Over the last few months, fashion designer Fariya Tazin has been shifting her business focus from exclusivity to wider affordability. The sole purpose is to persist in the clothing industry, with hope for a future that will again offer opportunities of innovation.
The 41-year-old, who launched her brand Polka Drops seven years ago, feels she has been thrown into the challenge to adapt. The clients who would once look for uniqueness are no longer ready to pay for it when they are in the throes of a pandemic.
There are obvious reasons behind that. Economic slowdown has reduced people's income. Not having enough money in disposal, customers no longer wish to spend on luxury items. Moreover, celebrations and festivities have become a thing of the past as social distancing is the norm to keep the coronavirus at bay.
Against this backdrop, about 200 fashion designers in Dhaka, including Fariya, who catered to a niche customer base and worked hard over the years to make a mark as representatives of the Bangladeshi fashion industry have devised different strategies to survive the crisis.
But one thing they have in common is the passion to promote local fabrics and works of home-grown craftsmen and to build brands that shoppers would prefer over brands of neighbouring countries, mainly India and Pakistan.
Total sales, estimated at about Tk80 crore in 2019, dropped by 90 percent this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to industry insiders. Six months after the countrywide shutdown, the recovery is slow and yet to gain momentum.
Shahrukh Amin, a well-reputed designer of brand Almira, said the local fashion industry had gradually taken over a significant share of the clothing market over the last decade until the onslaught of Covid-19.
"As people locked themselves in, online businesses based on imported items thrived whereas local fashion businesses were caught off guard," said Shahrukh, a member of Fashion Design Council of Bangladesh.
Strategies to stay relevant
Fariya, who introduced western cuts in local fabrics, such as muslin and silk, to create a style of fusion, has cut down her price range and gone on producing items to appeal to a wider group of customers.
She started using social media to showcase her designs, a move resisted by upscale designers from fear of piracy. To boost sales, she also introduced credit facilities for purchases of more than Tk10,000.
"Without adaptation, no one will be able to sustain her business amid this crisis and it seems to be a never-ending struggle," Fariya said.
With all the innovative ways of continuing business, she could recover her sales to up to 50 percent compared to the pre-pandemic period.
All owners of upscale brands, however, could not turn things around as decisively as Fariya.
Chaman Chowdhury suffered a big blow to her 25-year-old business just after a successful solo fashion show in the second week of March, showcasing her Baishakhi (the first day of Bangla new year) and Eid collection in gamcha, manipuri, jamdani, muslin, khadi and jute.
Renowned people like former adviser to the caretaker government Geeti Ara Safia Chowdhury, actress Shampa Reza and singer Ankhi Alamgir graced the event, she said.
Chaman, whose party attire would cost from Tk10,000 to Tk60,000, has always emphasised hand paint, handwork and soothing colours to suit the climate in Bangladesh.
"People do not tend to buy an expensive designer wear unless they touch it and feel it," Chaman said, adding that her next move will be to design clothes of varied ranges.
Farin Ahmed, owner of Altamira, who completed graduation in fashion designing at a London university and has drawn inspiration from internationally acclaimed fashion designer Rina Latif, is now summoning all her strength to protect her weavers and artisans.
Her bridal wears alone clocked up Tk12 lakh in sales in the last wedding season, which has dropped by 80 percent this year. She is ruminating on diverting her attention to casual cotton wears, bringing down the price range to Tk 2,000-Tk 5,000.
Earlier, a cotton shalwar kamiz from Farin's wardrobe would cost a minimum of Tk7,000 and a bridal saree Tk1 lakh.
Fashion enthusiast Sabera Anwar, owner of Panache Hub, a platform for local boutiques to showcase their products, said she had to shut down her 3,500-square feet store in Banani in the awake of dwindling sales and mounting pressure for rents.
Panache has worked with as many as 32 designers and organised eight to 10 exhibitions and one fashion show annually.
"We opened the store in June [after the shutdown] but no body showed up. And the sales in the next month did not even make the rent," said Sabera.
She said according to their estimate, the customer base of the upscale boutiques was about 3.9 lakh in the capital. Panache's next endeavour is to organise an exhibition in December where about 20 designers will participate.
In the era of disposable fast fashion, local boutiques aspire to set a trend of quality and style that will uphold the culture of Bangladesh. To that end, the government's patronisation is paramount.
"If the industry fails to rebound, thousands of local artisans will go into oblivion," said Shahrukh Amin, who suggested a relaxation of VAT and tax on clothing of local boutiques and policies to discourage import of items of foreign brands.