Fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Swedish fast-fashion brand H&M have been under fire since August 12 on two counts: that their newly launched collaboration, a collection called Wanderlust, is a work of cultural appropriation, and that it was supposed to be accessible to a larger audience but the pricing of the items is out of the reach of even the average H&M buyer (a cotton sari is priced at ₹9,999).
The cultural appropriation issue stems from the fact that the H&M website states that “a key highlight of this collection is Indian textile and print traditions brought to life by the Sabyasachi Art Foundation, meticulously crafted embroidery and multicultural silhouettes”. But the prints have been rendered digitally. Some, like the Sanganeri print which is GI tagged to a specific community of artisans, have been altered slightly, but remain reminiscent of the original.
The designer has now received an open letter signed by 15 Indian crafts associations and collectives, including Crafts Council of India, Crafts Council of Karnataka, and the All India Artisans & Craftworkers Welfare Association. The signatories are concerned that the collection draws heavily from traditional craftsmanship, but it is unclear if artisans were involved in any way or are benefiting from the collection.
Incidentally, the collection has sold out. (And Mukherjee issued an apology on August 16, for the fact that the site was unable to cope with traffic, and there was not enough stock to meet demand.)
“Given Mukherjee’s long association with traditional craftsmanship and slow fashion, a digitally printed sari costing a large sum could also be mistaken by consumers for the real handcrafted thing and this becomes a concern adding to the crisis of authenticity,” said Meera Goradia, co-founder of Creative Dignity, which is a network of artisans, craft associations and stakeholders, and a signatory to the letter.
“This was an incredible opportunity to position India’s design and craftsmanship on the global map,” the open letter states. It goes on to say… “imagine the sheer potential of this story had it only said, ‘Handmade in India’, supporting millions of jobs… in communities that need it the most. Even if half the collection had been made by artisans, it would have made such an impact at a time of economic crisis like this pandemic…”
The letters additionally asks: “Have the artisan communities that have the proprietary rights to these designs been credited or compensated in any way? In the case of some of the designs used in ‘Wanderlust’, the Sanganeri print artisans have a Geographical Indication registration.”
“We do not have any issue with design collaborations. As a nationwide, multi-stakeholder movement, we do however want to highlight the many gaps in the Sabyasachi x H&M effort as it directly impacts India’s artisan communities and their future,” said Goradia. Approached for comment, Mukherjee told HT that he and his team were framing a response to the letter, but declined to offer any immediate response.