I finish this piece during week 2 of UK quarantine as India is under complete lockdown. All 1.3 billion of it’s citizens. This country and it’s beautiful people are in my thoughts each day; the stranded workforce, the health system on a knife edge, the millions without access to running water to simply wash their hands. The magic that pours from India inspires countless souls and mine is just one amongst many. I wanted to share my experience and it’s influence on Henri. At this point in time it is my own small ode to India.
India provides the fabric of Henri in more ways than one. As a country it is the home of artisan textiles with strong practices in hand weaving, embroidery, block printing and natural dyeing. It is also a spiritual home with the influence of Gandhi still resonating strongly in daily conversations and the actions they inspire. On my first sourcing trip two years ago I felt a new surge of connection to my work and dizzyingly amazed at the story behind the fabrics. I vowed to come back within the year, and two years later I finally managed to return.
I booked flights in the midst of bleak, dark rainy January (2020). I had come to feel very distant from the heart and soul of Henri and I felt a deep need to reignite some creative passion. I knew that reconnecting with the roots of our supply chain would give me that fire in the belly for pushing forward creatively. With empty stock boxes rattling around the basement after our sample sale, it felt like the perfect time to lift off and find some inspiration to replenish the collection.
Touching down in Bangalore it felt wonderful to be back. Stepping out of my hostel the first morning my emotions were bubbling with the sensory overload. The sweet dusty wind, chorus of car horns and tropical birdsong washed the tension of London life almost instantly.
Visiting suppliers is a very special and unique experience. Travelling in a country for work purposes allows you to see parts of the culture that you would otherwise miss as a tourist. I feel very privileged to have this insight and be able to spend days at a time getting a feel of each business. I consider the hours spent in these visits to be the most special part of running my business. To paint a picture, I’ll walk you through a typical day of visiting a supplier in India.
Rising each morning there’s always a renewed sense of purpose. Every 24 hours is different to the last and so with the morning sun comes fresh excitement along with planning, a traditional breakfast and a coffee so sweet it makes your spine tingle. Journeys throughout the trip are often taken by car, so when the driver arrives it’s time to set off and soak up the surrounding landscape, whether it’s a dusty bustling city or coconut farms and rice paddies.
Arriving at the destination, we’re greeted by those at the helm of the business or their colleagues who oversee production and sales. Each business is different but there is a shared essence in the visit of each one. For the most part you’re being shown around a place of work for the manual labour of various crafts and practices. Shoes are left at the door and workers are scattered around. Women sit on the floor in groups spinning or sorting and quiet chatter fills the air. The weaving rooms are filled with the repetitive clatter of the shuttles flying back and forth. At each loom a weaver operates rhythmically and stops once in a while to inspect their progress. They pause to tie a loose thread, adjustments are made and the clatter resumes. Dogs curl up by the door and when the chai man arrives and everyone pauses for hot tea.
City businesses are set within a chorus of car horns, while rural units enjoy the sounds of nearby livestock. In the dye houses workers bend over vats of solutions, hands deep in the water, bare feet awash with water. Each discipline has a natural rhythm set by the nature of the work and the intuitive skill of the worker. One thing is shared across every unit and with every worker: natural instinct and agility of the hands. Each pair of hands is fine tuned to the craft, the tools and the materials they’re handling. Ingrained in the work ethic is a sense of uncomplicated practicality. Textiles after all is one of India’s main heritage industries. So don’t worry, they know what they’re doing.
Our days are usually divided by a tour of the facilities and meetings to discuss working opportunities. Lunch is served on banana leafs as plates, delicious curries which are eaten with the right hand. Conversations are meandering and we talk about everything from the passion and driving force of the owner, any issues they’re facing in the business, their vision for the future as well as practical discussions around production orders. Any questions that can’t be answered are spread around multiple people until a solution is found. If someone overhears, they get involved too. Everyone helps and everyone cares. Overall you get a very good sense of the micro-culture within each business and how things generally run. Having also previously witnessed the dark side of the textiles industry in India, these visits are enlightening and motivating.
The purpose of a trip like this is partly to develop business relationships – that’s the sensible bit – but for me it’s mostly about understanding the origins of what I’m working with. If I am to deliver something of high value to my customer then I need to truly believe in my product and understand the journey it has been on. With much of our supply chain being in India it’s a deeply personal journey to visit the makers, whether they are farmers, processors, spinners, weavers, dyers or printers. Not only does it illuminate areas for design development, it helps me to believe that what we’re doing has value. This sentiment only really hit me on my first trip to India, when the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethics’ finally made absolute sense. As I left I vowed once again I'd return within the year.
At the time of writing the world grinds to a halt due to the outbreak of Covid-19. The future looks very uncertain but if there is one thing that is clear, our countries and global community will stand changed. As our health systems fight to save lives, industries pause, the pollution clears and we have an unprecedented moment to consider... what next? How do we want the world to be from here on? It is my hope that local communities flourish and that health and sustainability become priorities over economic growth. Only time will tell; time, and the actions of those who want to implement their own changes, not matter how small.