As a fashion insider, I always knew that luxury brands outsource their embroideries to India, yet it felt surreal to see couture ensembles for the likes of Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad being embroidered in Mumbai’s ateliers. None of the behind-the scenes footage in the glorious fashion films that have now become a couture norm, reveal that the indispensable craft bringing these collections together, comes from our backyard. If we are responsible for adding the luxe factor to coveted couture pieces, where is our ‘Made in India’ label? We toured the city’s fine embroidery hubs to find an answer. On a bright Monday morning, we visited four factories across the city. Karigars sat at karchobs (embroidery frames) slathered in sequins, cut danas, feathers and manipulated fabric etching them into motifs with a sharp crewel needle. Putting our fashion knowledge to test, we attempted to guess the labels based on the adornments we saw at each station—after all, a Prada always stands out. Designated divisions for workshop, quality control, storage and post-production where artisans awaited their chai breaks, reminded me of our own office.
Inception Of The Incognito
By the late ‘70s to early ‘80s international designers began to discovered India’s specific skill in hand embroidery and embellishment. Only a handful of organisations operated back then. One of them was Saks India, founded by Sajjid Khan in 1986 after being personally mentored by legends like Giorgio Armani and Valentino Garavani, for whom Saks continues to create embroideries. Aamir Beading, a family-run establishment with six generations of embroiders, was another player. Their intricate ornamentation has been a part of many Alexander McQueen, Ralph Lauren, Mary Katrantzou and Stella McCartney collections. While founder Rizvi Zariwala focused on honing the craft of aari and zardosi before building the trade around it, fourth in the lineage, Zafar Zariwala commercialised the artistry he learnt from his ancestors in Lucknow, passing it down to the next of his kin.
Making The Cut
Giselle D’souza and Suvandan Saraswat set up Allure Exports in 2008. Shedding light on the workings of a modern export house, Giselle says, “Sometimes they (the client) come with a set mood board and theme, other times we offer existing samples that culminate in the direction of their tentative inspiration. It’s a synergetic process that allows us to get inventive in our jobs.” In Dior’s recent couture showcase, the role played by female Indian embroiderers from Mumbai’s Chanakya International embroidery school, who meticulously handcrafted the beautiful backdrop, was not only acknowledged but celebrated. “Certain small-scale businesses don’t enforce proper protocol and no international brand wants to be known for getting their embroideries done in sweatshops. Few companies like ours that work per the standards, do get our fair share of credit,” says Gayatri Khanna, the force behind Milaaya Embroidery. Before launching her firm in 2000, she worked as a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Today, 21 years later, she supplies to over a hundred brands, including Roberto Cavalli, Gucci and Versace.
Allure Exports Pvt. Ltd.
Moving The Needle
After the Rana Plaza incident that took place in Dhaka in 2013, shook the fashion world, welfare organisations and informed consumers began demanding transparency in product supply chains. Against this backdrop the Uthan (upliftment) pact was formed in 2016 and Indian export houses joined forces with their international counterparts to implement various compliances for karigars and garment workers. The workshops that service international luxury houses offer good conditions partly, because they have to care for the pieces, but also because the houses conduct regular checks. Speaking for his colleagues, Milaaya Embroideries’ head craftsmen Salim, who hails from Kolkata says, “We often hear about karigars wanting to run back to their villages or not being loyal to one firm, why is that? Artisans that stay with their employers for decades, remain there because of more than just the financial benefits. During the pandemic when half the artisans returned home and half were stuck here without work, our boss paid all our salaries in full and facilitated ration for months,” Rizvi agrees that work conditions for artisans have been improving. “Instead of a minimum wage they receive a dignified amount that allows them to sustain a comfortable livelihood. No more residing in the place they work. Health insurance, overtime bonus, paid leaves are some of the many benefits that didn’t exist in this job before,” he says. Amir Beading also launched a training programme to teach women of the family skills and offer them employment subsequently, so that instead of one earning member, the women could also join the workforce,” he explains. Sajjid on the other hand argues that many of these measures look great on paper but not so much on ground. “When we enforce fewer hours and more free time, the embroiders are not thrilled about it. They come from the villages to work long hours and save money, and the lifestyle shift we are proposing doesn’t suit them. Also, these rules go out of the window when we are preparing for back-to-back fashion weeks and the workload is mountainous, as the production time is always just 3-4 weeks,” he says.
A Handmade Future
We interacted with the heads of the embroidery crew to understand how they view their contribution to couture. “Things have improved in the past few years, but for our next generation to want to be a part of this industry, companies need to lay their groundwork in rural India. We grew up with no access to education, and this became our only option. But our kids are educated; they need to see this job as any other,” says SK Sadak, a seasoned embroiderer from Aamir Beading. For an industry that is always under scrutiny for the treatment of its employees, it was refreshing to see skilled experts receiving their due. But what about those working in the underbelly of the industry servicing fast fashion suppliers? Or the conspicuous gender gap in the domain? While the tide seems to be moving in the right direction, a lot remains to be done for the industry to continue functioning in a sustained manner.
Aamir Beading & Embroideries Pvt Ltd.
Photographs: Rahul Kizhakke Veettil