Shefalee Vasudev, Editor—The Voice of Fashion at IMG Reliance Pvt. Ltd., speaks to Cosmo about the consequences of the Coronavirus crisis on the Indian fashion industry—the change in economics and consumerism patterns, a greater focus on #sustainability, the plight of indigenous craftsmen, and what lies ahead...
Cosmo: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the Indian and global fashion industry?
Shefalee Vasudev: “The world over, fashion houses and labels have been hit hard, and the chain of production, orders, and deliveries has been severely affected. Many Indian designers have interested buyers and stockists in India as well as abroad, but those orders are no longer being made and can’t be met. Their future collections are at a standstill too. Many designers travel abroad, attending fashion events and fairs, and book orders for the next season way in advance. Some stockers buy regularly from specific designers, while others take on designers on a consignment basis. But at the moment, they are all stranded. Some designers have their consignments ready to be shipped, while others are stuck as only a portion of their consignment has been shipped. Their collections are no longer wanted by any store, anywhere in the world, so what are they to do? They can’t even stock up their inventory and wait for the lockdown to be over as all their collections will be outdated.
Designers like Urvashi Kaur, for instance, had ordered special yarn and woven it in advance, for a future collection. All that yarn, textile and fabric are now of no use. Then there are scores of designers like Reena Singh, whose shipments to Europe and other destinations were brought to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic.
And let’s not forget the question of payments. Some stockers might pay some designers, whom they have associated with for years. But a young designer might have to undergo immense losses. So, there is depletion and loss of business in various ways and proportions across the industry. Everybody from Sabyasachi to Shantanu & Nikhil (who were unable to launch their Pret line called SN), are unable to fight this. Every person and part of the fashion industry has been affected in some way or the other.”
C: And what about the Autumn/Winter collections, given that shows have been cancelled across the world?
SV: “We might discover that designers will reuse and upcycle their Summer 2020 collections into Autumn/Winter 2020 pieces. This will require a creative, innovative, design-led approach, to save the Spring/Summer collection from going to waste. While everything may not be adaptable, a lot can be salvaged and saved by both stockists and designers. This universal sense of loss can lead to a universal sense of rescue.
Fashion bodies across the world might also see sense in converging different fashion weeks and seasons into one. Investments can be recovered from one main season instead of two. We will likely see fewer fashion weeks...and a greater focus on trans-seasonal fashion.”
“There would not be so many jobs as there are today or as there were in the past. Every fast-fashion brand has multiple endless jobs every year. Even if they continue being strong in the future, and the drops are fewer, but they will certainly take place. I am hesitant to use the word ‘drop’, but we can’t escape it. Sustainability will be on top of everybody's mind…”
C: And will we witness more conversations around the green, sustainable, eco-friendly fashion?
SV: “All these terms have been around us for some years now, and they have been over-used and misused. Green fashion is not new, nor has it been suddenly brought into the spotlight. But companies, brands and even small designers who were using it loosely in the past, will now be forced to take a closer look at what it really means to them and their company. This could include hiring practices, sourcing of raw materials, packaging and delivery modules, or how they use e-commerce. I am confident that fashion will certainly be more sustainable in the future. But currently, there is too much noise around the term…and very little being done in reality.
What I foresee happening now is real action, as sustainability will have to be evaluated in real terms. And sustainability is not just limited to waste and water management. It's also about worker welfare and about future-proofing your supply chains. It's about making invisible supply chains, which generally consist of child labour and destitute women, visible. It is about making sure you work with vendors who subscribe to the Higg Index [an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard for assessing environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain], which has a globally recognised sustainability charter.”
C: How will wastage be viewed differently post the pandemic?
SV: “I think fashion wastage has been attracting a lot of creative innovations. Many ingenious strategies have been applied to see what can be done with the waste. In India, for instance, brands like Levis, W, Arvind Fashions Ltd, and Aditya Birla Fashion Retail Ltd, have specific policies and strategies for dealing with wastage. Some of them up-cycle their waste properly and give it back to the customers again. Some of the waste is used to make accessories and garments. Like, waste denim has many uses—it can be used to make pouches, slings, shorts and shoes.
W, for instance, gives huge amounts to its waste to Goonj and other non-governmental organisations for them to use in villages. Aditya Birla Fashion Retail Ltd does the same. Their waste is either sold, reused or donated. But there are also companies that do absolutely nothing about wastage management.
In the end, it is all about sustainability. Copenhagen Fashion Summit, for instance, has been talking about wastage and landfills, ever since it began, for a decade. They invite designers and creative minds to give advice and suggestions on waste management, whether it is ocean waste or waste from studios and factories. Organisations like Greensole use the soles of old discarded shoes to make new footwear for the underprivileged. Adidas collaborated with them to gather and donate old shoes. These repurposed shoes look brand new and this way they last longer than the previous shoe may have lasted. Fashion houses will have to look at waste and waste management very carefully, otherwise, they will not be able to continue their operations indefinitely.”
C: Will we see a greater focus on ‘buying local’?
SV: “Ever since China locked down due to Coronavirus, zips, buttons and other fashion essentials, which were previously imported from China, were instantly outsourced to countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India. There was a shift of businesses in the first month, which taught the world a lesson, including people from India. Designers too, changed their orders from one country to another, as they also discovered that China is not the only place to buy essential fashion supplies from.
So much of Chinese silk comes into Banaras and South India. So the ‘fake Kanjivaram’ sarees (which we call fake, but is actually not, as it is woven on Chinese yarn) or the ‘Surat synthetics’, will surely decline, as there is no other country besides China that can supply silk in such large quantities and so frequency. Scarcity will result in shifting of businesses and substitutes will be found, but the world will not be scarce of goods.
But every country has its limitations and not all things are possible in all countries. Italy has never been good at manufacturing plastic covers used to protect garments. France never had the kind of embroideries as India has. The entire European fashion world comes to Indian ateliers, studios and kaarigars for embroideries. So, certain things are rooted in certain economies and manufacturing systems, those cannot just be bought locally. Quantity of production matters too, as Vietnam and Bangladesh can make buttons, but they may not be able to truly mass produce them. Hence, specialisations that have previously existed will have to be re-explored.”
C: And what about the plight of the Indian craftsmen, especially those who depend on the Indian fashion industry?
SV: “As fashion businesses get affected, craftsmen engaged in block printing, hand printing, bandhini, ikat, tie and dye etc are all bound to suffer proportionately. Since they are at the bottom of the chain, they are seldom given advances. They are grossly underpaid to begin with, so they are certainly going to be the worst hit. Indian craftsmen will suffer even more so, as they sell their products and creations at the local haats, craft bazaars and smaller Indian markets, unrelated to the fashion industry. But with the depletion of jobs and livelihoods, the ikat haats of Odisha for example, will definitely not be the same. Ajrak, on the other hand, made in Kutch but sold more in Japan and the rest of the world is also going to face the same consequences, as orders will dry up.”
C: What will be our biggest lessons/takeaways from this crisis?
SV: “The fashion industry, globally, was already asking itself some very serious questions even before this crisis—'Do we have too many fashion weeks around the world?’ ‘Do we spend too much on spectacle?’ The biggest takeaway, according to me, is that fashion will pair itself down. Investment in spectacle, promotions, trips around the world, and influencer marketing will decrease to a certain extent and be rethought. I don't see any of these disappearing entirely, but moderation will certainly come into play and fashion will look for ways to give back to the community. Just like an oscillating pendulum, from one extreme to another.”