JANMASHTAMI—CELEBRATING THE BIRTH OF KRISHNA

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Janmashtami, celebrated this year on the 25th of August, commemorates the Incarnation of the God Vishnu in the human form of a historic personality known as Krishna, one of the ten Hindu “Avatars” of the current great cycle of time.

“Avatar” means “descent”, in this case, the descent of  Spirit into physical form.  “Avatar” carries a meaning similar to the term “Christ” (“Annointed”).  In both the Avatar and the Christ the Divine Spirit expresses itself by descending into, or pouring itself upon, human form.

Krishna is generally accepted, even by non-Hindus, as a “historic personality”, rather than a purely mythic one, because His name and His kingdom exist in the historic record, and because of a major traumatic event with which He was famously associated.

That event was the horrific battle of Kurukshetra, between two rival clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.  The site of this battle is known, as is the approximate time of its occurrence.  Krishna, taking the non-combat role of charioteer on the Pandava side, guides the Pandavas to a victory which, in the end, is seen to have been necessary, but in no way glorious.  War is hell, in this telling, but in this instance inevitable and unavoidable.

On the first morning of battle, the Pandava hero, Arjuna, collapses in despair at the realization of the slaughter that is about to take place, and begs Krishna, whom he takes to be God in human form, to explain to him the reason and purpose for the pending destruction.  Krishna’s answer,  the BHAGAVAD GITA (“Song of God”), expounds the source and destiny of the soul, the meaning of creation, and all the states of existence.  Every individual, Krishna explains, is subject to both  karma and dharma, fate and duty.  Release from the karma acquired in past lives requires the faithful carrying out of each one’s destined life duty, dharma.  The dharma of the warrior, Krishna reminds Arjuna, is to fight when fate makes fighting unavoidable.  In the pending struggle, Krishna advises Arjuna, the balance of creation needs to be restored.  Larger forces are at play that Arjuna cannot see.

Having said this, one would think that commemorations of Krishna would generally have a martial flavor—images of valor and conquest.  After all, the great text, the BHAGAVAD GITA, was delivered on a battle field.

But that isn’t the case.

Rather than Krishna the Warrior, we most often see depictions of Krishna as the Rascal Child, the Playful Youth, the Charmer and Devoted Lover, the Flute Player and Dancer.

Krishna’s love for His adored Radha, and her adoration of Him, are celebrated in songs and paintings and dances.  They are the cosmic couple, the masculine and feminine aspects of Divinity, united.  Their dance is the Dance of Creation.

So the great battle that resulted in the greatest of the Hindu texts is not celebrated in India, as such a battle would surely be in the militaristic cultures of the West, as a glorious triumph, with the great hero of the faith leading the charge.  An older culture, perhaps, has gotten past seeing war, and even victory, as glorious.

What is happily recalled is the frolicking, merry youth, clasping His flute, inviting the Soul of Humanity to join Him in His dance.

–from the desk of Mark Keller

RAKSHA BANDHAN – pledging love, devotion, protection

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I was planning my first trip to India, back in 1978, when my middle sister, who was living in Germany, got wind of it, and asked if she could come along.  She was an experienced traveler, and I was not; and since I have always been close to both of my sisters, I was more than happy to have her along.

In those days you couldn’t line up a ticket on-line.  If you lived in Minnesota, as I did, you had to get the name of a reputable travel agent, who would most likely be in New York, spend a fortune on long distance calls, then send a bank draft for the fare, hope he wouldn’t rip you off, and then wait for your physical, actual, piece of paper, irreplaceable, ticket.  Since my sister was in Germany, and the two of us planned to meet up in London before continuing on to India, this was going to be tricky.  But she knew how to pull it off.

And she did.

The great day came.  I boarded a flight from Minneapolis, put down several hours later at JFK, dragged my luggage out of the terminal and down a long walkway (long in my memory anyway) to the row of offices that housed all those “other” airlines—the ones from places other than the U.S. or Europe.

The office for Air India had a guard standing outside in an over-sized wool coat, and he was holding a rifle.  Both the coat and the rifle looked to be vintage WWI.  He stood aside and I pushed through the door into a throng of yelling people.  Dazed, I wandered through the chaos for awhile, trying to find the end of the line to the ticket counter, but there didn’t seem to be a line anywhere, just a crowd and a lot of yelling.

