Most people in Pakistan confuse ‘ethical’ for ‘ethnical’ but the term ‘ethical’ should acquire the clarity and visibility of a neon sign now that it is gaining steam 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 serves 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 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.
Designer Rizwan Beyg recently announced the launch of Ethical Fashion Week (EFW), which would operate in tandem in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. The first EFW would open in Colombo this September; 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 fashion 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,” he says.
He explains how EFW would create a united platform to pursue ethical causes in the South East Asian region. It already has designers like Bibi Russell (Bangladesh), Ajay Vir Sing (Sri Lanka) and like-minded designers fromIndialike Abraham & Thakore and Samant Chohan on board. Beyg will represent Pakistan.
In Pakistan, there are many enterprising people who are working on ethical grounds and don’t even know it. But Beyg says, “the awareness is very low. And because interested people are doing it privately, it’s 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.”
What constitutes ethical fashion? “Ethical for us is very different from ethical for the West,” Beyg explains. “In the West, ethical primarily means going green. For them it’s more about recycling and it’s 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 [because they are all developed states],” he says. “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.”
Beyg seems to believe that “ethical practice in South East Asia must have a certain criteria.” Here it has to be about craft revival, about checking industrialisation and investing in labour as opposed to technology. “It’s about investing in human resource and exploring areas which are strong craft centres, whether they are in southern Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” he says.
Industrialisation is important but it has to go hand in hand with human development because who is going to design machines and run them if you are not investing in people? “Yes, it’s the human component that is very important. I think we’re paying a very heavy price for industrialisation. There’s hardly anything precious or handmade left. It’s all mass-produced. We have to move beyond selling 40-dollar t-shirts.”
We have been made to understand for a while now that fashion designers are working with low-income groups and women from the rural sector – and some may have worked on a collection or two – but no collaborative or widely documented effort is being made and that is what Beyg is aiming for.
“Designers are not doing ethical fashion,” he says and asks whether they are travelling into rural areas. “They are all working with kaarighars (craftsmen) in their kaarkhanaas (factories). 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.”
Beyg, who has been selected to the board of Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (Ahan), a government-devised scheme to promote local crafts, has always had an obsession with the precious and priceless facets of fashion and he insists that craft revival figures are 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 women in southern Punjab. It is 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.”
For this kurta, Beyg had developed the motif and provided women with the fabric, in this case a very thin silk net. The designer also provided the silk thread and intervened in the layout of the pattern, from the placement of French knots to the spread of chikankari. The result is a breathtaking product that lights up immense possibilities on what our rural women are capable of crafting.
“The logistics of the rural sector see men going out into the fields, as their income is completely agricultural,” Beyg continues. “Women stay home and look after children. We employ 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.”
And what kind of wages are these women capable of earning, I ask him. “Working with the middleman 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 based on hit-and-miss. What happens is that these women make something and take it to the middleman and ask for anything between 1,200 rupees and 2,400 rupees for their work, for example. They don’t even know how to price it.”
Beyg and his colleagues are working on eliminating the middleman who actually makes the most amount of money. “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 chikan kurta he shows is priced at 85,000 rupees in his studio and Beyg says that 75 per cent of the cost will go back to the women who worked on it. That is serious financial empowerment we see at play.
With EFW coming up, the challenge will be to quantify the work being done and gathering information on every project proposed as ethical. “The most important criterion is that it must be verifiable,” Beyg responds. “People can’t just come up and make claims unless they can document and prove that they’ve actually visited the sites and worked with women. It must be quantifiable and we want to see proof: pictures, videos and numbers.”
The ethical movement started in Pakistan with people who may not even have been aware of it. Step two now is to ensure it is regularised and developed under one umbrella. That is where EFW will come in. As step three, EFW, 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 Asia based and will even include designers from Indonesia and Malaysia. With Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar as the chairperson of Ahan and other influential people on board, the government is already supporting the movement.
Social connections and responsibilities are imperative to make fashion relevant to an impoverished Pakistan. Revival of indigenous crafts, whether the fast dying phulkari embroidery or marori techniques, is just as essential. That more than 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population is female, and that too restricted to the confines of their homes without any vocational training or opportunity enabling them to put their skills to work, is a fact that fashion should take note of. The opportunities within an ethical movement are immense for the economic emancipation of these women. Here Pakistani designers need to realise which role they wish to play: a commercially motivated one or the one where they can work with a social conscience and responsibility.