I’m emotionally tied to what I wear. I’ve kept the dress that I wore to my middle school graduation (though I haven’t worn it since), and I know which jeans I had on the day I moved to New York. But, before I came to own these pieces, there was someone else who lived with these clothes, the man or woman that made them. In an era when I can add a top to my online shopping cart, click buy and have it arrive at my door two days later, I may have feelings about what I wear, but I’m mentally removed from the process of how it came to be. But, last month that all changed I had the chance to meet the women who make my clothes.
I landed in Delhi not sure what the journey would hold for me. I was the guest of Anita Dongre, a household name in India and the designer of Grassroot (along with three other lines). The concept of Grassroot says Dongre, is “a rather idealistic plan of bringing together artisans from across India and reviving crafts that formed the backbone of India’s fame in the old days.” In short, the clothing line works with women in rural India, employing them to use their traditional crafts – beading, dying, embroidery and more – and creates handmade clothing that’s sold across the world.
Though the idea for the brand dates back over a decade, it was three years ago, after being introduced to the women of SEWA, a trade union that promotes the rights of low-income women around India, Dongre took action. “A family friend introduced me to the women of SEWA and we spent a whole afternoon chatting about what each of our dreams and ambitions were. Theirs was independence through financial empowerment and mine was to find a way to make fashion that did good.” The resulting partnership honors traditional crafts across rural India and empowers the artisans whose mothers and grandmothers passed down these crafts.
Being totally honest, I’ve never delved too deeply into the stories behind my clothing. While I generally try to support small designers and tend to be a bit fast-fashion averse, it’s rare that I’ve had the opportunity to come face to face with those cutting, sewing, or embellishing what’s in my wardrobe. Though New York is a city with it’s own history of manufacturing, the number of ateliers or factories I’ve visited could probably be counted on both hands.
So, as I made my way through the arid heat, a four-hour drive from the nearest airport, I wondered what it would be like to experience first hand the lives of the female artisans. I was welcomed into the home of the local village elder, a simple cement structure with no running water. Immediately, I was brought lunch, a meal of bread cooked over an open fire, lentils, and buttermilk from a village cow.
As the women sat and watched our small group eat, I felt overwhelmed by the generosity. Knowing that these women had so little, but were so giving to me, a stranger, struck me immediately. We sat together, hiding from the stifling sun, and talked about the impact of Grassroot in their community. “You can see progress in these villages from one visit to the next,” notes Dongre. “Simple things like more daughters in school beyond primary education or confidence in speaking up and against a decision a man has made.” I noticed that a number of young girls hanging out with us had cellphones in their hands and giggled excitedly when I suggested we take a selfie together. The older women circled me, dressing me in their stunning traditional dress and showing me how to move and twirl in the full skirt and head scarf.
For many women, working with Grassroot marks the first time in their lives that they’ve been financially empowered, allowing them in turn an independence and power that may not have been part of their social dynamic before. Each piece is made by hand and can take up to six months, but the income earned by many of the local women is more than their husbands earn, and has made a substantial impact in their lives and the lives of their children.
As we sat together, the village leader said to me, “you are special guests. You don’t just come to our homes and eat. You bring us the work that has changed our lives.” The top I was wearing, embroidered by one of the women living in the very village I visited wasn’t just about how it fit, or looked in the mirror. There was a story behind it that was mine, but also belonged to the woman who spent her afternoons creating it. Dongre notes that the clothes we wear should answer questions, “how its produced, by whom, in what conditions, against what challenges and reinforce a relevance that affects people’s lives (whether producer or shopper) beyond seasonal trends.”
Thanks to technology – and social media specifically, we’re able to connect with people across the world, coming from all walks of life. But, to meet the women who make the clothes I wear is an opportunity that opened my eyes in a way that an online back and forth cannot. Each dollar we spend is a vote – for the environment, for women, and for the future. For those of us with the financial means to support the companies with a greater vision for the world, it’s crucial to acknowledge that power and privilege. Below, find a few of my favorite pieces from Anita Dongre Grassroot now.