Finally a company official came charging past me, and I managed to stick my ticket in his face, hoping to find out was what going on.  He glanced briefly at the ticket and yelled, no doubt to be heard over all the other yelling, “Plane is delayed!  Twelve hours!”  And then he stormed off.

So I stood there stunned, like a kid from Minnesota who didn’t know what was going on.  I stood there for quite awhile, I think.

Then there was more shouting, and I realized an announcement was being made.  It was that we were all to board a bus that would take us to a hotel for the night, where we would be provided with dinner, lodging, and breakfast, and then be brought back and put on a different flight in the morning, which would travel through London at break-knack speed, only stopping long enough to pick up connecting passengers.

This was done, and the hotel was comfortable, the food quite good, but of course I wasn’t able to sleep.  No internet in those days, remember.  My sister had, presumably, already traveled from Hanover, Germany, to London, and was now wondering what had happened to me.

The flight to London should have been pleasant, because the service and food were excellent.  But I was eaten up with worry, and every so often I would stop a flight attendant and try to discuss my problem, only to be assured that everything would be taken care of upon arrival.

At last, shortly before landing, I laid out my situation more explicitly:  my sister was waiting for me.  We were supposed to board the plane I was on to continue on to Bombay, but now we were told not to get off the plane, as it was going to rush straight on.  What had happened to her?  I was ready to keep on, but then….

It happened.

“Your sister?” said the female flight attendant, instantly transformed, her face melting.

“Uh, yeah.  My sister.”

“Don’t worry,” she smiled.  “I’ll see to it.”

Then we got the signal to fasten our seat belts, we landed, we taxied to the gate. 

Then I heard voices up ahead.

“Sister?”  His sister!”

Someone was calling up the boarding chute, “His sister!  Where is his sister?”

Sympathetic looks were coming at me from all sides, and not just from the staff.  Then a call came back from inside the terminal.

“She wants him to get off the plane!”

An airline officer took my carry-on bag, smiling with warm assurance, and told me, “Come.  I will take you to your sister.”

We walked and walked.  I don’t know how big Heathrow was in those days, but I’m sure it wasn’t really as big as it seemed from that walk, until finally we came to a closed door, which needed some kind of official pass to enter.  But this was waived with the announcement, “He is here for his sister.”  At which point I saw the face-melt happen again, across the room, multiplied, and I was escorted to a small office space at the rear where I, at last, found my sister.

She told me that everything had been taken care of.  Arrangements had been made for us to spend that night in a hotel in London, and that seats had been arranged for us on a flight the next day.  It should have been very tricky to arrange, normally, or even impossible, and she said,everyone had been shaking their heads at her until she mentioned that her traveling companion, now stranded in New York, was her brother.

At which point, she, too, witnessed the face-melt.  “Your brother?”

At once, all wheels began to turn, all doors opened, charitable hearts were engaged, and a solution was found.  After all, we were brother and sister!

We met this reaction repeatedly throughout our trip.  We saw it again two nights later when we checked into a hotel in Pune.

“One room or two?”

“One.”

“Your wife?”

Was there a little sarcasm in the question?

“No, my sister.”

Face-melt.

“Your sister?  You are traveling with your sister?”

Finally this reaction was explained to us by an elderly gentleman. In India, he said, the brother/sister relationship is held to be special and sacred.  A love that is pure, a precious bond. 

A relationship that is celebrated, in fact, by a special holiday called Raksha Bhandan.

Raksha Bhandan idealizes the  brother/ssister relationship as the love and devotion of a sister being answered by the devotion of a brother accompanied by his pledge of lifelong protection.

Depending on family custom, the day is accordingly fun and happy, or solemn and purposeful.  If the day is to be celebrated solemnly, the sister will spend some hours early in the day in prayer, before approaching her brother with a threaded bracelet, a rakhi.  Binding the rakhi to his wrist, she pledges her love, and he answers with his vow of protection.

