? They are all working with kaarighars in their kaarkhanaas. Nobody has gone out into the field. The whole concept around ethical is to get people to go to these villages, work with these women and help them produce a garment that can go from rural to the runway.”

The designer, who has been selected to the board of AHAN (Aik Hunar Aik Nagar), has always had an obsession with the precious and priceless facet of fashion and he insists that craft revival figures very high on his priority list for ethical fashion. He picks out an exquisite white chikan kurta from his store display and flaunts it as a high fashion garment made by the women in southern Punjab. It’s hard to tell the kurta apart from any other finely crafted garment in his studio.

“Designers need to work with these women to create high fashion garments,” he insists. “We’re trying to create social awareness. I want people to buy this instead of a piece I’ve made in my kaarkhana. This is the basis of ethical fashion.”

Rizwan had developed the motif and provided women with the fabric, in this case a very thin silk net. For this white kurta the designer also provided the silk thread and intervened in the lay-out of the pattern, from the placement of French knots to the spread of chikankari. The result was a breathtaking product that lit up immense possibilities on what our rural women are capable of crafting.

“The logistics of the rural sector see the men going out into the fields, as their income is completely agricultural,” Rizwan continued. “The women stay home and look after the children. We employ the women to supplement their incomes and to encourage them to get into the crafts. It’s all embroidery based because those are the only crafts that women are taught as children. You can actually map clusters of women who are trained to do different types of embroideries, some of which are incredibly beautiful.”

Over 500 Chitrali women have been employed to embroider bags for the London based Polly and Me.

And what kind of wages are these women capable of earning, I ask him.

“Working with the middle man they get next to nothing,” he responds. “It usually depends on the product but it suffices to say that they get next to nothing. It isn’t worked out per hour and is pretty much hit and miss. What happens is that these women make something and take it to the middle-man and ask for anything between 1200 and 2400 for their work, for example. They don’t even know how to price it. Designers need to work with these women, help them design garments that can qualify international standards and give them the right kind of money that they deserve to be making.”

The white chikan kurta he shows us is priced at 85,000 rupees in his studio and Rizwan presses that 75 per cent of the cost will go back to the women who worked on it. That is serious financial empowerment we see into play.

With Ethical Fashion Week coming up, the prospects for ethical fashion appear very bright and certainly can nurture results. The challenge, however, will be to quantify the work being done and gathering credentials on every project proposed as ethical.

“The most important criteria is that is must be verifiable,” Rizwan agrees. “People can’t just come up and make claims unless they can document and prove that they’ve actually gone there, visited the sites and worked with the women. It must be quantifiable. I want to see proof: pictures, videos and numbers. I want footage.”

The ethical movement has started in Pakistan, mostly by people who may not even be aware of it. Step two is to have it regularized and developed under one united umbrella. That’s where Ethical Fashion Week will come in, as Step three Ethical Fashion Week, which will travel between Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India will lead to the formation of the Ethical Craft Council, which will be South East Asian based and will even include designers from Indonesia and Malaysia. With Hina Rabbani Khar as Chairperson of AHAN and other influential people on board, the government is already supporting the movement.

Social connection is imperative to make fashion relevant to an impoverished Pakistan today. The revival of indigenous crafts, whether the fast dying phulkari embroidery or marori techniques, is just as essential to preserve traditions of this region. That more than 50 per cent of the population is female, that too women restricted to the confines of their home without any vocational training or opportunity enabling them to put their skills to work, is absurd. The opportunities in ethical movement are immense. The designers need to realize which role they wish to play: a commercially motivated one or one where they can work with a social conscience and responsibility.


Aamna Haider Isani

The author is Editor-in-Chief at Something Haute as well as Editor at Instep, The News. Full time writer, critic with a love for words and an intolerance for typos.

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