Social enterprises are tiny players in the designer fashion supply chain, but new ideas emerging from Pakistan suggest they have a role to play in creating a more ethically responsible and flexible industry. What’s more, there may be creative spin-offs, too.
Before the pandemic, Pakistani loungewear brand One432 specialised in traditional leather footwear known as juttis. The company realised a pivot was necessary when sales plunged in March as a lockdown spread worldwide. “Our cobblers and hand embroiders are used to making shoes but they quickly learned how to sew T-shirts and hoodies, working from home or socially distancing in our studio. That ended up saving our business,” says co-founder Ammar Belal, who is also a Parsons School of Design lecturer in New York. One432 was well placed to switch production thanks to its localised supply chain, small footprint and healthy relationship with its artisans.
Similar flexibility also saved the businesses of streetwear brand Rastah, another business based in Pakistan, and handbag maker Lidia May, based in Bangladesh. Both companies employ 10 to 20 local craft workers — predominantly women — who are employed as freelancers and mostly work by hand. With no big factories involved, it was easy for the artisans to work from home during lockdown. The ventures chose to build up inventory during lockdown, keeping everyone on the payroll.
Driven by principles rather than profits, these independent startups operate as social enterprises, which champion socio-economic change through responsible manufacturing. Their business model is far from lucrative but it uplifts artisans through above-average wages, flexible working conditions and mutual respect.
Fashion as a vehicle for social change
Experts believe the broader industry could learn lessons from social enterprises, who are fundamentally committed to protecting the welfare of their workforces. For Rastah, Lidia May and One432, that means giving their handicraft technicians a sense of job security and financial stability. This approach only increases workers’ sense of self-worth, it also enables the preservation of rich customs. In South Asia, many craft workers come from communities that once served royal courts during the Mughal Empire. They now struggle for jobs, marginalised by fast fashion and the garment industry’s exploitative supply chain. “Artisans are no longer appreciated in Pakistan,” Aslam Mirza, a fourth-generation block printer in the metropolis of Lahore, tells Vogue Business. “Our arts aren’t given enough importance.”
An artisan working for handbag maker Lidia May, based in Bangladesh.
© Lidia May
Ancient crafts simply cannot compete in the South Asian market, where bazaars are flooded with mass-produced ready-to-wear goods and imported fabrics. When craft practitioners do find work, it never pays enough to reward their labour. That’s because designers looking to source from South Asian artisans typically hire an agent to coordinate on their behalf, triggering a system of ruthless intermediaries eating into the artisan’s share of income and separating buyers from suppliers.
Western designers are typically very disconnected from the artisans they employ in poor countries, explains Simone Cipriani, head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, an organisation that connects brands with social enterprises in developing nations. “Often, they place seasonal orders that aren’t based on the actual capacity of artisans. Many propose things that are simply too difficult and if artisans can’t deliver, they aren’t paid.”
Given these harsh realities, it’s common for artisans to abandon their skills for other livelihoods. As a result, arts such as silver filigree work are now hard to find in Bangladesh, says Rasheed Khan, co-founder of Lidia May, which uses traditional hand-stitching techniques on its luxury leather bags.
To protect the crafts trade, fairer remuneration is a starting point. Lidia May’s lowest pay grade is close to double the average garment factory worker’s pay, which is around 8,000 taka ($94) per month, according to Khan. The five-year-old brand also offers medical benefits, paid leave and flexible schedules — perks that are rare in Bangladesh, Khan says. In addition, it financially supports the Lidia Hope Centre, a nonprofit in Dhaka that teaches women professional skills. “We want artisans to feel valued so they can take pride in their work,” explains May Yang, the brand’s other co-founder.
In Lahore, One432 takes the concept of fair income one step further by paying each artisan a percentage of every transaction in addition to a guaranteed living wage. “If we do well, the artisans do well with us, that’s where elevation starts,” says Belal, who also runs his own menswear label in New York. Rastah, whose workers are paid five to 10 times more than typical market rates, hopes to implement a similar profit-sharing agreement in the future. “Other than profit, it can also be equity,” says co-founder and creative director Zain Ahmad. “It’s all about giving ownership to artisans.”
Rather than dole out instructions, these labels involve artisans in the design process as much as possible, a move aimed at dismantling skewed power dynamics not so typical in more developed countries. “When Hermès or Marc Jacobs work with an artist in Brooklyn or Tokyo, they treat that artist as an equal. There’s decent money and collaboration involved,” explains Belal. “But in Pakistan or Morocco, artists are treated as artisans while making cents.”
Creative liberty is important. At Rastah, craft connoisseurs such as Aslam Mirza create new conversations around old techniques. Block printing is usually structured in sequences of frames but Mirza overlays psychedelic patterns on hoodies and sweatpants in a flowing, abstract style — a nod to what Rastah calls the forgotten “decadent, eclectic and chaotic” era of Pakistan. “All our artisans are artists and like every artist, it’s important for them to experiment,” says Rastah’s Zain Ahmad. “There’s a deep subculture of artisanship in this region that doesn’t get enough attention because their skills are rarely engaged beyond a certain level.”
Lahore-based One432 pays each artisan a percentage of every transaction in addition to a guaranteed living wage.
New aesthetics that update traditions are emerging. Rastah’s range of casualwear features opulent Mughal-era motifs, upcycled scarf-like shawls or dupattas and embroidered panels. Lidia May’s team uses the small needlework of kantha stitching to create a quilted effect on its bags. Twill is normally used for khakis or outerwear in Pakistan, but One432 makes the fabric on a traditional handloom with its signature cross-stitch for slip-on shoes.
Suppliers as collaborators, not factories
Experts say the first step international brands can take to change their ways is ending price bidding, in which brands reward vendors with the lowest prices thereby devaluting artisanal skill in the global market. Instead, Cipriani of the Ethical Fashion Initiative suggests what he calls “open costing”. That involves brands determining their costs around a living wage and decent labour environment before agreeing on margins with suppliers.
Next, he recommends establishing respectful relationships with artisans and streamlining production. “The coronavirus crisis should improve the sourcing process. We might see global supply chains become more regional,” he hopes. Yang from Lidia May suggests a mixed production model for major fashion houses to reduce dependence on factories: “What would work for most businesses is a combination of high-volume products and premium handmade offerings. It adds to a brand’s repertoire if they can offer both.”
Ultimately, brands and designers must invest in their supply chains to ensure workers have social mobility and productivity. A new generation of customers are going to expect it.
Key takeaway: Social enterprises may be small players in the fashion system, but their values represent hope for a new kind of supply chain.
To receive the Vogue Business newsletter, sign up here.
Comments, questions or feedback? Email us at email@example.com.