If the day is celebrated in a fun way, the prayers may or may not happen, and there will be some laughter and kidding.  I recall being interrupted once, in a business meeting with a very serious man who was very serious about making a serious profit from me, when the door opened and his younger sister bounded in brandishing a rakhi.  Instantly his face lit up, there were giggles and jokes as she tied the rakhi on his wrist, and then flew out the door again.  He shook his head in wonderment, called for tea, and we relaxed for a few minutes, before getting back to the serious business of profit.

I have not yet mentioned an important component to this exchange, though it may not be adhered to by everyone.  It is that on this day the sister can ask for a favor from her brother, and he must grant it. For example, the man whose serious business was interrupted that day by his sister had to promise to accompany her to a function in another town.

And then there is this:  a girl, on this day, may also approach a young man, whom she would like to think of as a brother, and have him think of her as a sister.  Binding the rakhi to his wrist, if he agrees, signifies that they are spiritually bound as siblings, and that he will always regard her safety and welfare as his responsibility.

This might be carried off in a light-hearted, playful manner, but the underlying purpose is considered to be a solemn one.  The custom probably dates from an earlier time when a girl needed all the protection she could get.

There is a famous illustration of this in a story known by every Indian.

It is said that on the eve of a great battle, thousands of years ago, between Alexander the Great and Poros, the King of Punjab, Alexander’s newly wed wife, Roxanne, came to Poros with her rakhi.  She was from that part of the world, so she knew the custom.  She tied the rakhi to his wrist, and he asked her, “What do you want me to do?”  She had made him her brother, and he owed her a favor, in addition to his pledge of protection.

“Do not kill Alexander,” she said.  “I do not ask that you lose the battle, but if you meet Alexander face to face, I ask that you not kill him.  He must not die by your hand.”

The next day in battle, Poros came near to killing a man when someone shouted out that the one he had subdued was Alexander.  Hearing this, Poros released Alexander, and, in the end, the battle was won by the Greeks.

Poros was brought in chains before Alexander the following day.  “What should I do with you?” Alexander asked.  Poros answered, seemingly indifferent, “You’ve won.  You can do whatever you like.”

It seems that Alexander was touched not only by Poros’ courage, but also by his honoring his pledge to Roxanne. 

And, of course, Roxanne had made a spiritual brother of Poros, so if Alexander were to have put him to death, it would have been the death of a kin.

And also ignoble and ungenerous.

And probably would have made Roxanne mad as hell.

In the end, Alexander released Poros and restored his kingdom.

So that is what this day, Raksha Bhandan, is about, whether solemn or fun.  Brotherhood, sisterhood, commitment, devotion, protection, and a love that is pure. In modern times, perhaps too, a time of making relationships stronger with a bond of affinity and love. 

And, of course, the lead up to the day also provides its entertainment, when the girls go out to buy their rakhis, or get together and make them on their own.

At those times I suppose there is a lot of discussion and kidding about who the girls are planning to draft as brothers, but I wouldn’t really know, as that isn’t a discussion I would ever be let in on.

–from the desk of Mark Keller

In the Spirit of Tolerance and Inclusion -To India’s Independence Day

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Independence Day, India’s premiere national holiday on August 15, commemorates the date in 1947, when the earth’s largest colony became the world’s largest democracy.  It is hard to think of any other colony, dominated by a wholly alien culture, that gained independence without a protracted, bloody war.  The resolutely spiritual grounding of the Gandhi movement came up against the resolutely materialist intentions of the occupiers, and in the end, won.

The birth of the modern Indian nation was more than a political victory; it was a moral victory.

But perhaps the moral victory had actually been won seventeen years earlier, on January 26, the day now celebrated as Republic Day, the day The Indian National Congress had declared India’s independence from British rule.  This was a statement that while India acknowledge British power, it no longer recognized British authority.  With this declaration, the country declared itself inwardly, spiritually, free, much in the same way any individual can declare him or herself inwardly a free person at any time, in spite of external circumstances.

In time, the patient will of the Indian people wore away the rock of British resistance; Britain found itself without allies in its cause.  And, to their credit, many British felt their consciences awakened, and refused to support the continuation of the rule.

The tolerance of the Indian people, exemplified by Gandhi, was such that the freedom movement embraced all castes and faiths, and ultimately all nationalities.  No one was excluded, except those who were determined to exclude themselves. 

