Heritage and fashion – one of the most iconic crossovers, giving rise to deeply meaningful, timeless and beautiful garments. But why is it so expensive? What are you really paying for? And isn’t it just cultural appropriation?
Artisan fashion sits within the realm of ethical fashion. Ethical fashion refers to fashion that prioritises ethics: of our environment, and those who live within it. It is a movement birthed in response to the destructive nature of the fashion industry as we know it. One that recognises that the fashion industry has (traditionally) been cruel to the humans and animals involved in its supply chain, and unforgiving to the planet that it is produced on. One that acknowledges that we need a revolution.
“While it’s only a small part of the broader ethical movement, ‘artisan-made’ is often the appetiser that introduces consumers to an entree of issues. Like ‘organic’ is to ‘sustainable food’, it both supports and pushes ethical fashion-forward while sitting neatly underneath it with an array of other important and interconnected matters.” – Kasi Martin
Artisan fashion represents only one of the ways that the ethical fashion movement is making waves in the fashion industry. But what exactly is it? There is no standard definition for what it means, but here’s our take:
Artisan fashion is fashion that honours the craftsmen involved in making the garments it produces. It celebrates the rich heritage that it borrows from and interacts with. It is slow and meaningful, an antithesis to the fast and the trendy that we have become used to. (No thanks to the growth of mass-produced, disposable fashion.) There is no one ‘look’ of artisan fashion; it manifests in many different forms, styles, and colours. And that is why there are many reasons why artisan fashion is important. So let’s start with those…
The artisan fashion that you’re probably most familiar with is the kind that is made by traditional artisans in a far-away village you’ve never heard of and will probably never have access to. This kind of artisan fashion often involves many hands, and sometimes even entire communities.
Devonne, from ethical and artisan fashion brand MATTER, explains: “Especially with ikat (a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns before dyeing and weaving the fabric), you see a lot of ikat artisans that don’t actually work by themselves. They work in a community. So when you support the community by giving them an order for fabric, you’re not only supporting the six different families creating the fabric, you’re also supporting the neighbouring village who sources the dyes, which is also a family organisation. Essentially, when you support these artisans, you’re supporting the network they belong in.”
Artisan fashion supports these heritage-based livelihoods, giving life not just to the cultural history behind these fabrics, but also the many humans who still live in these cultures. But how important is this to them, you ask?
Very. Handicraft artisan production is the second-largest employer across developing countries, counting some 34 million handicrafts in India alone (Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, 2014; Business of Fashion, 2014). For many of these artisans, craft is a crucial economic lifeline, second only to agriculture. Which of course, as we know, is traditionally back-breaking, dangerous, and unreliable. Especially given the current state of the climate.
Ramanarsama, spinning yarn. (MATTER Prints)
The preservation of disappearing cultures
Aside from the financial importance of artisanship to these artisans, artisan fashion is also important because it helps to guard against the loss of a dying trade. A few hundreds of years ago, thousands of people were making traditional kimonos. Today, only three families in Japan do this work. In the 1950s, Italy was home to four million tailors. Today, the figure is down to just 700,000. (Fashion Revolution, 2015)
Devonne tells us that MATTER works with “generational” artisans. This means that they work with artisan communities that pass on the specific crafts over generations, as opposed to schools where people who are not familiar with these crafts growing up go to learn those skills. “Because that means it’s a way of life they’ve chosen, and not all skills can be passed down or perfected through learning,” Devonne says. Peruse through MATTER’s website and you’ll see the kind of traditional methods that MATTER works with. From block printing in Jaipur (India) to jamdani in Habipur (India), and even now batik in Kelantan (Malaysia).
Desleen, founder of batik-based contemporary design label YeoMama Batik, also believes that “it’s a pity to see this thousand-year-old craft disappear”. Like MATTER, YeoMama Batik also works with families who pride themselves on this craft. Desleen says they are called “home industries, in their cosy little batik kampong.” Kampong refers to a village, with connotations of a gathering and community of sorts. YeoMama Batik works with traditional methods such as batik tulis, batik cap, batik kombinasi (a combination of the two) and batik handprint. Batik itself, an ancient technique of wax-resist cloth dyeing, dates back over 2,000 years ago. It is one of the techniques that has become more prominent in recent years, with various contemporary fashion brands taking up the challenge of incorporating the traditional technique in modern styles.
