The forgotten Karigars: India's hidden and neglected artisan figures that help luxury fashion houses thrive
Long beforehand embroidery captured the world of luxury fashion, there have been kārīgars. Situated in India, kārīgars are ‘artisans’ known for their mastery of embroidery.
Many of the traditional techniques used can’t be found elsewhere in the world, which is something luxury fashion houses have come to recognise. It is why so many of them have chosen to outsource their production to South Asian countries such as India.
The nation is home to one of the world’s oldest textile industries and hundreds of traditional forms of hand embroidery. Within each state, you can find a differing pattern and technique unique to the locality.
The patterns have become intrinsic to each district, marking a variation in thread work alongside changing dialects the moment you cross borders.
"While the event was a significant milestone for India, it also failed to acknowledge the unregulated and dangerous factories used to churn out garments at the detriment of its workers"
Across the northern plains of Gujarat, you will find Kutch embroidery. A signature of the local tribal community, involving the use of an ‘aari’ (a hooked needle) to create patchwork designs made up of vivid colours, beadwork, and mirrors.
Just a few states over, you will find the most expensive and sought-after form of Indian embroidery called Zardozi. Originating in Persia, the craft involves the use of metallic thread and was brought over during the 16th-century reign of the Mughal Empire. Today it has become a cornerstone of the Indian textile industry.
On March 30, Dior held a runway at the gateway of India to pay homage to the nation’s role in luxury fashion. In a statement posted to her Instagram account, the brand’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri spoke about the meaning behind the show:
“I personally wanted to celebrate and showcase the incredible knowledge India offers to the international world of fashion in the field of embroidery, the mastery of the artisans who continue to work on this craft...” she said.
The runway featured stunningly crafted silk dresses, fusion skirts draped to resemble sarees, and jackets printed with traditional floral designs, all in an ode to Indian history and culture.
The event received international coverage and saw a star-studded line up the seated front row. With the likes of Indian actresses, Rekha and Anushka Sharma in attendance, as well as Bridgeton’s Simone Ashley and Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams.
While the event was a significant milestone for India, it also failed to acknowledge the unregulated and dangerous factories used to churn out garments to the detriment of its workers.
Behind many rich and vibrant designs that walk runways, exist the hidden figures of India’s artisans.
Kārīgars are employed for a rare and invaluable skillset; the delicate and extensive work of hand embroidery. Yet they remain without fair pay, health benefits, or safe working conditions.
Three years ago, The New York Times published an exposé, highlighting the vulnerable conditions for labourers under the ‘Indian supply chain’ for luxury fashion.
They found facilities with ‘caged windows and no emergency exit’, where many workers would fall asleep on the same dirt-covered floors, they had spent hours labouring on.
Luxury brands have managed to evade any legal repercussions through business models that involve ‘a middle man’ of sorts. Many do not actually own the factories they create their garments in, and instead contract out to independent production facilities to make their clothing at a lesser cost.
It allows for them to produce stock while skipping the cost of fair pay, health benefits, or safe working environments.
"While India has a textiles market soon to be worth $250 billion, it is not the workers who get to reap the reward of an age-old craft. It creates a luxury garment for the West, which South Asian labourers invoke the cost off, whilst global fashion houses revel in the profit"
Despite these inhumane working conditions, the quality of the embroidery does not diminish. It allows for designers to sell garments that boast of being hand embroidered while invoking the idea of heightened quality and craftsmanship in the consumer. It builds on the tale that the hefty price tag attached to luxury apparel should coincide with the production value.
Back in 2016, the Indian government partnered with ‘exporters of luxury hand embroidery from Mumbai’, along with their clients, such as Dior, in an attempt to combat the exploitation of kārīgars. A framework was developed by London-based consultancy firm Impactt, with the goal of protecting labourers.
The initiative was called the Utthan Pact, named after the Hindi word for ‘regenerate.’ The pact laid out a three-year timeline during which a more dignified and ethical workforce could be established.
This included kārīgars working no more than 11 hour days for a maximum of 6 days a week. As well as an extensive health and safety plan involving adequate ventilation; properly constructed floors, passageways, and stairs to avoid chances of slips or falls; and a room separate from production for workers to sleep in.
However, gaps soon began to appear in the framework and the project proved to be overly ambitious. Some of the biggest issues stemmed from the fact that the Utthan Pact was not legally binding, and manufacturers could instead choose whether they wished to opt in.
It allowed for brands such as Valentino and Versace to continue producing their designs within these factories, without signing on to the pact.
While India has a textiles market soon to be worth $250 billion, it is not the workers who get to reap the reward of an age-old craft. It creates a luxury garment for the West, which South Asian labourers invoke the cost off, whilst global fashion houses revel in the profit.
For centuries, kārīgars have dedicated lifelong careers toward mastering the intricacies involved in needlework.
But, while luxury fashion houses such as Dior continue to outsource production to India to take advantage of native expertise for unfair pay, the nation’s place in global fashion will continue to be devalued.
Anisha Mansuri is a recent MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Birmingham, a poet, writer, and freelance journalist who writes on issues surrounding the experience of the South Asian diaspora, as well as the silencing of women in the current political climate.
Follow her on Twitter: @AnishaMansuri