The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) conducted their first-ever digital fashion week in September 2020, with each brand shooting fashion films which were broadcasted through social media and YouTube. Unlike normal fashion weeks, designers used this freedom to choose locations ranging from castles to lotus ponds and deserts. At the same time, fast fashion workers in Bangladesh and India were struggling to put food on the table due to the almost overnight collapse of the industry during the first wave of coronavirus across the world. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated that between March and June this year, Bangladesh lost $4.9 billion worth of apparel in order cancellations. The fashion industry has always been one of the most glaring displays of class disparity in the world. How has it fared in our new COVID world?
“Work From Home Outfits” was the newest trend when the first series of worldwide lockdowns began due to COVID-19. How does one dress for a zoom call? Is bottom wear even important anymore now that your coworkers can only see your face during meetings? What does one do with all their party wear? Of course, these were questions only the more fortunate of us faced, while millions of essential workers were forced to wear their work uniforms or PPE and worry more about survival than fashion. But what about those people whose survival depended on fashion?
In January 2020, the Indian textiles industry was estimated at more than US$140 billion, with USD 40 billion in exports. It provided employment to over 45 million people directly and 60 million people indirectly. Like with every other industry, it closed down overnight with the announcement of the nationwide lockdown. But the industry was especially hard hit as export demand collapsed overnight. So producers across the chain — from raw materials, weavers, designers and tailors were left with an immense backlog of frozen inventory, with a very real possibility of much of the said inventory going to waste. The Worker Rights Consortium has compiled a list of companies that have and haven’t agreed to pay their suppliers. The have nots include regular offenders like Urban Outfitters and American Eagle, and surprisingly also include luxury brands like Balmain And Oscar De La Renta. Since the start of the pandemic, around 77% of workers claim that at least one member of their household has gone hungry. The second and third wave of lockdowns around the world is a cause for heightened fear for many owners of these manufacturing units as they see very little chance of survival if they face another major loss.
Much has been discussed about the impact of COVID on the fast fashion industry and it is essential to discuss given that India is an up-and-coming manufacturer for the industry. But what is perhaps more interesting is how small businesses in India have been impacted in the pandemic. Fast fashion is a relatively new player in India with H&M starting its first Indian store only in 2015. Fashion via e-commerce is an equally novel phenomenon, especially for smaller towns and cities where delivery services expanded to much later than they did in metropolitan cities. Before Indians had access to fast fashion to stay trendy for cheap, we would turn to local tailors with our magazine cutouts for everything from saree blouses to tops and formal suits. Tailoring was a family business for some and a means to start earning for countless women who couldn’t work in a professional setting.
Over time, with an increase in the variety of mass-produced clothes, people began to turn to tailors only for special occasions like weddings and festivals. The pandemic meant a complete halt for a majority of these events. For the first few phases of total lockdown, tailors had no income at all. A tailor from Pune said “Even after the lockdown was lifted, for a long time we had no customers because people were not celebrating anything and also did not want to come to my shop where we would have to make physical contact for trials and measurements. A lot of my clients also did not pick up outstanding orders saying they did not have money.” Many of these tailors have turned to selling homemade masks as their clients slowly return albeit in much smaller numbers than before. A majority of these smaller boutiques and tailors cater to lower and middle-income households who have also been hit by the pandemic and do not have money to spend on clothes. Even when people did shop, party clothes weren’t as much a necessity as your regular t-shirts and sweatpants for which we depend on fast fashion companies rather than tailors. While organisations like the FDCI did protect a handful of designers that are registered with their foundation, these smaller tailors have been left mostly helpless.
Since the start of the pandemic, much of the world that could move online has done so. In doing this, many fashion brands that were small businesses were able to establish themselves and survive. Even Instagram, a platform meant for sharing images, has realised this and made one of its biggest-ever changes in its application by replacing the user activities tab with a shopping tab. While controversial among its users, this change points to a larger trend of a rise in Instagram boutiques and stores. In India, many of these brands have grounded themselves in the idea of sustainability. Brands like Ash & Eden, Bodements, Renge and The Burnt Soul have started exclusively online stores and centre their production around sustainability. But more interesting is the exponential rise of Instagram thrift stores that India has seen in the past year. There are now thousands of thrift stores on the app, some of the most popular ones including Luu Liu (30K followers), Lust Thrift (21K followers), and Posh Past (14K followers). In spite of being launched in only in January of this year, Luu Liu has gained immense popularity and is a got to for corsets, something previously unavailable in the Indian market. COVID was the perfect setting for the thrift market to grow in India. Most people had switched to shopping online either out of necessity or as a precaution. The demographic of these stores as confirmed by the owners is of mostly women in their late teens to late twenties, an age group that is also proactive about environmental protection and sustainability. Also, many thrift store owners are located in areas like Delhi and the North-East, where they have access to large amounts of dead stock through wholesale markets like Sarojini Nagar in Delhi. Due to the unprecedented amounts of unsold inventory in fast fashion factories this year, designs usually sold in Europe and the USA were suddenly available to the Indian market through these stores. Unlike in the western world where thrifting generally relates to second-hand or vintage items, in India, thrifting centres around factory rejects due to our proximity to these factories. Most stores price their items fairly accessible. Shopping on these stores is a great pastime while staying indoors as the system is first-come-first-serve and there is usually only one of each item available. These stores also profited off the necessary narrative of “support small businesses” that was emphasised due to the pandemic.
While thrifting and sustainability are great developments, fashion in India hasn’t seen a major change due to COVID. Much like the rest of the economy, the fashion industry is slowly bouncing back to normal. And while this may be a welcome development for our tailors and small businesses, the workers in the fast fashion sector continue to suffer due to a lack of awareness in India. Parts of the world have begun questioning the unethical labour practices of fast fashion, but the message is yet to reach India and the inequalities continue here. Conversely, India is looking forward to expanding its production for these companies as they plan to move out of China. For now, while small businesses continue to suffer, major designers from Rahul Mishra to Manish Malhotra and Falguni Shane Peacock are back to creating Bridal and Wedding outfits for the wealthy families of the country for who the pandemic was all but a damper to their festivities.
Statistical research about thrift stores was done by Shruti Shrivastava, a student of journalism at Ashoka University.
Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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