From amplifying COVID-relief resources for oxygen, ICU beds, plasma, and medicine on Instagram to donating up to 100 percent of their sales to organisations working on the ground to provide aid to those affected, fashion is positioned to help.
“I come from a family of doctors. As we speak, my brother is serving at an ill-equipped COVID-19 ward at my hometown in Uttar Pradesh. He sees horrors no one should ever have to, on a daily basis. Speaking to him over the last few weeks, and having witnessed a very young family member’s death, I felt an increasing sense of disconnect and disillusionment in the work I do; it felt far removed from the realities of the horrid time we are living in,” shares Asmita Kulshreshtha, founder and creative director of jewellery brand The Slow Studio.
Kulshreshtha’s is one of the many homegrown, (mostly) women-owned fashion brands using their Instagram platforms to respond to the cataclysmic humanitarian crisis that the second wave of COVID-19 and the government’s callous mismanagement has left in its wake. From amplifying COVID-relief resources for oxygen, ICU beds, plasma, and medicine on Instagram to donating up to 100 percent of their sales to organisations working on the ground to provide aid to those affected, fashion is positioned to help. And while many big names in the industry still watch from a distance, it is small brands that have risen to the occasion.
With India in the clutches of the pandemic’s second wave, all eyes are on the dire governmental mismanagement that brought the crisis to pass. While Aashna Singh, co-founder of accessories brand The Olio Stories, observes that the government “abandoned its caution and, in a series of shockingly reckless decisions, invited the second wave that is now crushing the country”, Ahmedabad-based womenswear label Asa’s founder Shreya Oza is also of the opinion that “only the complacency of the government is to be blamed for this devastation that our country is witnessing today”.
Oza has donated 50 percent of all sales proceeds from 30 April to 2 May — a sum of Rs 1,87,222 to Hemkunt Foundation, while Singh donated a total of Rs 12,40,974 which made up 100 percent of all proceeds from sales from 29 April to 1 May to Hemkunt Foundation, Mission Oxygen, Khaana Chahiye, Enrich Lives Foundation and MCKS Food for the Hungry Foundation. “We had planned for it to stretch across three days to raise Rs 2 lakhs, but we raised that in the first hour of the first day. We kept raising our targets and our customers kept meeting them. Our last target for the day was Rs 10 lakhs. We had to close the drive because we were running out of stock,” Singh said.
Priya Mittal’s womenswear label Yam also exemplifies how small brands are thinking on their feet to do their bit. She thinks that “the young brands are extremely vocal, not only for our country but issues globally. Perhaps we can start thinking of our brands/companies [as] for and by the people rather than just businesses.” Her brand was “able to generate Rs 56,700 so far. This is after three days and selling almost 23-24 items, although our company isn’t a big one and we didn’t know if we could generate anything this way”.
Fizzy Goblet was one of the first brands to put their pieces up for sale to “raise the largest possible amount in the shortest time to help battle the urgent oxygen shortage. We pledged for 24 hours (from 6 pm on 27 April to 6 pm on 28 April) to donate 100 percent proceeds from every order to Hemkunt Foundation,” says founder and creative director Laksheeta Govil. The footwear brand managed to raise a total of Rs 4,10,500 and has also continued to donate 10 percent of sales proceeds from its “A Better Day Collection” to Uday Foundation, Feeding From Far and Khalsa Aid.
While shopping for philanthropic endeavours may be a strong USP in itself, for Jodi, it did need a gentle push to encourage people to shop and consequentially, donate. So, on noticing slow sales initially after declaring its COVID-relief sale, co-founder Karuna Laungani and her team offered a discount of 20 percent on pieces for the sale, carried out from 27 April to 3 May. Jodi donated 50 percent of its sales proceeds to Hemkunt Foundation, Khalsa Aid and Mission Oxygen India, a total of Rs 9,37,700. “The response was phenomenal! We actually had to close the sale yesterday because we wouldn’t be able to carry out all the orders since we also have limited resources right now due to the lockdown,” said Laungani.
Accessories label Studio Metallurgy’s Advaeita Mathur also shares that the response to their sale has been unexpected and overwhelming. She put 10 of her best-selling pieces along with her personal silver jewellery on sale on 26 April, aiming to raise Rs 1 lakh by donating 100 percent of the proceeds. By the same afternoon, she sold out all her pieces and decided to add more from her stock to stretch the amount to Rs 2 lakhs for Hemkunt Foundation and MCKS Food for Hungry Foundation. “I feel duty-bound to do my bit because when else will I use my privilege of savings and a safety net? The fundraiser was worth Rs 2 lakhs of merchandise and it was the only way as an artist that I could think of giving back,” says Mathur. “If 2020 was all about small businesses, #VocalforLocal and all of those things, we benefited from it, right? We got all of you to buy from us, and we did sales. It’s now time to give back. And at the end of the day, [having] 15,000 followers on Instagram is like a vote bank. If I can get 15,000 people to buy from me, I also feel like I really have to influence somebody to do something more than just sit at home thinking ‘oh it’s so bad’.”
As COVID cases spiked, and SOS calls and photos of mass funeral pyres were shared on social media, there was a flood of responses from strangers providing help in whatever capacity they could. Commenting on the same, Kulshreshtha says that “It is bittersweet to witness the solidarity on social media at this time. While it is heart-warming to see people coming together and taking matters in their own hands, it should have never come down to this. One should not be needing to beg on their Instagram stories while their loved ones are gasping for breath. This is not and should never have been up to the citizens…this is what we elect governments for! If there is any silver lining here, it is that hopefully, more people wake up to how directly the politics of our country affects each one of us, and would be ignited to vote next time.” Her brand is donating 50 percent of all sales proceeds till 6 May to Hemkunt Foundation.
As parts of the Indian fashion industry are using their platform to provide aid during a humanitarian crisis, Singh ponders on why the sector was previously absent from socio-political conversations: “Brands worldwide have traditionally been apolitical, and I think it was a reflection of the times. Talking ‘politics’ was not deemed polite conversation. But now consumers, millennials or Gen Z demand accountability from their brands. They only shop with brands that align with their personal values.” Laungani, meanwhile, is hopeful for the future of contemporary, young labels, and predicts that “there will definitely be a change in conversations when it comes to political issues in the country. If you look at the US, it is because of Black Lives Matter that so much change took place. As for India, if you live here, you can’t say you’re apolitical anymore. You can’t ignore it and look the other way. If you can, then you’re very privileged.”
Kulshreshtha points out that “if this time has taught us anything, it is that our politics affects each of our lives and the society at large, directly and closely. Perhaps some of us are realising it only now because every layer of privilege and class that most of us reading this enjoy; that bubble, however, has been violently busted.” According to her, sustained participation of the industry in socio-political issues needs to be encouraged through education. “Fashion education in the country needs to go beyond teaching techniques and following the book. The role and importance of fashion in national and international politics and society deserves more class time. I think it is a combination of the above factors that will bring the long-lasting changes we look for in the industry.”