So on the day that India stepped forth as a nation unto itself, an event unprecedented in history, as Pandit Nehru declared, that spirit of tolerance and inclusion was part of India’s national DNA, and incorporated into its constitution.  This was a country not founded on an economic or political theory, but on the ancient, Indian principle of the one-ness of humanity.

Today, in India, as elsewhere in the world, the spirit of exclusion and intolerance is again on the rise, and most of it is fostered by self-interested factions.  At the same time, the generosity and tolerance of the Indian character is, in my daily experience, always present.  The reality of who a people really is can only be known by knowing the real people, no matter what the country, and no matter what the current culprits in power declare it to be.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, at the end of WAR AND PEACE, “If bad men can work together to get the things they want, so can good men, to get the things they want.”  Tolstoy corresponded with Gandhi during one of Gandhi’s incarcerations, and they recognized each other as travelers on the same path, one a Christian, the other Hindu, each earnest in his own faith, each moving toward the same goal.

For reasons that are not at all wistful or sentimental, I believe that India remains on this path, has always been on this path, and always will be; and that  the spirit that gave this ancient and wise culture its nationhood will prevail.

India, we at Mehera Shaw offer our pranams.

Jai Bharat.

–from the desk of Mark Keller

KHADI – India’s Hand Woven Tradition

At Mehera Shaw, our first and last fabric love has always been khadi.  Along with the other astounding artisan products found in India, khadi is celebrated today, and hopefully on all days, as a great Heritage Craft.

But it is our view that the celebrated artisan skills of India are not only heritage skills; they are actually survival skills. 

They are not only the past; they are also the future.

Every time an Indian artisan gives up his work, or fails to pass it on to a younger person, the world takes another small step toward a future of uncertainty.

The fact that khadi is beautiful tells us something.  At Mehera Shaw we do not see beauty as a thing that is supplemental to function—a pretty add-on, or simply an appealing ornament.  To us, beauty is fundamental.  It tells us that something is right, complete.

Where beauty is missing, the thing is either fundamentally wrong, or simply unfinished.

So we join in the celebration of the beauty and heritage of khadi in the best way we know—with our own creations from this fabric we love and cherish so much.

Summer Style – What Inspires Us?

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What inspires our aesthetic?  At Mehera Shaw we talk about a quality called shakti.  In India, where we work and live, shakti refers to what is sometimes called “the feminine principle”.  There is no God in India who does not have a corresponding Goddess, his shakti.  Without his Goddess, he would be helpless, because in Indian thought, it is the feminine principle that moves.  Without that movement, the masculine principle would remain detached from creation.

Some of you, who are up on your Hindu mythology, will object at this point, “What about the dance of Shiva?  That famous image?  He’s dancing the dance of creation.  He’s moving, because he’s dancing.”  To which a Hindu sage would point out, “Yes, but he is dancing within a ring of fire, and that ring of fire is his shakti, the manifestation of the Goddess.  The dance itself is shakti.”

I collect antique silver amulets here, and it was explained to me years ago that most of the amulets are made in a shape that represents the Goddess, whether the image on the piece is of a male or female form.  Because all manifestation of divine force in creation are ultimately feminine.

If you look at a lot of Hindu icons, as I do, you come to appreciate the fact that the masculine deities are depicted individually in very restricted poses, and they are very easy to identify.  You can name them right off the bat.

But when you are looking at Goddess images, it is very different.  This one is standing on a shell, that one has a musical instrument, another has a spoon, another is divided in three and is dancing, then there is the one where she is seven, with a male consort, on, and on, and on.  And you ask, “Who is this?”, and if you are asking a man, he will shrug helplessly and answer, “Devi.”  The Goddess.  Because they are all her in different manifestations.  Different forms.  Ask a woman around here, and she will tell you in detail, “That is So and So, she helps, with childbirth.  That is So and So, she protects the house.  That other one drives away nightmares from small children.”

So when we say our clothes are “feminine”, we don’t mean anything like “frilly”, “cute”, or “girly”. We’re talking about shakti—feminine—in a timeless, universal sense.

