In the southern India village of Doddampalayam, weavers are working the rainbow warp and weft of sari silks.
It's hot. They wear simple sarongs around their waists and they sit, floor-level, their legs in a specially constructed pit under their looms. They don't look rich - but the finished silks stacked floor to ceiling in these houses are worth thousands.
"There is a loom in every single home," explains Prabha Govindasamy.
She grew up near here, in this textile-rich area that's been dubbed the "Manchester of the south". She migrated to New Zealand nearly 20 years ago, and today works for Giles Brooker Education, a company that develops educational relationships between her home and adopted countries.
What happens when two cultures collide? A sari becomes a hot pink coat dress; a concertinaed peacock blue and emerald green bubble skirt; an elegant pair of wrap front pants in muted maroon and purple.
These garments are the creations of NZ Fashion Tech students. In September, 10 of their looks will be shown at New Zealand Fashion Week.
A month later, they'll be recreated in India, when 15 students head back to the area their sari fabrics came from, as recipients of $86,000 worth of Prime Minister's Scholarships for Asia.
"It will be mind-blowing for the Indians," says Govindasamy.
The collaboration, between NZ Fashion Tech and India's Bannari Amman Institute of Technology, is a first for local fashion education. Students from here will spend five weeks living on the Indian campus, attending classes, taking part in cultural activities and visiting the village homes where inter-generational families of silk weavers live and work.
"Textiles is something that has gone from our fashion infrastructure now," says Kevin Smith, NZ Fashion Tech managing director. "We used to have quite large mills . . . there's not the opportunities for our students to learn a lot about textiles."
Smith says international contacts are crucial for Kiwi students entering the apparel industry. A 2012 Fashion Tech survey of 136 companies showed 70 per cent of New Zealand manufacturers were involved in export and 25 per cent of production was offshore.
"Companies still require employees in the areas of sewing, garment construction, pattern making and cutting," said the report. "But the growth area is in off-shore manufacturing. In 2002, these roles did not feature, while in 2012, this is shown as 17 per cent of companies requiring people for these new specialist roles."
Smith says today's fashion graduates could expect to be involved in arranging overseas production.
"And it needn't be frightening for people. All it means is our students have a lot more responsibility and there are more of them employed than there used to be on less wages just sitting around on machines producing for someone else. New Zealand has become the design and engineering warehouse from which, in other countries, product is being made."
He says while fashion houses like Zambesi maintain a "New Zealand made" philosophy, they can only do so because their product is premium, "and they have an exclusivity and they can maintain the numbers of their products. But as soon as it's greater than that - businesses like Kaye Sylvester or Karen Walker - the production can't be handled here."
Where do kiwi designers get their clothes made? "It's usually commercially secret," says Smith. "But China has been used for a long time, Sri Lanka, and India of course. And that's the other reason we're going there - it's an English-speaking country and they have a long tradition of actually manufacturing."
Smith acknowledges the ethical issues associated with overseas production - accusations of appalling work conditions, low wages and compromised health and safety.
"Any brand who uses poor quality manufacturing quite rightly runs the risk of ruining their brand . . . they're signed up to spot audits and ethical codes of production and there's nobody who would be stupid enough in New Zealand to break that."
He says there are American multinationals "still doing it" - and their clothes are sold here - "but they get exposed quite easily through social media, the internet and the press."
Val Marshall-Smith, NZ Fashion Tech's academic director, says, even at the height of New Zealand's production capacity, "it could not have coped with the volumes companies are turning over now".
She points to children's clothing label Pumpkin Patch.
"I remember the days when they used to be making three million garments a year. Now I believe it's over 14 or 15 million. We could not cope with that volume on any level whatsoever, and what they've said was if they had to remain wholly New Zealand made, their company could not be as global and big as they are now. They have more staff employed in New Zealand now than they did when they were running all their production here."
India, says Marshall-Smith, is close to European export markets. "They can handle the volume, they're close to the European markets, they can get the fabrics there - all they need to do is get the design work done here."The sari project is, she says, partly about teaching students to work to a specific design brief. The institution, which has campuses in Wellington and Auckland, had previously worked with Kleenex, on a unit called "paper dresses", where students turned toilet paper into couture.
But Marshall-Smith said with that collaboration at an end, "we needed to do something completely different, so we searched around for another partner, and we decided 'colour'."
Talks between NZ Fashion Tech and the Bannari Amman Institute were already underway, and sari silk was a logical medium to consider. At the same time, an approach was made to Resene, who came onboard as a sponsor. Each sari was matched to one of the company's paint colours, and the name of the paint helped students choose the direction of their garment."I tried to choose the boldest one," says Jimmie MacKay, 24, who created the hot pink coat dress. "It was called 'sassy'. That was just an amazing name - you can kind of go anywhere with that name . . . I tried to change the fabric as much as I could from what it originally was."
On the last day of school before the term break, Fashion Tech students are working on tailored pants. Women's trousers, in various states of finish, are spread across cutting tables. The palette is monochromatic black, but tiny off-cuts of sari silk spill from the supermarket bags stashed under their work spaces.
During the sari project, students were asked to hypothetically dress actor Cate Blacnhett for a summer luncheon in Monte Carlo.
It was a challenge, says Mercedes Gonzalez, 39, working with colour ("my favourite colour is black"), and fitting pattern pieces on and around the decorative borders of the sari.
Students also had to be careful cutting - one wrong scissor incision, and they wouldn't have had enough fabric to finish their garments.
Madison Jarvie, 21, created an asymmetric skirt, cutting the shape from her all-but completed garment. "I used a lot of my fabric - all of it!"
Jarvie, Gonzalez and MacKay are among the 10 who will show on the catwalk in September Fashion Wee. An announcement on the 15 heading to India is expected late next month. Their next, immediate challenge? What to wear to Fashion Week.
- Sunday Star Times
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