In ‘Wanderlust’ tie up with H&M, Sabyasachi Mukherjee fails to live up to his own sermons on business trickle down

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Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s latest collaboration with H&M, ‘Wanderlust,’ has been the talk of social media platforms since its launch on 12 August. Sabyasachi, a label known for its gorgeous Indian wear, ranging from lehengas to sarees, is not only synonymous with luxury fashion but has attained somewhat of a cult status. Since the very inception of his brand, Mukherjee has focused on producing craft-backed work with the rationale of cultivating a collective national identity. Hence, a lot of his work is based on preserving Indian indigenous crafts. Sabyasachi’s annual turnover exceeds $11 million, and he has consistently credited his success to working with traditional craft artisans across states at the grassroots level. Such is Sabyasachi’s commitment to the craft that he and his sister started The Sabyasachi Art Foundation as a tribute to their artist mother. The Foundation, an eminent part of the brand — both creatively and socially, strives to give indigenous artists and artisans recognition and a means of livelihood.

In one of his interviews with Border & Fall magazine, Sabyasachi talks about the contentious nature of the relationship between fashion and craft. Due to the fashion industry’s commercial motivations and cyclical nature, he suggests that it has become the antithesis of craft. He acknowledges that even though fashion can be craft’s strongest advocate, it often results in the cross-pollination of crafts across regions. Crafts that depend on seasonal deadlines need a more profound commitment over many seasons, which do not fit the fashion industry frameworks. He adds, “Many craft belts in this country have been damaged by designers, leaving not only karigars completely lost but also taking the purity of the craft by doing things for their purpose.”

Sabyasachi (often shortened to Sabya) has created a robust, sustainable market for craft in India.  The brand has stayed true to its nationalistic ethos, and the designer has often spoken about this. Long before Narendra Modi’s Make in India, Sabya was already talking about how every piece of Indian clothing contributes to the revival of the Indian economy and that the country doesn’t need to be dependent on foreign countries for design sensibilities. His brand of nationalism didn’t end at just preserving art and providing livelihoods to artisans, but his brand has been committed to opening schools on the outskirts of Kolkata. Sabyasachi is also a man who understands fair trade and the role he and others like him can play to work on environment, technology, livelihoods, education, etc. He says, “When a company is globally recognised because it fosters fair trade or has good environmental policies, its successful model inspires someone else to do good.”

Hence, it is somewhat surprising that a brand built on such ethos of nationalism and the commitment to preserving indigenous craftsmanship has collaborated with a global apparel giant, without including the very artisans who are the preservers and creators of traditional arts. Soon after that launch, the website crashed, and most of the merchandise was sold out, after which Mukherjee apologised. But the apology was self-serving in more ways than one and was mainly to do with the logistics of crashing servers. While the meme world on the internet called out the designs for their exorbitant prices, members of various artisan collaboratives and artisan organisations from Dastkaari Haat Samiti asked the right kind of questions in an open letter to the designer.

The collective raised questions that ought to be asked by both the industry insiders and by the conscious consumers. One of them was about the proprietary rights of the artisan communities and the lack of credit or compensation given to them. For example, this collection uses the Sanganeri print, and the artisans have a Geographical Indication registration (GI), which means they are legally recognised as the proprietors of this technique and design vocabulary, and there is no mention of them on the website. The publicity material for the launch and the subsequent marketing of the line spoke of this collection as linked to Indian design and craft while carefully omitting the fact that it has not been manufactured by any artisan. Such marketing not only misleads the consumer for profit, but it also culturally appropriates the traditional crafts. The letter also pointed out that the collaboration, which could have furthered the country-wide movement to elevate and position India’s artisan economy as a rich and massive sector for innovative manufacturing and luxury production, was a missed opportunity.