And every woman, like the Goddess herself, moves through many stages and manifestations in the course of a day.  Ask a woman, “What do you do?” and you will get a very different response than if you ask the same question of a man.  The man will feel better about himself if he can answer in a single word:  “I’m a this or a that.”  A woman, at least in my own male-based observation, has a very different reaction.  If you ask a man what he does, he’ll tell you what he is paid to do.  If you ask a woman what she does, what she is paid to do is only one aspect of her life and daily activity; it isn’t the answer to what she does.

Women move.  They move through many stages in the course of a day, many manifestations of themselves, their shakti.    So there is little wonder that women, almost universally, are sensitive about their apparel, because they are moving in different ways, and expressing themselves in a multiplicity of forms.

So for Shari, as a designer, a woman, and a lover of clothes, a woman’s garments need to move through many stages, and should reflect  a deeper value to a woman than some marketing man’s catchphrase.  Her clothes should make her feel good, look good, reflect her personality, and be adaptable.

And the clothes should last.  Throwaway clothes are not feminine.  Saying this, I might suggest that most current fashion is not feminine, since it goes against one of the fundamental feminine principles—to conserve, retain, and pass on.  And having said this, I might add that we don’t feel all that comfortable using the word “fashion” at Mehera Shaw.  We tend to talk about our “aesthetic” instead, which isn’t meant to sound more elevated, but really meant to say that there is an intent behind our designs that has very little to do with being “current”, or “edgy”.

Our spring/summer collections are full of color and floral prints, often with Asian influences. 

The printing is all done by hand by traditional methods; block printing is a heritage craft indigenous to this region.  Block prints have life.  They have shakti.

Our garments are all made of natural fibers—for summer that means cotton, primarily, most of it organic.  Natural fibers have life, shakti.  Once you’ve become accustomed to natural fibers, it’s hard not to wear them.

Our spring/summer collection is comprised of skirts, dresses, legging, tunics, scarves.  Clothes that work as layered outfits, or as separates.  Clothes that will last, will recombine with new designs.  Clothes that are made for comfort, beauty, practicality, adaptability.

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WE MADE YOUR CLOTHES

FashRev_WbPh_2016_WB_HMYou see the faces on our website of the people who make up Mehera Shaw.  They stitch, they knit, they cut, they pattern, they inspect, they pack.

This is the whole bunch of them.  We know them each personally.  There aren’t that many of them, so it would be strange if we didn’t.

You see their faces, and for each one of them there are many thousands of faces you do not see, and that I do not see, who make clothes, dye fabric, run the machinery in the vast textile mills.

In Delhi and Mumbai

Viet Nam and Cambodia

Bangladesh

China

and unacknowledged places in the U.S and Europe

in conditions that we all regard as an assault

on their basic humanity

And there is so little we can do to change things. 

But the little we can do, we should do.

If you look at the faces of our workers and remember the faceless ones, you may have done more than you know.

Because a Revolution in the fashion industry will no doubt be a generational process, and this kind of change starts with recognition.

With knowing what you are seeing.

By remembering the faceless you are also honoring the faces of the ones you do see.

Because in remembering we acknowledge within ourselves that we share a common humanity.

And that one day,

somehow,

there will no no more of faceless ones.

EARTH DAY: SAURON RISING

This is the first of a series we’re calling “The Way Back”.  A return. To less mechanized manufacturing.  To human working conditions.  To a balance in scale, use and environment. To a more thoughtful way of being.  Join us.

 

In the myth created by J.R. Tolkien, the wizard Sauron creates a ring of power whose sole purpose is dominance and destruction.

The ring, we are made to understand, should never have been made.

Once made, it should never have been used.  Having been used, it must not be used again.

The ring cannot be destroyed by any other means than taking it back to the place of its origin.  It must be cast back into the earth.

The news this week is that radioactive waste is leaking from storage tanks in the state of Washington, an unprecedented, disastrous spill.

We have recently understood that the oil industry has, for decades, not only concealed their knowledge of global warming, and the causes of it, but have been actively, deliberately undermining the public’s understanding of a pending, human caused, catastrophe.

There are things in the earth that can give us temporary power, but which, in the end, will destroy the earth from which they were taken.

Like Sauron’s ring.

There is knowledge that must never be deployed, because, in the end, this kind of knowledge is only aimed at destruction.

Like Sauron’s wizardry.

