Rags to riches

Last Updated : 29 January 2010, 10:49 IST
Last Updated : 29 January 2010, 10:49 IST

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I have by no means met an exhaustive list of top models, but enough of them to be slightly on edge as I trudge to meet supermodel Erin O’Connor. In the event, any fear is needless because she really is different. She is warm, funny and at no point stares at me as if she can’t believe someone with hat-hair has the audacity to make eye contact. She is also pleasingly self-assured, so I’m surprised when she admits she was “full of nerves and trepidation” when she turned up in East Delhi to meet women working in the garment trade who are part of an innovative and revolutionary ethical fashion experiment.

Stories of suffering...
The women who now flock to the Rajiv Nagar Embroidery Centres are home workers, beading and embellishing thousands of garments each month, the clothes that become everyday stock in our high-street shops. Although highly skilled, they are on the bottom rung of the global, fast-fashion industry. They live hand to mouth, presided over by middlemen — the tyrannical go-betweens who hand out some of the lowest wages in the garment industry. They’re proof that gross exploitation doesn’t just exist in factory sweatshops.

But SEWA changes it all
The embroidery centres are part of a grand plan by SEWA, aka the All India Federation of Self-Employed Women’s Associations, to change all this. “The wages paid to home workers are nowhere near even close to the minimum wage,” explains Sanjay Kumar, one of the few male faces at SEWA, “and that is a direct result of layers of middlemen. So we wondered what would happen if we organised home workers and eliminated the middlemen from the equation. We began dealing with suppliers directly, trying to mobilise US- and UK-based retailers to support us.” And did it work? “Well,” he says, “we have increased our home workers’ wages by nearly 100 per cent and enabled a lot of Muslim women to come out of their homes to a SEWA centre to collect their work and meet. Then they engage with other ideas, like microfinance or education for their children. This business model doesn’t just increase their income but their mobility.”

Eager for bigger orders
Currently, SEWA has contracts for the home workers with Monsoon, Next, H&M and Gap, but Kumar says they have also had visitors from New Look and Arcadia Group (owners of Topshop), who all seemed to like what they saw but are yet to place any orders. “Overall, the percentage of work these brands are giving to SEWA is minimal, despite our requests to senior management of brands and their suppliers,” he says. “We need more, and Erin helps us to publicise to retailers and consumers.”
“It is a humbling moment when you go into a modest work environment like that,” says Erin. “I sat down on the floor with all eyes on me, feeling quite uncomfortable.” But you must be used to having all eyes on you, I suggest — one catwalk, I seem to remember, involved her walking out in front of the international fashion press with a large grey bird sculpture on her head. “Yes,” she says, “but to be heard is a whole different ball game.”

Their hands are their heritage
“I suppose I’ve had one version of the fashion industry and now I’m going out and having a tweak here and there,” she says.  
On the trail of positive change in India she soon felt at ease hanging out with the home workers, as the conversation turned to normal stuff — why she has short hair (“because it makes me feel more feminine”) and if she was going to get married (“I bloody hope so. One day”). She went to their houses, saw where and how they worked and had a go at making some products herself.

“I have previously been a very enthusiastic consumer and I didn’t think about the origins of garments enough,” she says. “The thing is, when you see an article —  whether it be a bejewelled pen from Monsoon or a top in Gap that requires embroidery — you almost don't believe that it is made with a pair of very determined hands, and that it is time consuming, and that each garment, in a sense, is bespoke because of the way in which they do it — the chalk is their guideline, like a tailor. There’s not much to make us aware of women using their hands and their heritage, is there?”

What is ethical fashion?
This lack of understanding is one of the reasons we have become so detached as consumers that we’re happy to wear a piece a handful of times before chucking it out. It is no coincidence that the SEWA project is partly funded by a grant from Traid, the UK Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development, which deals with the other end of the fast-fashion chain — the waste.

Has the trip to Delhi had any influence on Erin’s wardrobe? “It would be just plain rude really to go back to my old habits, wouldn’t it?” she says. “I do like shopping high street, but I do consider the long-term value of a specific piece and, also, one day giving it up for somebody else to love and enjoy. And I am aware of the brands that SEWA uses, and I want to support them.” At the moment, this is easier said than done, because the products made ethically by SEWA aren’t labelled in the participating high-street stores.

“There’s no reason why style and conscience can’t co-exist. Those women know they are doing a very good job and SEWA’s found a production model that is working. This should get bigger and bigger.”

Published 29 January 2010, 10:49 IST

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