Looking Beyond Etsy: Can Artisan Craft be Scaled?

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Main image: Multihead embroidery machinery producing embellishment for The Tessellation Shift by Natalia Naveed for Victoria Road. Photography: Mohtshim Jawaid.

A few months back, the New York Times Sunday Review published an opinion by Emily Matchar, entitled "Sorry, Etsy. That Handmade Scarf Won't Save the World." Co-owners of an ethical fashion brand, Victoria Road, my partner and I devoured the article. To be honest, we saw where Matchar was coming from. But we're a bit more optimistic in our outlook on the ethical fashion movement and what it can achieve.

According to Matchar, "While buying homemade gifts is a lovely thing to do, thinking of it as a social good is problematic." We happen to agree that handmade isn't always "better." More importantly, buying handmade should not be considered the sole alternative to buying apparel made in sweatshops: when more consistent quality can be efficiently achieved in an ethically run factory or workshop using the proper equipment, that is where the garments should be produced or finished.

But at Victoria Road, one of our driving passions is for bridging cultures by incorporating traditional embellishments and artisan craft from the regions where our garments are designed and produced. Not only does our mission support a "social good," it leads to designs that are both current and beautifully unique. We have grappled with how to do this and still create consistent quality clothing at reasonable prices. There must be a middle ground. Ms. Matchar, we think we've found that middle ground.

Take, for example, the intricate embroidery work that's a hallmark of our latest collaboration with Pakistani designer Natalia Naveed, available for pre-sale exclusively on Kickstarter. Natalia composed the embroidery designs, inspired by traditional geometric motifs found throughout Pakistan. To achieve a clean, sophisticated look at an accessible price, we used multi-head embroidery machines to embellish certain pieces. For a particularly luxurious raw silk stole, however, the designer wanted to create a sumptuous look that only traditionally hand-embroidered beadwork could achieve.

Above/Left: The Tessellation Shift and the Marrakesh Vest by Natalia Naveed for Victoria Road, both embellished with multihead embroidery machines. Photography: Ayesha Malik. Below left: Artisan doing traditional beadwork on the Adda Stole by Natalia Naveed for Victoria Road. Photography: Mohtshim Jawaid. Below right: The finished Adda Stole. Photography: Ayesha Malik.

Is Artisan Handcraft Scaleable?

What excites us most is finding processes to scale artisan craft in a way that elevates it to join the global mainstream fashion scene. We love the idea of fully combining the two production methods - handcraft and factory work - the way Karachi designer Naushaba Brohi does with her brand, Inaaya. For our next collaboration with her, panels of garment pieces will first be cut at an ethically run facility. Next they'll be brought to the women artisans Brohi employs in Sindh, Pakistan, where those women will embellish them using artisan craft such as rilli, a traditional applique method. Finally, the hand-worked pieces will be delivered back to the facility, where they'll be sewn into garments by skilled workers using sewing machines ("by hand"??). This is a production method Inaaya has been developing for several years - she calls it "the inclusive supply chain" - and we hope we can help her achieve an even greater impact through our collaboration.

How Do We "Keep it Local" When Sourcing and Working Across the Globe?

In her article, Matchar also discredits the "buy local" movement, noting, "Most [economists] believe that the economies of scale inherent in mass production outweigh the benefits of nearness." Again, we think it's possible to merge the two theories. Sure, by focusing on emerging markets, we're certainly not producing locally to our U.S. customers. But one of the reasons we work in Pakistan is because of the full vertical supply chain that can be achieved there. Cotton is grown there, spun there, fabric is woven there, dyed there, and then cut and stitched there. Not only does keeping the design, sourcing and production within the local economy there have both positive environmental and economic implications, but it also decreases our costs, which means that we can share more with all the people along the supply chain and still keep our retail prices in check. 

Image: Seamstress in the factory outside Lahore, Pakistan, that is cutting and stitching the pieces in Victoria Road's current collection. Photography: Haris Sagheer and Salman Alam Khan.

So let's not be too pessimistic about the value of grass-roots movements like supporting handmade craft and local production. On the other hand, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture by being too dogmatic in their implementation. The best solutions are usually nuanced. I'll tackle Matchar's gloomy outlook on consumer-driven change and affiliative consumerism in a separate piece. Here is where we really begin to diverge... I happen to have an exceedingly optimistic outlook on these things.

By Megan Brosterman for Victoria Road

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