From navigating cultural expectations to planning production schedules to shipping and duties, Shari Keller from Mehera Shaw gives 12 top tips for getting your ‘Made in India’ collection right.
Mehera Shaw is both an artisan-inspired, ethical lifestyle clothing brand and a fair trade, sustainable manufacturer in India.
The Mehera Shaw brand was started in 1999 motivated by a desire to work with the beautiful artisan textiles of Jaipur, India and to develop high-quality design which could transition well across cultures and markets. The manufacturing unit was established in 2007 and was built on the founders’ — Shari and Mark — combined experience of more than 40 years working in artisan development in India.
Shari and her team have created a transparent, vertical supply chain using fair labour standards, sustainable fabrics and artisan printed textiles. They are committed to cradle-to-cradle production and produce all garments in-house: specialisations include the artisan textiles from the Jaipur region of North India, natural fibre wovens and detailed stitching.
Mehera Shaw is a member of the Fair Trade Federation in the U.S. and uses natural fibres and whenever possible, certified organic cottons sourced in India, as well as AZO free dyes for both solid colour dyeing and printing. Full production services include: pattern development, sampling and small-scale production — for private label customers.
If anyone knows about doing fashion business in India, it is certainly Shari from Mehera Shaw. Below she spells out 12 crucial things to know about fair trade manufacturing in India. If you are thinking about producing a collection in India, this is a must read.
1) Be prepared to learn as much as possible
The designer should enter into the relationship prepared to learn as much as possible about the manufacturers’ situation, what will work best, what type of production they do best, the stresses on their production, and be prepared to invest human energy in the relationship — to improve the product, the relationship, and therefore the equity of the value chain. For ‘trading’ to take place, there must be a give and take of knowledge for the sake of improving the whole value chain.
2) Understand the market and context in which you are working
It is important to realise and respect cultural differences in communication style, rather than approaching the differences as problems. To approach every situation with an open mind and work to get realistic answers rather than answers one wants to hear. Learn as much as possible about every aspect of Indian culture and infrastructure that impacts your business, be respectful of differences and work at open, clear communication without being discouraged when answers are not what you may be used to — rephrase questions to perceive what is happening and what is realistic.
The business and cultural expectations of the west and of India as a developing country are quite different. To generalise, the western communication style is more direct/blunt and information oriented, expecting demands to be met. The Indian communication style is more context-sensitive and can be indirect.
Manufacturers face numerous set-backs during the monsoon season — power outages, inability to print, dangerous travel conditions coming and going to villages where parts of production may take place.
A designer should be thoroughly aware of the reality that festivals, weather, unreliable electricity, fabric accessibility can all affect the timing and should check on what times of year may be more challenging in this regard.
In the artisan context, family weddings, religious holidays and a more relaxed sense of time are important to be aware of. For example, Mehera Shaw has to really plan ahead in the spring and summer due to both the Indian festival of Holi and the beginning of the monsoon rain season.
If Mehera Shaw has a print order prior to the Holi festival, they will have to really rush to get the printing done because very often the printers will go to their native villages to enjoy the events and then stay for a week, 10 days, 14 days.
If Mehera Shaw takes a print order at the beginning of summer, they will need to make sure that the fabric can be sourced and printed before the monsoon rains begin, otherwise the production schedule can be severely set back.
Mehera Shaw woodblocks used for hand-printing
The designer should keep in mind that there may be unavoidable delays due to weather conditions or electrical outages and therefore would be wise not to plan too tight a time frame for delivery.
Shari recommends giving extra week for all shipments when planning deliveries/photo shoots, etc., to remove unnecessary stress and make the whole process go as smoothly as possible.
And lastly, it is worth factoring in that in recent years costs in India have risen due to inflation and so margins have become around 10 – 15% smaller. Producers are increasingly squeezed on their margins, so you’d be best to be slightly flexible with yours.
3) Communication: Openly, frequently and as clearly as possible
Open and frequent communication between you as the designer and your chosen manufacturer will help to avoid cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and to better manage expectations on both sides.
Learn to hear when a polite, reluctant “yes” is actually a “no”. It is important to ask neutral questions when trying to understand the big picture, rather than leading questions that suggest the answer you want. When asking about very specific design or technical information, it is good to be very precise, and frame each question separately so it is very clear what you are asking.
If there is a problem with your order at any point, it is better to assume that there was a communication error which can be improved on from both sides, than to assume that the manufacturer is not good enough.
Know that an excuse, or a reluctant ‘yes’ is probably best understood as a ‘no’ – so best to accept it and move forward. Learn to hear the words of caution hidden in a reluctant reply and ask more specific questions about the situation.
Typical points of frustration and miscommunication include: agreeing on terms and quality of final construction, understanding the cultural context of the work, quality control, details of final garment construction/finishing, details of grading, sourcing, completion dates, details of labels, tags, packaging, shipping. Most of these issues can be overcome through detailed and consistent communication and managed expectations.
4) Be clear about what you want, give thorough specs
It is a good idea to separate out a list of questions into very small, specific questions, limit the amount of unnecessary words and keep communication very focused to the main point. It can happen that the style of English is so different that the actual question is not clear to the Indian supplier and so the specific points do not get answered.
It is important to keep checking back, to try to ask questions in multiple ways, to ask open-ended, simple questions rather than those with a “right” answer that can easily be inferred. As a general point, an Indian supplier may not want to disappoint the designer and so will confirm the “right” answer, perhaps even if it is not exactly accurate.
Bring samples and photos of new ideas and discuss how to get a different product. Very often the artisans themselves know much better how the product can be tweaked to get what the designer is looking for or how to maximise efficiency and grow the scale.
