(Radha, Jennifer, Amisha, Kala, Abdul, Arushi, Hasina)
Almost 11 years ago, around the time I was set to graduate with my BFA in Fashion Design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I had the pleasure of connecting with Pushpika Freitas and Lalita Monteiro about an internship at MarketPlace. Luckily for me, I fit the bill and had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2009 in Mumbai, traveling to Santa Cruz to work with the women and men of SHARE. When I look back at that time, I could sense even then that what I was experiencing was powerful, but I nevertheless underestimated, or perhaps didn't fully realize how frequently I would look back on it for years to come and remember it as one of the most fulfilling and impactful professional experiences of my life.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel in India for a research project and was able to visit the team I worked with over a decade ago in the Santa Cruz slums. I was touched beyond words to see familiar, welcoming faces that remembered my small contribution to their daily work all those years ago. A decade ago, I had entered their world as someone who was just starting a career in fashion--eager to work, learn and somehow shoot to the "top of the ranks" in record time, whatever that meant. Now, I was coming back with somewhat of a heavy heart and my mind in a very different place. I had worked a lot, for a lot of people in 11 years. I had experienced what it meant to develop and produce garments for runway brands, small designers, commercial giants and scrappy startups. But while all of that could feed my bank account to varying degrees, none of it could feed my soul in the way I now so desperately needed. I knew I was at a crossroads. A job in fashion that could use the skill set I had invested so many years developing, but that could also give me a sense of purpose rooted in a mission I felt deeply connected to, seemed like wasn't within my grasp.
After much introspection around this subject, the need for my research project arose from a persistent desire to find a community where I could feel proud to belong and do my part to bring some positive change to my industry. My travels took me to rural craft communities in remote regions of India where I had hoped to see communities of artisans happily at work, but where I instead saw the damaging effects of global consumerism on multi-generational traditions of making. And I knew that as a cog in the machine of the fashion industry, I too was to blame for the demise of those cherished traditions. Feeling dejected by what I had encountered, the farthest thing from the idealistic community I had pictured I would discover, I landed up for my planned afternoon at MP.
Soon after meeting and reminiscing with the pattern-makers who I had worked hand-in-hand with in 2009, I had the special pleasure of visiting with the women and men of Nirmaan. Although busy with a production run, the group graciously welcomed us into their space and paused their work to gather around for a chat. I gave them a quick introduction to myself and my travel companions and in turn, they too went around to introduce themselves along with their years of service at MP. Their energy felt palpable from the get-go and it wasn't long before they were asking us more questions than we were posing to them. Then it hit me, the same way it used to back in 2009. The confidence that emanates from these women, the strength in their voices and the empowerment that practically radiates from their body language is unmistakable. I recall being taken aback by it when I first met them and if anything, it had only seemed to intensify over time. Before long, they were asking if we would make a documentary about them (half joking but half definitely not), they were rattling off their group's shared values, then spontaneously breaking into a song that clearly serves to cement them together, sung in unison and with pride. They answered all our questions with enthusiasm and asked several of their own. I finally posed a question to them that I had been asking various artisans I had met along my travels: "what is your idea of success?" Several of them answered quickly and decisively: being able to contribute to their family financially, bringing in the wages that allow them to give their children a proper education, becoming a leader in their community who is looked up to as an advocate and a problem solver and so on. When I say that I was blown away by them in every sense possible, it is an understatement. Here was the sense of community that I was searching for so long and hard in my own habitat back in NY but couldn't find. Here was a value system where those who make the goods are prioritized higher than the goods themselves. And here was an idea of "success" that truly had a meaning beyond how many dresses were sewn in a day or how many margin points were gained with each shipment.
Since my visit, Covid-19 has overshadowed the world and the state of affairs is particularly challenging in Mumbai, with no end in sight. I have had the opportunity to connect with Pushpika during this incredibly stressful time and have been nothing short of amazed at the degree to which MP continues to show dedication to its community first and foremost, steadfastly prioritizing tasks that make day-to-day life bearable for the artisans and keeps them supported during this time of crisis. How we will emerge from all of this is yet to be seen, but I can't help but think that the world could use so many more social enterprises like MP and so much less of the reckless greed, waste and the supply chain inequalities that we have come to associate with the fashion industry. I, for one, need no convincing.