The hidden cost of the fashion industry’s philanthropy

The price of philanthropy in fashion that nobody talks about

June 05, 2020 02:15 pm | Updated 02:15 pm IST

Few designers talk about their problems openly; it besmirches the dream that is fashion. But at a time like this, their reality becomes central to how we engage with this beautiful, creative industry that is also a considerable source of employment.

Few designers talk about their problems openly; it besmirches the dream that is fashion. But at a time like this, their reality becomes central to how we engage with this beautiful, creative industry that is also a considerable source of employment.

Charity is a moral prerogative with an economic aftermath. It is not a quote, but an observation. And we need to understand how it works, given the undeniable ground realities of our times.

With the apparel and textile industries being among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 fallout (cyclone Amphan did its bit, too), it comes as no surprise that individuals in the fashion community feel that this is the time to mobilise and garner support. The feeling is admirable.

In this context, a simple idea is to ask fashion designers to ‘contribute’ garments for a charity sale. It has been done before, and in the weeks and months to come, more such sales will be announced. Honest and sincere voices will call in favours and ask you to spend for good causes. Successful sales will decidedly help.

But here’s where the dissonance begins. We are too ready to accept that those who are ‘buying’ said garments are ‘spending their hard-earned money’, while designers are simply ‘contributing’ clothes. By thinking this way, we annihilate the economic reality of production and manufacture, and give undue importance to the holder of the purse.

In simpler words, we need to question why we feel it is OK to ask designers — who spend considerable time, resources, and money to make their garments — to give them away for free. Especially when they sorely need to be making actual sales.

For those ‘spending money’, it is a retail exchange made prettier by the patina of philanthropy. It assuages buyers’ guilt in these terrible times. In exchange, designers and their entire ecosystem of artisans and workers get nothing. How is this fair? Unless designers recover their costs at least, it isn’t.

Fashion is a notoriously misunderstood industry. A handful of its biggest players continue to define its glamorous and rich public perception. But a huge number of its smaller members have always struggled, even while selling far more in terms of numbers. They employ a handful of workers in small units in cramped locations, even as their Instagram feeds tell a different story. Few talk about their problems openly; it besmirches the dream that is fashion. But at a time like this, their reality becomes central to how we engage with this beautiful, creative industry that is also a considerable source of employment.

About now, I expect to hear voices saying, “Nobody’s putting a gun to a designer’s head to contribute clothes for free.” Absolutely right. But there are more ways than one to cock a pistol.

Many designers decided to support their artisans and workers through the lockdown in a variety of ways and have continued doing so for over two months with little or no sales, stores being closed, their international and domestic orders cancelled, no relief on rents, GST, or loan payments, and no clarity from the government. If this is the commitment our designers have proven already, why should they feel any fear of judgement, personal or public?

Many designers decided to support their artisans and workers through the lockdown in a variety of ways and have continued doing so for over two months with little or no sales, stores being closed, their international and domestic orders cancelled, no relief on rents, GST, or loan payments, and no clarity from the government. If this is the commitment our designers have proven already, why should they feel any fear of judgement, personal or public?

What happens when someone in a position of influence asks designers to contribute to a charity sale? Think. A designer capable of doing so does it. But for those who can’t contribute without causing themselves financial harm, the choice is not so simple. The fear (even if imagined) of peer censure and social media backlash, of an awkward situation, is very real. The fashion industry runs on connections. Word-of-mouth is powerful. Especially if those words come out of a powerful mouth. Or pen. Not to mention trolls on social media.

If such ideas are to be executed, I submit that it be done with a sensitive touch. Put out an open call on social media and let designers who can afford it come forward. That way, we avoid pressuring or intimidating those who cannot.

Remember, since the lockdown began, many designers decided to support their artisans and workers in a variety of ways (I wrote about it in this newspaper in an article titled Fashion’s first responders ). Many have continued doing so for over two months with little or no sales, stores being closed, their international and domestic orders cancelled, no relief on rents, GST, or loan payments, and no clarity from the government. If this is the commitment our designers have proven already, why should they feel any fear of judgement, personal or public?

It is the easiest ideas that require careful, often painful, scrutiny. As a body, the fashion industry cannot be made to fill in where a democratically elected government has proven ineffectual. A retail proposition — for that is what fashion is — cannot keep pouring out its cups even as its own lips dry up.

Varun Rana is a fashion commentator and Communications Director at The House of Angadi. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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