An antithesis to the fast
But when working with artisanship, it’s not just about preserving the intangible. It’s also about really slowing fashion down. Desleen adds “in this digital society where people just want things done quickly, sometimes I feel that we forget to be patient and takes things slowly. Batik is a traditional craft that spreads this message in some way.”
And it’s not just traditional craftsmen that are artisans. Ruixian, the founder of sewing studio Studio HHFZ (known for their handmade, modern-style cheongsams—the traditional dress of Chinese women), is also an artisan in her own right, skilled in the art of dressmaking and rethinking heritage. Like Desleen, Ruixian also believes that artisanship encourages slow fashion.
On why it’s important, Ruixian explains that “slow fashion enables everything to begin from scratch, which is vital in upholding the art of precision in dressmaking.” But beyond creativity, slow fashion also lowers operation costs, saving the hassle of handling logistics and increasing overall financial sustainability. And “of course, most importantly, the reduced impact on the environment. Especially when the era of mass consumption gives way to massive wastage and pollution gathered from garment factories.”
The true cost
Now that we’ve established the ways in which artisan fashion is important, we can discuss a question that always seems to come up: why is it so expensive?
“Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying.” – Lucy Siegle
Over the past few decades, the fashion we consume is faster, cheaper, and often of more inferior quality. According to McKinsey, the average consumer bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 than in 2000 but kept each garment for only half as long. We’re used to having more, at slashed prices. For a couple of dollars, you could now even pick up an entire outfit.
“It’s a natural reaction,” Desleen remarks, “to compare $40 and $140.” But she also says that most customers are reasonable and agreeable after she breaks down their process. So what is it, about artisan fashion, that makes it so (justifiably) expensive? We know that it does not exploit the environment and the human hands behind the garments as much as fast fashion does, but what else?
Master Ji, dyeing. (MATTER Prints)
Human hands, every step of the way
When it comes to made-to-order dressmaking, Ruixian tells us that she’s very transparent with her process. “Ideation, drafting, pattern cutting, sewing, fitting, hand stitching of the finishing touches,” she says, in short. “The whole process typically takes about four to six weeks for a simple cheongsam, which is inclusive of one to two fittings. Some factors that I consider include my client’s skin tone, body shape, and personal preference. This ensures that we work out a piece that both of us are proud of.”
But it’s not just made-to-order that involves so many steps. On handcrafted artisanal garments, Devonne explains that it is not expensive because of markup; it’s because of human power. “Just picking the cotton probably includes a family of farmers (three to four adults). Processing the cotton to yarn takes about two to three artisans. You have to mark and tie the yarns, which is two persons’ work. Then it’s passed to the dyeing team, which the work of another two people. Then comes looming, which is a very long process. Even with machine looming, you still have to do manual feeding. So that’s about ten or more people just to loom the fabric.
We’re not even talking about it being sent to a fair factory, to be ironed, cut, stitched, and quality-controlled. We’re talking about twenty people in the production line. And if we paid everyone fairly, you’re not going to get a $10 pair of pants. And fairly is different from average.” And that’s not even counting the operations costs.
Batik, but a little bit more fun. (YeoMama Batik)
Buy less, buy better
Something the phenomenon of fast fashion has enabled is our desire to have more than we really need. Take a look at your closet. You probably have more than five pairs of pants. Assuming they each cost $35, that’s already $175 you’re spending on average-quality jeans that were possibly polluting and exploitative. MATTER’s pants are around $200 and are incredibly versatile.
“The reason why I think people think artisan fashion is expensive is not actually because of the price tag. It’s expensive because our expectations from fast fashion are to own multiple. Do you really need those ten pairs of pants?” Devonne’s question hits at something that people hate to admit: we all have too much stuff. What are we buying? How much do you value what you have? What are the stories behind the garments that you own, or are they just clothes meant to last you a few wears?
Every garment has a story. With artisan fashion, especially with brands like MATTER and YeoMama Batik, the clothing that they produce are steeped in culture and meaning. Even if a brand doesn’t work with artisan communities (Studio HHFZ for example), working with any traditional dress can be treading a fine line.
We always accuse the fashion industry of cultural appropriation. We live in the era of: “my culture is not your prom dress”, where people are constantly calling each other out for appropriating traditions that are not theirs. The line is even more blurred for fashion brands. Does that mean that fashion brands aren’t allowed to be inspired by tradition?
