I am currently working on a menswear collection at University for which I was assigned the designer Dries Van Noten – king of luxury fashion. At first, I felt nervous, a feeling closely followed by a great sense of pressure as I studied the details of the fine embroidery and print that the designer uses in every single one of his collections. I began to research Van Noten to try to understand what makes him tick. What inspires him? Where does he begin his design process? And then suddenly, I didn’t feel so intimidated to be designing ‘for’ Dries Van Noten. Employing over 3,000 skilled embroiderers in India Van Noten recognises that he holds a social responsibility to provide work for these artisans each season and if this means including embroidery in every collection that he produces, that is what he will do. This value and respect he has for craftsmanship and the preservation of unique skill sets were a part of a design approach that I could connect with and are exactly the kind of commitments the fashion industry needs in order to create a circular and sustainable business model.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing a rapid decline in the number of skilled artisans, as many traditional craft techniques lie in the hands of an ageing population and are not being passed on to the younger generation. This decline is also due to an increasingly fast fashion system and improved technologies which artisans can simply not commercially compete with when, for example, a single artisan made silk scarf can take between 15-20 days to be hand woven opposed to a machine one which can take only a few hours.
However, behind every hand crafted garment and textile there is a story and it is a story that goes beyond the physical object itself. The story extends through to the lives of the artisans, to their families, and through their villages, towns and cities. The beauty and value of these objects come from no one piece being the same as the next and no one piece having the same story as the next. It is in the imperfections of the pieces that we can see a story being told, from the quivering hand of a master of the technique to a child bumping the loom as they run past, the uniqueness is what makes the work of skilled artisans worth saving.
As consumers, we are responsible for ‘voting with our dollar’. In recent times we have seen many designers supporting and preserving the work of traditional techniques through collaborations with skilled artisans. Australian label Romance was Born among them, promoting the art of silk brocade weaving in Varanasi, India, and helping them to create a long term, sustainable income. An article from ‘Artisans of Fashion’ reported that up until a decade ago over 100,000 handlooms would be used everyday in the city of Varanasi. That number has since halved leaving some of these highly skilled artisans out of work and subject to extreme poverty.
One of the most amazing things about designers and artisans collaborating is that designers are exposed to the realm of possibilities of the many older art forms that still exist today and the many ways that they can be used. Artisans on the other hand are able to learn about modern techniques and aesthetics and what is marketable, all the while preserving traditional skills that can date back thousands of years. This cycle of knowledge exchange can have extraordinary, beneficial impacts for both parties and encourages businesses to move forward in a healthy, sustainable and empowering way.
With Love, Sarah xxx