What do you see when you see a garment? From the beginning of it solely existing as a sketch to the end, when you have managed to place it in your wardrobe, by the time you have it, your newly brought fresh find has gone through multiple changes of hands. And at the bottom of the supply chain, where the work begins, lie the kaarigars, the most overlooked bunch of talent in the fashion industry. No matter how many designers pay 'homage' to them in their videos or on their Instagram grids, the real work remains far from ideal; they are underpaid and sometimes not paid at all.
We don't think much about it because perhaps, we don't hear the stories, but one of them is out here and unfolding as we speak, in a recently published feature in The New York Times. Highlighting Manish Arora's eponymous label, it goes on to talk about what went wrong with his business but more importantly, how employees were left stranded without pay. The news may come as a shocker for anyone who has followed the designer and his vibrant work over the years but the facts remain the same. In a bid to get accurate information, seven interviews were conducted, ranging from those with salaried professionals and artisans to vendors and leading to an unravelling of details about unpaid wages, lawsuits and more.
It's given that COVID-19 has undoubtedly left all industries in a problematic state, fashion and apparel amongst them. But for the artisans, the industry has had its fair share of problems, most existing from long before the coronavirus struck and more often than not, leading to monetary loss. The detailed investigation by The Times lays bare the problems faced by the kaarigars, and along with it, the way Manish Arora has responded to the situation.
When employees would reach out for their pending salaries or wages, they were met with responses about "insufficient funds". From production workers to modelling agencies and multiple vendors, the company owes money to several people formerly associated with it. Many of them have also resorted to legal routes. Additionally, the label's French holding company went into liquidation in July and earlier this year, the designer also ended his work partnership with Deepak Bhagwani, who overlooked finances.
The news of Manish Arora's impending dissolution was also shared by Diet Sabya, post the feature being published.
What's most distressing about the entirety of it is that little heed was paid to the workers. An excerpt asserts that the designer (and his business partner) attended fests and took vacations which required heavy expenses, taken care of by the company. His costumes for the Burning Man, for instance, were made in house. As the feature suggests, it "took three artisans up to 20 days, at a time when they were still owed considerable sums for regular work and knew that the business was in trouble." Mr Arora denied the claims in an email to the publication. “For my part, I have never misused my position in the organisation or wasted funds on personal expenses.”
Once employees were no longer an option, the label used unpaid interns to run operations, exploiting the widely used system that has existed in the Indian fashion industry.
Though the brand has been relatively quiet for the past couple of months, this turn of events was not anticipated by anyone watching from the outside. In his heyday, Manish Arora has been celebrated across catwalks, becoming the first Indian designer to establish himself in Parisian circles. He even went on to open his first flagship store in the French capital, in the famous 1st arrondissement.
Worn by leading celebrities in Bollywood and overseas alike, Manish Arora rose to be one of the most sought after designers, one who brought about something entirely fresh to the fashion landscape. That his work and all that he had built had to end this way is tragic, but more so is the fate of people behind the scenes, who run the actual show. As per his correspondence with the Times, the designer is "taking time off to examine what I now want out of life and a career." We hope that he also examines the situation of artisans and associates who have not yet been paid.
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