Haute couture (or high-fashion) is both a concept and lifestyle that blends better with an upwardly-mobile society/country than an undeveloped or less developed counterpart. Not surprisingly, the vehicle that drove Bangladesh from the latter towards the former, that is, the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, also bred a downstream industry that synchronised so perfectly with all the passions and aspirations of a soaring community: fashion. To be sure, whereas the RMG sector supplied Main Street apparel and accessories, therefore usually considered to be not distinctive enough to fit into a "high fashion" rubric, fashion itself breeds innovation, displays risqué initiatives, and carries all of the following connotations that do not accompany Main Street counterparts: elitist exhibitions, chic models, catwalks, fashion walkways, and so forth. These are what set fashion apart from high fashion.
At least three features of Dhaka's haute couture suggest a big-time future boom: an unwitting historical claim to fashion finesse; innovative designers who have already planted Bangladesh on the global fashion map; the explosion of fashion education and boutiques to satisfy a bulging interested population; and an upwardly-moving middle-class in need of those "distinctive" traits.
Of course, the historical reference is to muslin, the finest fabric from this part of the world, cultivated along the Sitalakkhya River in the golden days of Dhakeswari (Dhaka). Though the name is derived from Mosul in Iraq, in the epic Alochonaa "History of Bengal Textiles" series, M. Ahmedullah noted "Muslin was Bengal's finest heritage . . . for millennia." Patronised by the Mughals, it was "consumed by the rulers, their families, noblemen," and "exported to Turkey and Persia" before "the Europeans injected new demands and creativity." Britain's arrival changed the picture. Before the 1757 Plassey Battle, "there were about thirteen main destinations for cotton exports, which generated 285,000,000 in Arcot Rupees" (rupees printed by the Madras Presidency of the East Indian Company, under the reign of Alamgir II, 1754-9, which continued until 1809, and meant only for usage in Bengal), but by the turn of that very century, "there were only three types of buyers left and the total value of Dhaka cotton exports reduced to 140,000,000 in Arcot Rupees."
That decline continued; but in the 21st century, a furious revival is underway, as Rishad Huda and Faisal Mahmud noted in Drik, "a renowned creative organization" (The Independent, September 18, 2015). Thread-count matters (it is simply "the number of horizontally and vertically interwoven threads per square inch"), with 250 being the minimum for muslin. "Muslin was legendary," Hosne Ara Begum of the Bangladesh University of Textile Engineering explained, "because 50-metre-long piece of muslin fabric could be squeezed into a matchbox." The Drik variety has a 300-count, symbolising that revival.
Institutionalising that revival in Jamdani Palli (in Rupganj, just outside Greater Dhaka), mixed cotton-silk sarees have started a local rage that, by spreading overseas, may accentuate the growth of the fashion industry. It is not the only revival symbol.
Creative Commons, a non-profit organisation, lists at least half-a-dozen male and almost two-dozen female models from Bangladesh, each bringing in their own styles. Bibi Russell has been a pioneer among them. Through Bibi Productions, she channels all her creative juices to reflect "Bangladesh's rich cultural heritage," using "gamchas" as her "central theme." "Bengali with a Western twist," or "Western with a Bengali twist" marks the Bibi style, which opens up a network last glorified by trading the original muslin trade. Bibi's contributions were portrayed by Dibarah Mahbub (in the Daily Star, March 12, 2013), who also noted Bibi's diversified products: "scarves, bags, purses, saris, punjabis, blouses, accessories" out of "gamcha", but also "bangles, earrings, scarves, purses, handbags, duffel bags, hair bands and even eyewear."
Though her "fashion for development" employs 30,000 weavers, Bibi's starting point was as a world-famous model, that too for the likes of Cosmopolitan, Giorgio Armani, Harper's Bazaar, Karl Lagerfeld, Kenza, Saint Laurent, and so forth. From those catwalks she strode up many a pedestal, receiving awards from the King of Spain, London Institute, United Nations, UNESCO, before being listed "one of the people to watch in the Millennium" by Asia Week. Inspiration flowed, both directly and indirectly. Pond's, for example, runs a "Lustrous Runway" series annually in Dhaka, highlighting designers pushing their heritage-reflecting or personally-pleasing artefact: Farzana Nora's Swarovski crystals, Sohaly Chowdhury Deena's handcrafted silver jewelry, Waheeda Hussain's floral designs (see Daily Star interview, October 06, 2015), among others.
In conjunction with this talent boom has been an upsurge in the number of fashion-based training centres, institutes, and universities, virtually institutionalising the 21st century of globalised fashion that Bibi Production heralded. They have played a key role to train the interested citizens in apparel manufacturing, knitwear design and technology, marketing and merchandising. For example, the National Institute of Fashion Design has emerged from its birth in 2002 as "the cradle of designers," whereas the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA), the peak group of the RMG factories, has its own Institute of Fashion and Technology (BIFT), as too the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). On the other hand, since 2006, the Pearl Fashion Institute has concentrated on managerial training. Though "haute couture" is only one dimension in this educational panoply, its arrival opened up an infinite number of governmental windows for artistry: from producers and designers to boutiques, exhibitions, markets, and innovation.
Through the years, muslin has made a respectable revival. Through those windows, our fashion industry should really be at the dawn of its finest century in admixing local and global tastes to the widest audience as yet. It is one of the most direct forward linkage of the RMG sector; that it revives a historical and fading claim-to-fame stylistic tradition shows, very much like ship-building, its entrepreneurial and skill-generating depth, and thereby, future possibilities. Most of all, by reinforcing the Bangladeshi place in global fashion, several externalities open up: a "kinder, gentler" Bangladesh without a low-wage imprint is portrayed; innovative sparks that know no boundaries get encouraged; and the very transformation of our traditional outfits into cosmopolitan brand-names finds a very realistic outlet.
Just as intense are the several internalisation processes, foreign styles and designers will be reshaping our own apparel architecture, just as accommodating trend-setters opens up different kinds of tourist attractions, accommodations, media-coverage, and, most of all, softening the cultural barriers that typically keep culture landlocked until such a breakthrough. We might have come a long way; but the journey has hardly begun.
High fashion may be racing higher than the country's growth rate, and at a faster pace, simply because it exposes (a) how much more can be coaxed out of industry linkages, both backward and forward: backward, the RMG still remains pivotal; and forward, since design demands innovation, new technologies, and broader artistic interplay, evident in the mushrooming of educational/ vocational institutes furthering this industry; (b) both internalities and externalities - the former by converting a fading cottage/handicraft industry into an equally eclectic haute couture industry; and the latter by consumer choices for a booming upper middle-class segment, mixing traditional with modern, eastern with western, and Muslim with secular styles; and (c) raising aesthetics into some kind of a social overhead cost which, though serving a small segment of the population could encompass a wider audience over time, displacing in the process a low-wage culture for a more ethically safer, sounder alternative.
The next article takes us into another of our "landlocked" activities: construction, and what this means for both the real estate and cement industries.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is Professor, International Relations, formerly Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.