A time has come to see that certain knowledge has to be put aside, and certain resources must be left where they are.

The energy of the atom must stay in the atom.

The oil still in the ground has to be left there.

Here at Mehera Shaw, we have our own small window on all of this, as practitioners of one of the oldest crafts—making clothes.  We acknowledge that garment manufacturing has become a lethal enterprise, and as little people in a big industry, we can see how small steps taken in the wrong direction have led to a cascade of consequences that the industry, as a whole, would rather not talk about.

Mehera Shaw been taking steps back, in the opposite direction, away from the precipice.  A lot of our steps have been wobbly; walking backwards is tricky.  But we’re not giving up, and we’re still walking, and there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Very soon, we will be initiating a new series of blogs on this subject, called “The Way Back”. 

We invite feedback, support,  and information from anyone who cares to contribute.

–from the desk of Mark Keller

 

Revolution is – Knowing WHO MADE YOUR CLOTHES

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ANOTHER SIDE TO THE STORY

Ten years ago, while Shari and I were packing up our family for a big move, I came across an old pair of shoes that I had packed away many years before.  They had been manufactured back in the 1960’s by a company that I will refer to as RESPECTED SHOES.  I didn’t know what to do with them.  They were black wingtips.  My parents had bought them for me during my senior year in college to go with my new gray flannel suit.  My suit was long gone, and these shoes seemed to be hopelessly out of style.

I turned them over in my hands, and examined the amazing tight, perfect stitching, the leather soles and heels with the metal tacks.  RESPECTED SHOES were reputed to last from one generation to the next; heels and soles rarely needed restoration.

Another point about RESPECTED SHOES was that they were made in every width, and mine were Double AAs.  I have an extremely narrow foot, and I have not been able to find shoes that actually fit me for about the last thirty years.  AA and A are long gone.  So my feet have been flopping for quite a long time.

RESPECTED SHOES used to be made in the United States.  When the move to uproot American industry and offshore manufacturing was getting underway by the early 80’s, RESPECTED SHOES came under the knife of a corporate raider of great renown, who had served as a Cabinet Secretary in the Ford Administration, and had written an influential book about the need to free American business from too much government regulation.  He bought out the RESPECTED SHOES factory, sold off its assets, packed up its machinery and sent them overseas.  This was in keeping with the general drift of making America “more efficient and competitive.”

One troubling aspect of the story, pointed out by investigative journalists who were pretty much jeered out of hearing range as soon as they piped up, was that RESPECTED SHOES was not only employing hundreds of skilled workers; it was earning a profit.

The business that had been shuttered was not uncompetitive and it was not losing money—just the opposite.  But it was an irresistible plum for an outsider aiming for a quick buck, or millions of them.  So those workers, through no fault of deficiency of their own, lost their livelihoods, and America lost a great shoe.

The RESPECTED SHOES brand still exists, having been bought up by a larger corporation, but the reports are that the quality is about what we would expect, which is to say, not much.

As a member of the Boomer Generation, who had a view of the deliberate destruction of the American manufacturing sector, small business, and the family farm, I expect that any day some younger person is going to ask me, “How could people your age let this happen?  Couldn’t you see it happening?”

And I will have to answer, “Yes, we saw it.  But we didn’t know what we were seeing.”

That’s the same answer many of my generation would give about the start of the war in Viet Nam.  Or about the early evidence of global warming.  Or the corporate takeover our the political system.  And on and on.

We saw, but we didn’t know what we were seeing.

By the time we knew what we were seeing, it was too late.  Or almost.  It’s the almost that many of us are hanging onto now.

At my high school, back in the 60’s we were all subject to a strict dress code—“strict” being the more docile way of putting it.  “Ironclad” and “Unyielding” also come to mind.

Show up in school in a T-shirt, and you were sent home immediately.  Same for jeans or tennis shoes.  Girls had to be in skirts or dresses, absolutely no slacks.

We didn’t mind because we were all into looking sharp or pretty.  For the guys, it was right around then that the wing tips became a big thing, along with polished cotton slacks, killer socks, and a very specific brand of shirt.

I was allotted enough clothing allowance for one new pair of pants and two new shirts three times in a school year, if needed. These were very careful purchases, as you might imagine.  My goal was to not stand out in the wrong way and my hope was that my collars wouldn’t fray too soon.

Those clothes fit well, looked good, and held up for years, so I didn’t get that many new shirts until I grew out of them.

And they were all made in the U.S., for the most part in the Carolinas.

Of course, that’s all over now.

The last time I drove through South Carolina I was struck by the number of empty shell garment factories.  They are still standing, after a generation of idleness, with nothing in them, all the equipment of machinery having been packed up and sold overseas. The small towns they once supported were whittled down to next to nothing.  Skilled workers were consigned to unskilled labor, if they were able to find new jobs at all, and now a generation has passed, and those skilled jobs have never come back, never been handed on.

We saw it happening, but we didn’t know what we were seeing.

Sometimes we’re asked “Why don’t you make your clothes in America?  Americans need those jobs.”

The short, simple answer is that we didn’t have four or five million dollars to get started.  Or ten or twenty million.

What we had was all the money we had ever saved and were currently able to earn.  We also had prior, deep ties with India, feeling it was our real home.

And then there is the point about those skilled workers, who have vanished along with the industry they built up.  In India, those skills have been passed on, never lost.

So it was India for us.  Not the Carolinas, or Chicago, or New York, or St. Louis.

Based on bad earlier experiences in the garment industry, we came up with what we thought was with a brilliant business strategy:  we would be honest with our customers, and we would treat our workers fairly and with respect.

We wanted to start the kind of company that we had not been able to find.  We wanted to be part of the almost that so many of us are hanging onto, as in “almost too late.”

We saw it happening but we didn’t know what we were seeing. 

These days, I often wonder what I may be looking at but not really seeing, not really understanding.  If I, like so many others, could have been so blind in the past, could have missed so much, what am I missing now?

And it occurred to me that the thing I might be missing is the re-emergence of what the American writer, Christina Nichol, calls “the law of the human.”

When the general drift seems so bleak, it would be easy enough to miss.  So I’m keeping my eyes open, and I’m starting to see more people who are determined to walk a different path.

I know a young man in Minneapolis who started a woodworking business that makes beautiful, high end furniture and office fixtures.  He had about thirty men working for him, each a highly skilled individual working on his own projects, and the quality of their work was incredible.  They had a clients list of famous names, so I assumed they were making a lot of money.  But making a high end product is often means small margins, and  he said to me, “I’ve got to keep hustling accounts all the time.  I can’t get my own hands on the wood anymore.  My greatest fear is that I’m going to have to tell one of these guys that I can’t afford him anymore.”

He had reached the point, in his relationship with his business, where his primary concern was to make enough money to take care of his “guys”.  Profit was now subservient to the law of the human.

Mehera Shaw is in the same boat; we are also subservient to this law.  We’re not unique in this.  Small businesses who are trying to do good, “real” work, like his, like ours,  and like others we know, are places where the human factor is taking its rightful and natural place. 

I suspect there are more of us than any of us knows.

I’m keeping my eyes open, and this time I hope I know what I’m seeing.

—from the desk of Mark Keller

Revolution is – Slow Fashion

Fair-Trade-Staff-at-Mehera-Shaw

SLOW FASHION AND THE HONOR OF WORK

Before discussing clothing, let’s talk about another staple—food.

Most of us have heard of the Slow Food Movement, and many of us have made food discoveries over the years that have brought us to the pleasures of such things as artisan cheese, artisan bread, organic produce, and the value of pure, high quality food ingredients. 

And of food preparation that involves skill and attention, that isn’t a rush job, that results in meals that bear respect for nature and bring friends and family together.

The reverence for a lovingly prepared meal exists in every traditional culture.  Here in India, people often clasp their hands and bow to the rice on the plate in front of them—“Thank you for sustaining me.”

In traditional cultures, men who have never picked up a ladle or a spatula, will speak with surprising knowledge about their native cuisine, and you realize they spent their childhoods watching their mothers prepare their meals, and you feel their respect for the labor and the love that went into their food.

In contrast, Fast Food, many of us have come to realize, is not a kind of food that is merely different from Slow Food; it is not just a more convenient and “modern” way of eating.  Fast Food isn’t actually food at all.  It’s a nutritionally debased imitation of the real thing.

