By Maha Fier,
“Made in Pakistan,”
“Made in Bangladesh,”
“Made in India,”
There are many ways how fast fashion has impacted the globe. One of these has been its way to degrade the quality of meaning behind so many South Asian (and more Asian) countries.
I have this distinct memory from year 7 where I was in class with my long-time best friend. She was wearing this black jacket and it wasn’t branded in any way. There were these two older boys in year 8 who decided that day to pick on her and make fun of her jacket. The key tactic was taunting her on how terrible and poor quality her jacket was because it was made in India.
Fashion corporations of the Global North who have decided to implement cheap labour practices and materials within the Global South have not only maximised their profits in unethical ways, but have also managed to transform how we think of these South Asian countries. They have created a reputation for these countries as just being a label on a cheaply made item of clothing, that these countries are worth as little as what you paid for.
I told my mum that day about the ordeal at school. She herself was also offended with what the boys had to say. She explained to me that some of the best clothes you’ll ever see with such intricate beading, embroidery, care in sewing and quality would be from South Asian countries like India or Pakistan among the like.
Unfortunately, fast fashion companies have integrated their business practices into South Asian countries and many other countries within the Global South. Therefore, we often forget or neglect the true meaning of fashion within these countries.
The relationship I now have with Pakistani fashion has taken it’s time to develop over a period in which I had to learn how to ignore mindsets like the boys in year 8. It took time to get over the embarrassment I felt about wearing something that was unfamiliar and different to others, especially in my teenage years.
I come from a bloodline with a mixture of South Asian genes. I have Afghani and Indian great grandparents, Pakistani grandparents, and a Pakistani mother. Through early childhood and into primary school I visited Pakistan frequently and came back to New Zealand flaunting a variety of tailored Pakistani clothes with fabrics and beading that I had personally chosen.
I wore a lot of Pakistani clothes, mainly kurtas, before the age of 12. It was something that my year group at primary school had become accustomed to me wearing from year 2 to year 8. I didn’t really think much about how my sister, and I dressed differently from other people most of the time, because when you’re all super young you don’t really pick up on things like that. And, I would occasionally get the odd compliment from a teacher saying how nice it looked because it did look nice. These kurtas had been carefully created to fit my acquired taste in colours and to fit my body well. They were also beautiful in themselves and would beat the jeans and t-shirt look, even though I didn’t understand this beauty at the time.
However, the South Asian community within New Zealand is small. Specifically, the Pakistani community is even smaller. I didn’t have a single Pakistani or even South Asian friend in my area (other than my sister) until I came to university.
When you become a teenager, we all know the cliché reality of fitting in as much as you can. My sister and I still being the only South Asian females in a predominantly Pākehā year group once we came to college did lead us to further neglect what our culture had to offer. We were embarrassed if our mother (who was a teacher at my college at the time) would come to school dressed up in a shalwar. I questioned recently why did I feel embarrassed? What she wore was beautiful, there was no reason to feel embarrassed.
I understand now it was because at the time, my sister and I viewed her expression of our culture through her clothes as a target. I had people mock her accent to our face, students who’d make awful curry jokes, even terrorist jokes would swing our way.
It’s a sad reality, and fortunately my mum didn’t really care what 14-year-old kids had to say about her. However, when you’re a 14-year-old who also hears everything from the other end, you want to supress the stereotypes about your culture as much as you can, which means neglecting it to fit in.
I’m not in small-town college anymore, I’m a university student in Auckland. Moving to Auckland may have been one of the best choices I ever made due to the diversity it brings in terms of ethnicity. I have met so many South Asians who are proud to be South Asian and Pakistani’s who invite me to their family get togethers where I have the chance to wear a shalwar kameez and feel-good doing so.
This tale of believing that expressing my culture through fashion would make me a target, to wanting to learn more about it, has helped me overcome some internalised racism within myself.
On top of that, it has made me angry.
I am tired of corporations pretty much slandering these countries with the labels imposed on them. I am tired of corporations not treating their garment workers in these countries as the tailors they are. Sewing is a skill, it is a form of art. These fast fashion corporations have stripped South Asian communities from working in ways of traditional clothing practices and for what? A pool at a the top of their mansion?
South Asian fashion history stems as early as the third millennium BCE, beginning with Indus Valley settlements. Textiles plays a ritual in these cultures. Even now in 2021, when you see a tailor, you’re not asking him or her to create something that you’ll only wear once. It’s something that’s being made specifically for you, a staple in your wardrobe to hold onto and wear as many times as you please.
I won’t go into detail about the history of South Asian fashion in this piece, however I encourage you to read this helpful resource to give you an understanding of what fashion really means in these countries: https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-around-world/south-asian-textiles
In saying all this, do you understand my frustration? Do you see why I’m upset fast fashion corporations have made people believe that all a South Asian country has to offer is a poorly made t-shirt?
Stop saying that item is low quality because it’s made in Pakistan or Bangladesh, or whatever Global South country is being slandered. Start saying it’s low quality because the brand you’re buying from has implemented shitty manufacturing practices.
Although fast fashion corporations have managed to transform the some meaning of tailoring with fast fashion garment workers – a role which does not represent the skill of garment making adequately – of course, I want to highlight the success of true South Asian fashion in 2021 (particularly Pakistani fashion for this piece).
According to news site City Journal, as of 2018 the Pakistani fashion industry has an estimated worth of US$7.3billion. Fahad Hussayn, a well-known Pakistani fashion designer, creates his collections based on hand embroidery. They include bejewelled and intricate tapestry designs, setting out to create not just clothing, but art. The collections attempt to revive traditional ways of garment-making while including heritage and craftsmanship with ‘signature embellishments,’ producing heirloom pieces.
In an interview, he tells The Guardian that:
“It’s sad to see the kind of image that Pakistan has in the West. It’s a country that’s full of art, music and creativity and there are lots of talented people here that nobody gets to hear about.”
I’ve attached an image below, does this look low quality to you?
The Pakistani Fashion Industry has also had further success stories in terms of sustainability.
Nasheman Studio by fashion designer, Waqar J Khan, focuses on uplifting the artisanal talents of rural communities within Pakistan. All raw materials produced meet Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), creating timeless vegan-based clothing. Nasheman Studio is also the first ever Pakistani fashion brand with an ethical focus of protecting future generations. You can read more about them here: https://nasheman.studio/
I’ve introduced only two 2021 South Asian fashion success stories out of many. I hope this shows you how the West cannot keep viewing South Asian countries as a failure in fashion. Some of the communities within these countries should not be forced to slave away to serve the greedy consumption values of those in the Global North, yet they are. So, next time you see a ‘Made in Pakistan,” a “Made in Bangladesh, or a “Made in India” label on some crop top, at least have the damn courtesy to remember that the likes of a Swedish fast fashion brand does not define the reputation, or the quality of art and fashion within these countries.