In the past week, India has reported over 2.7 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 25,700 deaths, though both counts are thought to be significantly underestimated. Mass cremations in Delhi and Mumbai have pushed the Air Quality Index above 400 on some days and the country’s already-fragile healthcare system has all but collapsed, with few hospital beds and a vanishing supply of oxygen tanks. New Delhi-based designer Rahul Mishra made 50 phone calls to locate a tank for his friend’s father, while Bodice’s Ruchika Sachdeva, also in New Delhi, searched everywhere to find one for a family member, only to discover the cylinder was empty.
“I’ve come across the deaths of more people in the past few weeks [than] I have in my 26 years of life, and these are all people who I knew directly or through friends,” says Harsh Agarwal, the founder of Jaipur-based men’s label Harago. “We are running out of oxygen, hospital beds, and most importantly, good governance. People are dying on the streets, in homes, at hospitals, and very tragically, those close to the deceased don’t even have the opportunity to even say goodbye. There is just no form of speech for this crime against humanity.”
That this is happening a year into the pandemic and months after vaccines have started rolling out in richer nations makes it only more heartbreaking. It’s yet another bleak reminder of COVID’s global impact and inequity.
“But even as consumer spending rebounds in the West, brands aren’t placing orders like they used to; some are scaling back their collections, while others are moving production elsewhere, and that trickles down to the factory workers and artisans”
The disparity is particularly stark in the context of fashion. Many designers and brands work with artisans and factories in India, even if they don’t explicitly say so. The label might read “Made in Italy,” but the embroidery was done in Jaipur, or the cotton was woven in Mumbai. We think of luxury brands as being thoroughly Italian, or French, or Belgian, but the fact is, most of them wouldn’t exist without India.
Before this second wave set in, India’s textile and apparel industry had already been devastated by the pandemic. Brands cancelled or refused to pay for orders last spring, leaving millions of factory workers and artisans in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and beyond out of jobs. (The #PayUp petition successfully moved dozens of companies to pay what they owed.) But even as consumer spending rebounds in the West, brands aren’t placing orders like they used to; some are scaling back their collections, while others are moving production elsewhere, and that trickles down to the factory workers and artisans. The Worker Rights Consortium found that even the garment workers who have stayed employed are earning far less than in 2019.
The current crisis stands to exacerbate those problems. Production will likely be delayed this month, and some brands might choose to cancel upcoming shipments. But certainly there must be another way. “Luxury brands go to India because of the quality of the handwork and its low cost, and now is the time to support these communities that have supported us,” Roopa Pemmaraju, a designer who works with artisans throughout India, wrote via email. “They’ve worked for us and shared their talent and their lives with us, and we shouldn’t be just cancelling orders and abandoning them.”
“Considering the amount of production that happens in India, there definitely isn’t enough [support] coming from brands,” Sachdeva adds. That support could take a few different forms, including advance payments to factories; helping artisans make vaccine appointments; or simply allowing for delays. “Rather than cancel their orders, brands could give the factories credits for later on,” Sachdeva suggests.
“We have to keep the system going so that after COVID, we can continue the partnership,” Pemmaraju adds. “I understand some brands may not be able to give a factory 100% of an order, but give them 50% or 60%, and it could literally save their lives. You’ve helped them grow, and they’ve helped you grow, so now’s the time to step up.”
“Having loyal customers and supporting young brands is all we can ask for to keep the businesses afloat”
Maria Stanley, a designer based in Minneapolis who produces her collections in a family-run factory in New Delhi, recently set up a GoFundMe to help cover the team’s hospital bills, food, sanitation supplies, and paid time off to stay home from work or take care of a family member. “We’re hoping to raise more than enough so we can cover any future repercussions our team may face,” Stanley says. “The best way I know how to support them in the long-term is to keep sending them work and use resources that are readily available,” she adds. “We’re using materials from past seasons to restock a few of my best-sellers, which will keep our factory busy while the farmers and textile mills regroup.”
Stanley is also paying for her fall 2021 collection in advance, rather than in instalments, and expects it to ship in September rather than August—a slight delay that customers aren’t likely to notice. Another way she’s getting cash to her factory is by paying for sampling: “Many Indian factories don’t charge for production sampling and shipping,” she explains. “We’ve started paying for this, as it’s a cost we can make up later with sample sales.”
Agarwal points out the significant role the consumer plays in supporting independent designers, who in turn can support their factory partners: “Having loyal customers and supporting young brands is all we can ask for to keep the businesses afloat,” he says. “I would urge all the designers and brands producing in India to keep the flow of orders coming: give out advances to the artisans, and pay [for production] in full.”
Nishanth Chopra, the founder of Oshadi Collective, a brand and regenerative cotton farm in Tamil Nadu, also encouraged flexibility. He and his team live far from the nearest city, where COVID-19 is less of an issue, but he still anticipates some delays. “I know restrictions are slowly easing out everywhere else, so it could be really helpful to [avoid] putting pressure on Indian partners for immediate deliveries, and give them some breathing time to process the orders,” he says. “And support the artisans or communities they work with. If every brand did that, it could turn out to be a great collective [show of] support throughout the fashion community.”
Outside of dense New Delhi, Mishra employs artisans in smaller villages that have been less impacted by COVID-19; his “decentralised system of production” means many of them have been able to work from home. “While parts of the country are severely affected by a deadly disease, other parts are at a risk of losing their livelihoods yet again,” he explains. “The past year highlighted the importance of employing craftsmen and workers in the country, as they are the backbone of our social system. It is a responsibility that every fashion entrepreneur in India has today.”
Many of the craftspeople Mishra works with have returned to their villages after living in slums in larger cities, and he urged other designers to look beyond the big factories in Delhi and Mumbai. “Brands who produce in India can continue by supporting these communities in smaller villages,” he says. “It is important to provide work opportunities to the craftsmen when they are capable of working. This will not only pull them away from the crisis of the pandemic, but could encourage a system of empowerment and growth within their social setups.”
Sachdeva says brands typically don’t disclose which factories or artisan groups they work with, but now that it’s become a matter of survival, that spirit of competition and exclusivity doesn’t feel so relevant. “There’s so much secrecy around it, and why?” she says. “There should really be an open resource directory for brands that shows which factories they work with, so more and more people can work with the smaller factories. The bigger ones are easy to find, but not the artisans.”
By being more open about the factories and people they work with in India (and elsewhere), brands could help their customers better understand how their clothes are made, and by whom. Just as importantly, it would help subvert the image we’ve long held of a typical artisan: a nameless, anonymous person working quietly over a piece of fabric, with no voice or sense of place. “These people are artists,” Sachdeva insists. “Why don’t we promote them and celebrate their work?”
For those outside of India who want to support the country during this crisis, consider fundraisers like Stanley’s and organisations on the ground. Pemmaraju suggested the following: Proud Indian NGO, Care India Official, Feeding from Far, Enrich Lives Foundation, and Khaana Chahiye. Aside from donating, “The best thing to do is purchase from brands who produce in India, especially who work with artisans,” she adds. “When you buy from these brands, know that it really does help Indian workers keep their jobs, which can make the difference between life or death in a situation like this.”
This story was originally published on Vogue.