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— Sonal Garodia

Hailing from Dibrugarh, NIFT gold medallist Sonal Garodia has rich experience working with Temperley London. Witnessing a global demand for couture embroidery, she decided to revive it with craftspersons in India and set up an export house in Mumbai to supply hand-embroidered pieces to designers worldwide. Few years later, she launched her own label, Kiaan. In conversation with her on the devastating effect of the pandemic on her export business and subsequently on her workforce of migrant karigars… and the way forward.


You are acclaimed for couture embroideries, handcrafted by migrant karigars, which you export to world fashion capitals. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, how has it impacted your business?


Business is impacted at multiple layers. Embroidery export is a business, which affects so many strata of the society. Our business is standing on various pillars. There are skilled migrant karigars who make our workforce. There is a material sourcing, which is partly local and partly imported from countries like Honk Kong and China. There are designers based in UK, US, Italy and France. And finally the meeting grounds of our skills with such clients are fashion weeks and trade shows, which are all cancelled for now. All of these pillars are now severely affected by COVID-19 and struggling to survive.


This is a moment of truth for Fashion and designers are adapting to the new reality where incorporating sustainability practice is critical. What do you wish you could do more of in the sustainability space and what steps are you taking towards that? 


The interesting thing about couture pieces is that they are timeless and created on demand, which is exactly opposite of pret. They can be passed onto generations, which makes them inherently more sustainable and collectible pieces of art. The best way to control waste in fashion is to use the leftovers as well. We try and create pieces which have multiple use, like a sleek bridal sash that can be used as a regular belt after the wedding. Infusing zero waste concepts, recycling material and up-cycling leftovers is the new mantra that every fashion enterprise should adapt. Another important aspect is combining traditional techniques with modern construction methods so that a single garment can take on multiple forms. This kind of work is increasingly visible in collection of designer like Van Harpen. It creates less need for a lot of clothes. Most importantly we should all take cues from global icons like Kate Middleton and not shy away from repeating clothes, creating re-invention concepts and the art of wardrobe swaps.


You have such rich experience in India and world fashion capitals. What are the crucial issues you see cropping up in fashion, post- pandemic? 


Once the dust settles on the immediate crisis, fashion will face a recessionary market and an industry landscape still undergoing dramatic transformation. We expect a period of recovery to be characterised by a continued decline in spending and a decrease in demand across channels. All of us have to adapt to the new way of life where social distancing will be integral. This sentiment will reflect on business; a huge reshuffling will occur and to stay in shape, brands will need to be streamlined and sustainable. Fashion trade shows are already converting to online markets. Consumers will want easy-to-wear, durable and made- to- last products. We have already witnessed global store closures. Fashion could return to its basic beauty and in the process we can hope that our environment will be able to heal some more. History has shown that some of the best collections were created after struggle. Coco Chanel created womenswear from leftover menswear fabric after World War I, which transformed how women wore clothes. Dior's 'New Look' post- World War II was a collection that created the most impact. Fashion post- Corona will follow similar suit. It will bring values around sustainability into sharp focus, polarising materialism, over- consumption and irresponsible business practices.


How do we, the end- consumer, help the sustainability movement? In fact, what would be your advice to those of us who want to shop responsibly and build an ethical wardrobe? 


We all knew that the earth needed to heal and we were all taking slow steps towards it but the pandemic has taught us that it needs to heal now — the message is loud and clear. Therefore as consumers we need to understand that when you do buy, you need to make an ethical decision. You can buy from fair trade labels, labels with ethical sourcing and organic materials, brands with ethical packing policies; mix and match your wardrobe to create new looks; invest in timeless pieces instead of fast fashion; be willing to pay a little more for durable sustainable products rather than cheap, low quality items. When we consider both the environmental and social impact of our consumerism- led behaviour, we can make better decisions. The current economic crisis will force a lot of end-consumers to opt for minimalism as a need of the hour and this will indeed be the right time to add consciousness to that as well.


How do you plan to strategize for the post Corona period?


Our focus is to ensure that our workforce comprising of migrant karigars remain in a good place. We have done everything in our capacity to ensure roof and basic necessities be provided to them and our affiliated karkhanas and job workers. We understand that together we can survive this crisis. Production will take on a new meaning because social distancing norms will have to be followed alongside sanitising practices and workforce education. When the dust settles, we intend to source locally and create samples with local materials and Indian techniques to help the economy. Participating in trade fairs will be online instead of visiting the fashion capitals. From a core business point of view, identifying financial leverage, strategic partners, creating operating and financial stability early in the recession will be key goals. Technology adaptation with 3D designs, AI planning, virtual sampling, video sign- off, digital sell-in, virtual shows and showrooms, and social selling will be the new norm. Speed and adaptability are the essence for this crisis. But when the first signs of normalcy do begin to emerge we must not be complacent and still act on resiliency measures — only then we can all understand what the 'new normal' looks like.

Sonal Garodia
Kiaan by Sonal Garodia
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