It all began with Nipun in 1973. That’s when fashion officially began as an industry in Bangladesh. And there’s been no looking back over these past four decades.
The next milestone was Aarong, founded in 1978 as a project of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In 1980 BRAC took Aarong under its wing and it is now one of the top lifestyle brands in the country.
In the mid-eighties Cat’s Eye marched in on the fashion scene as a brand for western-style men’s wear. Pearson’s also appeared prominently around that time, but did not last long.
New Market, Science Laboratory, Elephant Road and Shahbagh were the fashion hubs in the eighties. For men’s tailoring it was Bangabandhu Avenue. There were several men’s tailors also at Green Road, Paltan, Fakirapool and Mirpur Road. Fabric House and Ganges were renowned at the time too. Karika and Bhushan were also popular brands.
Tangail Saree Kutir, followed by Kaniska, revived the lost glory of the local saris towards the end of the eighties. Things accelerated in the fashion world when Kay Kraft, Anjan’s, OG and Rang sashayed into the scene in the nineties.
Soul Dance was the first to step from the readymade garment industry sector to the local fashion industry. Then many other houses followed suit.
Bangladesh’s fashion industry was hardly very well-planned. Most of the pioneers entered without any solid plan or vision, but managed to take firm root. Ironically, Pearson’s had well-laid out plans, but it fizzled away in no time.
There are roughly three categories of the local fashion industry. One - those who came in on a whim, but later adopted a professional shape. Two –followers of the pioneers, some who entered the scene randomly and others with a plan. And three – the brands who were armed with experience from the readymade garment industry and were well prepared and planned for the promising market.
The local fashion industry has played a laudable role in making local fabrics popular among the people. It is a breakaway from the western concept of fashion where clothes are designed according to the seasons. Our clothes are more festival-based. The world over, fashion belongs to the rich, but here the industry aims at the middle class.
In the meantime, the new millennium ushered in change and the Internet turned things around radically. Our industry has tried to keep up with the wave of globalisation, though it hasn’t quite managed to keep up with the global couture as yet.
All said and done, fashion has been firmly established as an industry here. It does need a bit more oomph to be happening and also needs a bit of fusion with the western trends. This will slow the onslaught of western fashion imports and promote local products more.
With fashion houses opening outlets all over the country, this has opened employment opportunities too. According to the Fashion Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh (FEAB), at least 10 million people are directly and indirectly associated with this industry. There are around 5,500 fashion houses of varying sizes and styles all around the country and the industry has an annual turnover of around Tk 80 billion to Tk 85 billion. The government receives significant revenue from this sector too.
The turnover pattern is quite interesting as the industry is based on festivals. The fashion houses make the most money during Eid-ul-Fitr when the turnover makes up 40 per cent of the total. The next 20 per cent is made during the Bangla New Year’s Pahela Baishakh festival. While more clothes are sold during Baishakh the revenue is relatively less. Even five years ago, sales during Eid-ul-Azha were good, though that trend has changed. Now Falgun, the advent of Spring, has become another lucrative festival for the fashion industry.
Bangladesh’s fashion industry has been a boon for the local handloom industry. Sari sales have increased and all sorts of experiments are carried out in weaving. There is still room for qualitative improvement in handloom fabrics. If this can be brought about, demands will multiply.
Designers are cropping up all over too and so are new brands. They are meeting the needs of all sections of the society. Bangladesh has a huge youth demographic who are basically global citizens. They keep up with the times and are up to date with global fashion trends. They are more attracted to the local brands that are offshoots from the readymade garment industry as these brands have the experience and know-how of what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’.
The middle class in Bangladesh is steadily expanding as is the size of the wealthy class. This spells promise for the local fashion industry. If the demand within the local market can be met, then there is hardly need to look any further. But that means keenly following the trends and capturing the potential local market. Edging out the foreign imports and taking full control of the local market will be the ultimate feather in the local fashion industry’s cap.
* Sheikh Saifur Rahman is deputy editor, Prothom Alo Digital. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir