In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi shaped the Swadeshi movement, urging Indians to shun British manufactured goods in favour of homemade products. Nearly 100 years later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a political leader from Gandhi’s home state, made a call for homegrown manufacturing.

The Make in India campaign was launched in September 2014, with the aim of turning India into a global manufacturing powerhouse. Modi said he hoped to accelerate the manufacturing sector’s contribution from 17% of India’s GDP in 2013 to 25% by the next decade. Of 25 sectors, including railways, defence, automobiles and insurance, the initiative also focuses on the textiles and garments sector. Modi stressed on the nation’s handloom and handicraft legacy as the Make in India campaign called on designers to back the cause.

“Although it is a re-branding exercise, I believe it is a crucial one,” said David Abraham, one half of Abraham & Thakore, a fashion and interior textiles brand. “It can help increase awareness, particularly today when the consumer has inexpensive product options from across the world flooding the high street.”

The textiles industry is India’s second largest employer after agriculture, engaging 40 million people, directly or otherwise. Thus far, the fashion industry, which falls under the textiles and apparel segment, has received no government recognition. “Forget brand-backed fashion shows, even design institutes have to pay tax in the range of Rs 60,000 to hold graduate fashion shows,” said designer and industry expert Wendell Rodricks.

But is a high-powered marketing idea like Make in India enough to persuade indigenous talent and global players to turn to India for investment and manufacturing, along with raw material and skilled labour?

At Textiles India 2017, Manish Malhotra showcased Chikankari from Mijwan. Photo credit: Textiles India 2017/Facebook

Too little, too late?

Textiles India 2017, India’s first global B2B textiles and handicrafts event, just concluded at Gandhinagar, Gujarat. At the event, IMG-Reliance curated and produced two shows. One of these was Evolution of Textiles of India, which featured innovations in craft and design, bringing together established and emerging designers with master craftsmen. Indian Handloom Brand was the other show, and it included a segment where designers showcased their work, created in collaboration with handloom clusters weavers from various regions of India. For instance, Hemang Agrawal and Rajesh Pratap Singh collaborated with handloom clusters from Varanasi and Anavila Misra, known for her ethereal linen saris, collaborated with clusters in Gadwal.

Through the initiative, the Ministry of Textiles claims to be working towards creating rural employment. The ministry hopes to turn Jharkhand into a new apparel and footwear hub, while a farm-to-fashion project unfolds in Gujarat.

The government has stepped in to fund another project, Size India, with the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Most developed nations work with standardised sizing. India borrows the Western scale. Size India hopes to change this.

But are all these efforts to make Make in India fashionable a case of too little, too late?

Sabyasachi Mukherjee showcased Zardosi embroidery. Photo credit: Textiles India 2017/Facebook

India vs the world

The Ministry of Textiles’ approach seems misplaced, because the 2016-’17 textiles and apparel export revenue profits place China in the leading position at $179 billion. In comparison, India stands at $41 billion, of which textiles contribute $24 billion and apparel $17.1 billion. This figure could have something to do with the fact that India’s export strength is cotton-based – it is the second largest producer of cotton after China.

“In 1991, cotton was placed at $5 per band, and continues to sell at the same price. How can we expect to make a dent in our exports?” asked Dr Darlie Koshy, CEO of the Apparel Training & Design Centre and Institute of Apparel Management.

Everywhere in the world, textile and apparel industries come together as an integrated global fashion ecosystem, in which cotton growers or manmade fibre producers, fabric manufacturers, designers and fashion-related media, all work towards promoting the current or forthcoming fashions for garments, home furnishing, lifestyle products and accessories.

In India, this network is missing. Turf protection by each segment means there is almost no dialogue between various players. “Only an integrated fashion system that collectively moves towards creating consumer pull and demand for products can effectively create global leadership,” Koshy argued.

Modi at Textiles India 2017. Photo credit: IANS/PIB

China became factory to the world by offering smart policies and tax subsidies, and encouraging its large domestic market to stay onshore by announcing tailor-made packages. Spain, the 30th largest country in the world, has managed to create Zara, the world’s go-to store for clothing and accessories. In comparison, India continues to harbour a fragmented brand identity, mostly wielded by the might of individual designers.

“What’s stopping us from creating Brand India?” said Dr Koshy. “Leadership qualities need to be encouraged in the fashion sector. Branding is an important exercise. Be! Fund, India’s first not-for-profit risk capital fund for less privileged young people, could have been a step in the right direction, but has been a non-starter for several years.”

Hashtag activism

In the spirit of social media propaganda now synonymous with the Modi government, Union Minister for Textiles, Smriti Irani experimented with the hashtags #iwearhandloom, #cottoniscool and #nationalhandloomday.

But the impact was restricted to social media, said Sabina Chopra, a fashion industry expert: “Designers hopped onto the handloom bandwagon blindfolded because it is media-friendly and it turned into a new seasonal trend to chase.”

Dr Koshy added: “Every hashtag can do a great deal for the industry, but why not express it in a modern context? Invoking a nationalistic pride via handicrafts is a thing of past, we did that with Pupul Jayakar 30 years ago. We live in a fast-moving, consumer-driven market, and the young consumer is interested in affordable clothing in breathable fabrics, readily offered by online shopping portals.”

Appropriating handlooms with a superstar badge worries designer Nachiket Barve.

Models present creations of Nachiket Barve during a fashion show organised by Woolmark. Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP

“Isn’t India about diversity?” asked Barve, a finalist at the prestigious International Woolmark Prize 2016-’17. His ensembles mirror hybrid India – his Woolmark collection, for instance, used the technique of punching felt, a traditional mainstay of craftsmen sculpting Kolhapuri chappals. “Let’s move beyond the cliché of the handloom weaver and look at the next generation that may want to take up more than just weaving, even while staying linked to their heritage.”

As Abraham points out, it’s not enough to exalt handlooms to a royal status, when their manufacture is not intrinsic to India. “While more and more brands are jumping on the handloom bandwagon, it is essential to see if they are using and promoting real handwoven textiles like Benarasi silk, and not power loom Chinese versions of the brocade, which several known brands do,” he said. “This is the job of both, the government and the private sector.”

Much before Make in India, the Abraham & Thakore label was working with ikat weavers in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and vegetable-dyed block printing experts from Barmer to create a contemporary design language. “We saw it as a brand differentiator, especially since we sold internationally,” said Abraham. “It’s encouraging to see that some textile craftsmen are doing better than before, particularly in the trousseau area. Their success, though, has more to do with the designers backing them and less with government campaigns.”

Still, Make in India continues to be a nifty tag that designers are eager to vaunt. As Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, said, “If working within the guidelines of Make in India can bring more business to my designers, and organising gratis events makes me nationalistic, then I don’t mind being part of the movement.”

Artisans from Maharashtra during Textile India 2017. Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP