Owners and employees of the fashion industry are counting big losses from unsold Pahela Baishakh products
Mukta Khatun lives with her husband and two sons in Dighipara, a village of Sirajganj. As her husband is unemployed, the family depends on her income. She works for the local fashion industry and earns Tk6,000-Tk7,000 per month.
In the last two years, Mukta's income during Pahela Baishakh, Bengali New Year, was two to three times higher than in regular months.
However, this year, the local fashion market has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. The products made for Pahela Baishakh have gone unsold. As a result, the owners and employees of the industry are counting big losses.
In fact, uncertainty has engulfed the fashion industry as no one knows when the situation will return to normal.
Mukta said the organisation she works for did not collect the orders that were placed with her and she has not received any payment for this month.
Like Mukta, there are five lakh people directly involved with this industry whose dreams have been shattered by the unprecedented nationwide shutdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Shaheen Ahmed, president of Fashion Entrepreneurs Association Bangladesh (FEAB), said this year they had expected business of Tk2,000 crore across the country during Pohela Baishakh.
However, their products are now fading in stores.
Irin Parvin, an employee of Joyeeta Foundation – an initiative of Bangladesh's government to support women entrepreneurs – collects different handicraft fashion products during Pahela Baishakh for her organisation. However, this year she has not collected anything.
"Products for Pahela Baishakh are a little different than for regular times. The colour scheme and motifs are different. People do not use them for regular purposes," said Irin while answering the question of why they cannot use the products when the shutdown ends.
Given the present situation, Shaheen from the FEAB doubts there will be a market for Eid.
"If we fail to catch the Eid market, then the local fashion industry will face drastic consequences. We will need to find new ways to cope with the consequences," he said.
Is there any hope?
Some high-end local brands – like Bibiana, Deshal, Bishwa Rang, and Anjan's – promote desi products. There are also region-based local boutique shops. These days there are online shops like Poter Bibi that have also become a brand of the local fashion industry.
Combining all of them there are around 50,000 boutique shops in the country.
Starting from high-end local brand shops to regional boutiques, all of them source their products from marginalised people living in remote villages.
The Covid-19 shutdown has destroyed the economic flow in the supply chain of the industry and created an imbalance in the total system.
For example, Bibiana has at least 1,000 employees in Bogura, Rajshahi and Gaibandha, said Nusrat Jahan, who manages the workers on behalf of the fashion house.
Lipi Khandker, the managing director and designer of Bibiana, has tried to maintain an optimistic attitude since the shutdown. She paid one month's salary for her workers.
However, she said, managing another month's salary for all the employees scattered across the country, and paying the rent for showrooms, is getting strenuous for her without the business running.
Zahida Pervin, proprietor of Nakshi Handicrafts, Jashore, has 150 employees working under her. She failed to pay them their full salary this month.
"Marginalised people from all over the country carry the local fashion industry on their shoulders. If we fail to pay them, if the shutdown continues for the next two months, they will be destroyed and the industry may not get back on its feet for the next 10 years," she added.
According to her, everyone is worried about how the renowned garments will keep going, but no one cares about the local fashion industry.
"We are small industries trying to carry on local crafts and fashion. It is different for big industries. Their capital is bigger, so is their profit. They may have a lot of savings, but we do not," said Zahida Pervin.
The future of the industry after Covid-19
How the pandemic will change the industry is still unpredictable, thinks Biplob Saha, the founder of a renowned fashion house Bishwo Rang.
He emphasised the fact that after the shutdown there will be an economic crisis and people will run out of money. This will change the pattern of the customer's expenditures on clothes.
"We have to depend on foreign countries for raw materials. Then for the investment we depend on banks, we look for weavers, workers and manage creative sectors," said Biplob.
"Now this is the struggle of survival. We cannot say anything until it is over," he said.
Lipi Khandker of Bibiana heard about the government incentive declared for small and medium-size enterprises, but she is not hopeful about it.
She mentioned that banks do not give loans easily; they look into bank accounts which will be empty by the end of the lockdown.
"If we all survive in the end and wish to save our local brand fashion industry, we must stop the market of cheap Indian and Pakistani products," said Lipi.