The collection has also picked up classic pieces from Chintz and called them its own. This has diluted the age-old craft of block printing and mass-produced it digitally printed on lookalike surfaces on polyblends. As a brand that takes pride in educating the masses about traditional crafts, the designs have picked up motifs from classic pieces of Chintz, whose name has been derived from the Hindi chīnt, meaning spotted, variegated, speckled, or sprayed. The term has also been used for the style of floral decoration developed in those calico textiles since the 19th century. Chintz designs are derived from the style of Indian designs themselves reflecting Mughal art, with a characteristic white base with floral and animal prints. To blatantly pick up such motifs contradicts what the label stands for, which is the creation of original artwork to preserve age-old crafts. As for Chintz and the people working on it, there is a responsibility towards block makers, printers, color masters, and the label has clearly abdicated from those.

In his response, Sabyasachi appreciated the letter for its intent and concern towards the crafts and craftspeople. The designer stated that his collaboration with H&M was a ‘capsule collection’ to make creations more accessible to the larger high-street market, and not as a substitute for couture or artisanal that champions the craftspeople and the great heritage of textiles and crafts. He stated his three conditions for the Wanderlust collection, all of which mentioned India in abundance but not Indian artisans. As for designs, he mentioned that there was no replication, but rather ‘inspiration’ from travel, ancient cultures of the word, and the rich heritage of Indian crafts and textiles, which is why it wasn’t marketed or sold as Sanganeri print. He wrote that him and his label are deeply respectful of Indian crafts, Geographical Indication representation and the rights of artisans’. The gist of the response letter was this collaboration essentially explored the potential of ‘Designed in India’ and where Indian fashion and design are headed.

This is not for the first time that Sabyasachi has collaborated with an international brand. He has, and very successfully so, collaborated with Christian Louboutin Bergdorf Goodman in the past. It is not just the collaboration but the collaborating partner that adds to the consumer dissonance. A brand that celebrates uniqueness, hand-crafted authentic practices, and charges exorbitant prices for it, when collaborates with a fast-fashion giant that doesn’t pay dignity wages to its workers worldwide becomes paradoxical. In February this year, one of H&M’s suppliers in India was embroiled in a controversy wherein one of their garment workers was found dead. Following this incident, multiple women workers complained to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) of sexual assault, harassment, and verbal abuse by male supervisors and managers at Natchi Apparels, owned by one of India’s largest garment manufacturers, Eastman Exports. Natchi Apparels is one of H&M’s suppliers in India. These allegations came after the body of a 21-year-old Dalit garment worker, Jeyasre Kathiravel, was found in a field close to her family home after she failed to return from her shift at the Natchi Apparels factory in Tamil Nadu. Her supervisor was charged with her murder. Her family and colleagues said that she was too afraid to report harassment from her supervisor in the weeks before she died.

Various international labour rights groups called out H&M for failing to police its own codes of conduct on gender-based violence or to ensure that there was a “responsible process” after Kathiravel’s murder. The bereaved family also faced mounting pressure to accept financial compensation and sign documents releasing the supplier of any responsibility for Kathiravel’s death. This was followed by H&M issuing a statement pledging “an independent third-party investigation.” Furthermore, H&M also said: “The trade unions involved have explicitly asked us not to terminate the business relationship with the supplier in question, and instead actively work to strengthen the workplace safety. We are therefore in close contact with the supplier and have set some immediate and urgent actions that we expect them to complete in order to demonstrate how they can guarantee a workplace free from harassment.”

Dr. Swathi Shivanand, in her three-part series of articles, produced by the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), on garment women workers during the pandemic, wrote about the women garment workers who were laid off by Gokaldas Exports-owned Euro Clothing Company-2 (ECC-2), a supplier of H&M. The Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) demanded that H&M stand up to its commitments to protecting workers’ rights, to which they refused, citing that the dispute was a result of ‘differing interpretations of the national law’ between GATWU and Gokaldas Exports.

