Know Your Darjee project hopes to give karigars their due
Know Your Darjee, a project by four designers, who developed a conscience after working in the world of high fashion in NY, hopes to give craftsmen a seat at the table
The hands behind handmade never get their due: they remain faceless, voiceless, penniless. Crammed into workstations like spools in a thread box, made to work in poor ventilation and lighting, paid a pittance, darjees and karigars are exploited by designers. Four conscientious Indian designers want to change that. Trained at Parsons School of Design, New York, Mumbai-based Bhumika Ahluwalia and Juhi Melwani, Delhi-based Parul Sahni and currently nomadic Shriya Chandrasekhar have started an online storytelling project called #knowyourdarjee. It was in New York, while working at fashion houses, that the group of 20-somethings had their moment of reckoning.
Chandrasekhar, the designated spokesperson of the group, says, "We became quickly aware that something wasn't right with the way this industry functions: its imbalance, the overabundance of marketing in the supply chain, the structure between the front and back-end, or the fact that no one cared that the H&M sweatshirt was an outrageous rip-off of a McQueen, Kenzo or a [Maison] Margiela. [At about the same time], we also witnessed two major events: the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza [in Dhaka] and the rise of Amancio Ortega, chairman of Inditex, or Zara, as one of the richest men in the world." The 1,134 garment workers, who got buried under the building, are buried six feet under; as of November, Ortega is worth $67.2 billion, give or take a billion.
Designer Bhumika Ahluwalia
By recording the oral narratives of darjees across India (and the world), they want to sensitise the customer. Because if you know about your darjee, about his life of hardship, you unravel your heart a little bit every time you drape your body. "Most karigars work six days a week, 10 months a year, with two months of leave," says Chandrasekhar. "Sometimes unaware of their worthy skills, sometimes in awe of stitching Sonam K Ahuja's outfit, and sometimes because of the demand for cheap labour, they work long hours, commute longer hours and are paid minimum wages with no healthcare or clean shelter to reside in."
Their project involves not just listening to weavers, dyers, block printers, embroiderers, patternmakers and tailors, but even "shoemakers, bangle-makers, or someone who sews spacesuits for a living." According to them, fashion done right looks like designer Rahul Mishra's sustainability project, in which he relocated 300 craftsmen from a Mumbai slum to Baudpur village in West Bengal. The workers earn the same salaries, live at home and work in a liveable workshop. "There are very few fashion designers who are passionate and truly aware of creating whatever they are," she says.
"While some go to the extent of treating everyone like family, some are just struggling with the economics and trying to please the customer, often leading to negotiation and exploitation of the one producing it. It's been a hundred years since the beginning of industrialisation. It's time we put all our energy into making products with better intentions." It's time that the skills darjees bring to the table aren't relegated to shreds on the floor. And that the hand that cuts the pattern is the hand that rules the fashion world.
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