Mehera Shaw producers — woodblock printing process
5) Understand the manufacturer’s skills and capacity
It is crucial to understand what the manufacturer is best at and what they are not so good at. You have to be realistic about what is possible and be able to be adaptable when something doesn’t perfectly fit your vision
For instance, if a designer wants to use herbal dye indigo for a block print design, but has concerns over the colorfastness in their market. It would be best to study which shades of indigo and in which types of patterns give the least worry and best result, while at the same time, educating one’s end customer on the beauties and nuances of a “living colour” which changes over time. Then ask for customer feedback and adjust future collections accordingly.
It would be inadvisable to start with, say, a dark shade of indigo simply because one wanted that colour in their collection, and then become disappointed when it did not meet colour fastness requirements and met with failure on the market. It is also important to fit the product to the type of print or artisan craft being made so that it is a good match for the skill level, for the pricing possible and for the market.
The same goes for lead times. Be reasonable with your delivery requests as manufacturers often have to sacrifice to deliver when quick turn around is required. For example, Mehera Shaw is a small company and has to juggle production orders carefully in order to keep everyone busy during slow periods, but not over-worked during peak times.
Mehera Shaw — drying khadi process
6) Be aware of the constraints: Fabric availability, production schedules, scale of production, true costs
Manufacturers often face constraints with fabric sourcing, especially with organic cotton in small quantities: common weaves are easy to source, special weaves are not. This can cause delays or require changes to a collection.
The scale of the order greatly affects what is possible — it is not always possible to get every fabric or colour in small quantities. So good to clarify the scope of your order at the beginning and make sure everyone is on the same page, you and the supplier.
The actual costs of labour, even in a developing country, are often much more than designers, especially young designers, expect. Knowing one’s market, the direct and indirect costs along the way (including shipping/customs/duty payments), the length of time before projected returns or profitability, is very important.
7) Be flexible
It is best to adjust your collection to what can be done well instead of holding onto your exact ‘dream’. Adapting to the situation will give the best results and gradually, through long-term relationships it is possible to get your ‘dream’ collection.
For example, Mehera Shaw had a designer who had gone to great lengths to develop a beautiful print for screens, but needed it done during the rainy season. The print had a number of fine lines and details. Mehera Shaw suggested to her that it would not turn out well given the longer drying times in high humidity.
The designer came and spent a couple weeks with Mehera Shaw’s producers to see what the best solution could be. They made the print, which did not turn out exactly as she wanted. The fine lines were lost and created a ‘burry’ effect. She was under a serious deadline for the collection, so instead reinvented her print with an intentional ‘blurry’ /indistinct flower look which the producers were able to print well under those climate conditions.
Because she adjusted her print and collection concept, and found a very creative solution, the project turned out well. Her collection was well-received and the relationship moved forward.
Another example would be if the indigo chosen for the dye process is not colourfast enough for the end customer in a trouser designer, but would work fine as a scarf, the designer should be open to reconceptualising his/her project for for best results.
You should also consider adjusting your production schedule so it is easier for a small supplier to handle. Commit to certain fabric and print choices in advance so that printing work can go on in advance of the rainy season if that problem potentially impacts your schedule.
Often peak production times put a heavy pressure on suppliers to hire more tailors or work longer hours to meet completion dates on tight schedules. With a more relaxed schedule, the manufacturer can make sure they are taking care of their employees in a more realistic way and still be able to meet your deadlines.
Mehera Shaw producer — spinning
8) Start small and easy, then innovate and scale up
Start with easy projects that are comfortable and pitched at the right level for artisan abilities so there is maximum chance for success. Once a small, but successful relationship with a few orders has been established, the designer can then gradually try new things, adjusting expectations of quality, colours, design, etc.
Add new elements gradually and as a small percentage of the overall collection so that in case of a misunderstanding or difference in interpretation of new designs or quality required, the bulk of the collection will still be successful.
Artisan work is scaleable once a design has been worked out, the designer understands the ease of the design, time required, any other concerns such as weather conditions, holidays or other cultural events that might make completion dates difficult to meet and the training process for new artisans.
Scaling is only successful when all these components are understood and worked into the production plan. It is akin to making sure one’s business plan takes all the particulars of the market and financing into consideration or that say, with slow food, that one understands what to grow in which soil and season.
9) Pay 50% in advance
Pay at least 50% in advance so that your manufacturer can pay all of its producers up front and so that small-scale artisan business do not have to bear the financial burden of that growth. This will help to ensure a more sustainable livelihood for the artisans and a working relationship built on trust.
10) Visit, work on-the-ground if possible
It is ideal if the designer can come to visit the manufacturing unit, spend a week or so there and start to understand who the people are, how they operate, the working conditions, their strengths and weaknesses.
11) Look at the relationship as a work in progress
Understand that a production order and relationship with a manufacturer is a work in progress, not a one time, black or white situation.
There should be a commitment to dialogue/trading of ideas and real understanding of the artisans and their product over the long term to get a product that is trend on, the desired quality standard, and fits the production and market timings.
The underlying principle really should be that of fair trading — the “trade” or reciprocal aspect of back and forth sharing, developing ideas and of making a business work across the full extent of the value chain.
12) Give feedback, share your knowledge, help build up their skills
The designer, once knowing the people, and deciding on a specific supplier, should also consider giving back, that is, if a designer feels the producer is lacking a form of knowledge or has areas which could be improved.
You really only have three options: quit and switch to a new supplier, adjust your order and overall design plans to what that supplier does well, assist the supplier in improving their skills. Shari strongly suggests that the second two choices are the best route for mutual success.