Following, the GATWU’s relentless campaign in international forums for getting H&M to accept its responsibility towards workers, they activated the National Monitoring Committee (NMC) — the dispute resolution mechanism set up by H&M to resolve industrial disputes in its supplier factories. In the first NMC meeting, after a month of protesting, H&M has claimed that it was only a ‘facilitator’ and had no control over the functioning of Gokaldas Exports and its power was limited only to certifying the company’s units as eligible for producing their orders. Despite all the evidence of Gokaldas Exports’ violations of workers’ rights and the coercive methods through which workers were asked for their resignations, H&M refused to condemn and prevail over its supplier factory to respect workers’ rights. By the time, the second NMC meeting was help, most workers had resigned and the remaining had been transferred to another factory. H&M through its inaction ensured that its supplier achieved its objective of closing the factory by getting workers to tender their resignations. It was only because of sustained resistance, led by the trade union that the workers who stayed managed to get higher compensation packages than their colleagues who resigned during the course of the protest.

A look at H&M’s website reveals their efforts towards sustainability, which features reports of policies and vision statements on human rights, wages, etc., along with the aesthetics to invoke human emotions. Though H&M is one of the founding members of ACT (Action, Collaboration, and Transformation), along with 20 other brands, and has signed an agreement with IndustriALL, a global union, to transform the garment, textile, and footwear industry and achieve living wages for workers through collective bargaining at industry level linked to purchasing practices, H&M’s conduct through this episode has been anti-workers. Supplier factories typically work in countries or regions where state oversight of labour regulations is abysmal, if not non-existent. Apparel brands have no regulatory oversight for their conduct in countries where their products are being manufactured, except for the highly advertised, voluntary commitments they make towards protecting workers’ rights.

According to two separate reports by Global Labour Justice on gender-based violence in GAP and H&M’s garment supply chains, it was recorded that gender-based violence was an outcome of the way global supply chains are structured. Due to the focus on unreasonable production targets and informal contracts, women workers are often underpaid (paid poverty wages) and overworked. This phenomenon was recorded across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

The way Sabyasachi X H&M has excluded artisans, picked up motifs from traditional crafts with no credits or compensation and called it ‘inspiration, not replication’, engaged in misleading marketing, and collaborated with a fast-fashion company known to exploit workers has taken off the rights-based and ‘sustainable’ facade of the brand. It is similar to ‘greenwashing,’ which climate activist Greta Thunberg in her interview with Vogue called out fast fashion companies for. She pointed out the inherent contradiction between mass-produced fashion and sustainability and how stakeholders in the fashion industry take responsibility by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘green,’ ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair.’ For a brand like Sabyasachi that has been proudly ‘maximalist’ (as opposed to the Western concept of minimalism) and has engaged in preserving age-old crafts (which can be categorised as slow fashion), such a collaboration with a fast-fashion brand is somewhat disorienting because of the challenges involved in mass-producing fashion ‘sustainably.’ The fashion industry is a massive contributor to the climate-and-ecological emergency and child labor, and modern slavery remains rampant in the industry for some to enjoy fast fashion.

The reason for calling out Sabyasachi’s recent collaboration is not to partake in the cancel culture on the internet but to ask questions of relevance and the questions needed to be asked in this day and time. Every piece made by Sabyasachi is exorbitantly priced and it is because the label doesn’t cut corners and compensates its employers in the best way possible. This practice is truly what slow fashion is, that is quality-based rather than time-based. Slow fashion encourages slower production, unifies sustainability with ethics, and ultimately invites consumers to invest in well-made and lasting clothes. Therefore, when a brand that has been an advocate of slow and sustainable fashion collaborates with a fast-fashion company, and that too without crediting the art or the artisans, the collaboration becomes paradoxical to the very mission and vision of the label. From a business and profit-making point of view, such collaboration makes a lot of sense and can be seen as another feather to Mukherjee’s hat, but it makes one question the true intentions of the man and his label. In Sabyasachi’s own words: “while some business trickles down, some trickles up” and this surely did not trickle down.

The author is a research author at the Department of Sociology at Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit academic research organisation based in Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.

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