Last year, Dior ripped off designs from Bihor culture (a region of Romania). It appeared they simply stole the idea, pretended it was theirs, and sold it “for astronomical amounts of money” without so much as even a line of credit to the culture that inspired them. In fast fashion, cultural appropriation is even more rampant — kimono here, cheongsam there. Last year, ZARA even tried to pass off a lungi as a ‘checked mini skirt’.
So how do we draw the line?
Where do you draw the line? (MATTER Prints)
What is cultural appropriation?
The official definition: “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
We could go on for hours about this since everyone has a slightly different explanation. MATTER gets the question fairly often. So much so that they’ve actually explained this on their journal several times. “I think appropriation happens when you don’t fully understand what you’re getting yourself into,” Devonne explains. “You don’t know the technique, you don’t spend the time to understand it, and you don’t know the story you’re sharing.”
Devonne tells us that MATTER works with designers already in the area. The team also spends a lot of time speaking to artisans before (essentially) commercialising it. During this time, they form bonds with the artisans and take time to understand the essence of the craft deeply. With batik, which they are planning to launch at the end of the year, they visited two villages, spoke to a batik professor and even worked with five partners. Initially, their understanding of batik was the use of colours and floral prints. But after that time, the team realised that it was about the wax. “The magic with batik doesn’t happen when drawing it, but when letting the wax dry. We had to design a print that embodies that spirit.”
Another difficulty is that with each of these brands, they’re taking a traditional art or culture and putting a modern spin on it. Desleen tells us that “many times people would come into our shop and say things like our batik clothing doesn’t ‘look batik‘ to them.” Similarly, Devonne explains that there two schools of thought. The first: people who want to preserve everything, exactly the way people have done it for hundreds of years. The second: people who believe in modernising, using technology to make it more relevant, but still keeping the soul of the craft.
They both belong in the second camp, of course. Is it necessarily a bad thing? “Coastal parts of Indonesia had foreign influences; hence, batik from the region is more vibrant and colourful. Further to that, the traditional craft is also being passed down over generations, and younger crafters have their own interpretation too,” Desleen explains.
Devonne adds that they “want to make everything more accessible so the artisans can continue doing it while the garments are appropriate for city people to wear. We want everybody to be able to wear ikat pants in their current lifestyle.”
With artisan fashion brands always being in conversation with customers and the communities they work with, it’s probably a win-win situation.
Tradition with a modern twist. (Studio HHFZ, shot by @johnjohnah @tanwen0)
Where to from here?
With the world’s ecological breakdown and climate crisis upon us, perhaps artisan fashion can be a model for a kinder, more loving way forward. One that enables the celebration of cultures that have survived to this day. And one that doesn’t contribute to our overconsumption problem as well.
“We’re getting more brands who reach out to us to connect them with artisans,” Devonne says. “That’s great. More work for them means they can sustain their business, meaning we won’t lose all of these techniques. Which we are, especially because production is increasingly fast. Aluminum embroidery, plant-based silk dyeing… you have a lot of crafts that are not used anymore. We’re going to lose all of these things, and the stories that come with it.”
Thankfully, the interest in handmade fashion is increasing amongst consumers. As Ruixian points out, “there is increasing interest in people who appreciate craftsmanship. But the industry has to strike a balance between ready-made and bespoke since handmade and bespoke is expensive.” She hopes more people understand that creating something wearable “just for that one individual” ensures the longevity of the outfit, and is comparable to ready-made clothing too.
Unfortunately, Desleen says that consumers still are not quite aware of the difference between fast and slow fashion. But on the bright side, this means that there are so many more people to introduce to this wonderful world of artisan fashion. So here’s our challenge to you:
> PARTICIPATE in the broader ethical fashion movement. Buy less, buy better, or don’t buy new at all. And if you do, remember to develop a healthy relationship with clothes. #LovedClothesLast
> CALL OUT fashion brands that culturally appropriate on social media. Write to them and tell them why it’s not okay, and how they can work with these artisans to support them and mutually benefit.
> LOOK OUT FOR artisan fashion in your country. If you have the capacity to, find ways to bring it to the market. There are many dying crafts out there waiting to be discovered and stories to be told.
> INTRODUCE the concept of artisan fashion to your community. Share these stories, these brands, and these people who are doing the good work. Help other consumers understand why the price tag is the way it is.
> SUPPORT artisan fashion if you can, because the fashion industry, like many others, will only shift once consumers vote with their dollars.