A Fake.

The first time my mother, of solid German Wisconsin stock, tasted microbrewery beer, she said, “This is what beer used to taste like when I was young!”

Meaning back when every small town in Wisconsin had its own local brewery.

The first time I gave her a slice of artisan cheese she said, “This is what cheese used to taste like when I was young!”

Meaning back when every small town in Wisconsin produced its own local varieties of cheese.

She’d grown up on the real stuff, but through her adulthood, the real had been steadily replaced by the fake.  Rediscovering the real again was a pleasant shock.  And she was done, forever, with processed cheese and mass produced beer.

You may have formed a certain image in your mind about my mother, since I describe her as “solid German Wisconsin stock.”   Stocky.  Big boned.  Stolid and earthy.

In fact,  she was a slender, graceful, auburn haired, green eyed beauty.

And she loved fashion. 

She was an avid reader of Vogue Magazine.  She knew all the designers. 

She had the Vogue Pattern Book, and every night she was at her sewing machine putting together her dresses, skirts, blouses, jackets, and even hats.

When she went to church, she was a total fashion plate.

And she wasn’t the only one.  After every service those gorgeous women (I was in grade school, but I was definitely aware of how beautiful they were) would be commenting on each others’ outfits, praising, noting, advising.  They all knew their fabrics, the button stock, the levels of quality, types of stitching and the cost.

I grew up assuming that all women knew that stuff.  Actually most women in my generation do.

When my mother was a child and a young adult, all food was Slow Food, and all fashion was Slow Fashion.

My mother’s mother had worked in the clothing department at J.C. Penney, starting in the early 40’s, stuck with it to her retirement, bagged an excellent pension that the company supported, and bought herself and her husband a house, outright, when she was in her seventies.

And boy, did she know her job.

Penney’s, like all the other main stores back then, were selling real clothes.  That is, they were well made, from good materials, and made to last long, give good value.  Clothing didn’t wear out much in those days, except the kids’ clothes, of course; things were handed down an awful lot. 

In my young adulthood, many of us got a kick out of donning our grandparents’ clothes; we looked cool and rustic at the same time, and even I, who was a fashion illiterate and didn’t know quality in a garment except by the feel of it, recognized that these clothes were somehow the real thing.

Fast Fashion was taking over very quickly, and abruptly, around that time.  The concept of Trend was scalding through the industry; the concept of “wear it and throw it” was killing quality standards.  The public was being very consciously, and even forcefully, dumbed down about what we wear as surely as we were being dumbed down about what we ate.

Now, if you kill quality, you kill a quality worker.  I don’t mean literally, all though that is true too; but I mean you kill that individual’s chance of distinguishing herself/himself, of being recognized for her skill, and finally for being able to earn a salary commensurate with the quality she/he can produce.

A skilled worker becomes a cog; an artisan becomes an interchangeable industrial component.

And the end results are products of predictable inferiority, and, for the most part, what almost appears to be a deliberate ugliness.

Not too many people want to acknowledge the depressing fact that most of the clothes today are, frankly, ugly

We might ask, “Why should this be?”

And we might answer, “How could it be otherwise?”

If the intent, all along, has been to degrade quality in order to enhance profits, and if the degradation of work is essential to lowering wages and workers’ dignity, the final garment will bear the imprint of that original intent.

There’s a profound line in the film BABETTE’S FEAST (Slow Food again), “In the soul of every artist is the cry, ‘Let me give my best!”

Take the best away from the worker, and the best worker is gone.

Sometimes the only way to see ahead is to look back, not only to see where you have been, but to see what you have lost.

When Shari and I were gathering our team at Mehera Shaw, ten years ago now, we were immediately stunned by the skill of our stitchers, our cutter, our pattern master.  These were top line craftsmen who knew their worth, but who had never been given a chance to do their best, and were aching for the opportunity.  And we wanted, with every fiber in our being, to give them that chance.  We, and they, wanted to do the very best that we could do.

Once that idea takes over someone’s psyche, it is very difficult to back away from it.  I know crafts people and skilled workers in every field who cannot stomach doing inferior work, even when they are paid less than they are worth.  You start to hear words, the old words, in these contexts, words like “self respect”, “dignity”, and “honor.”

And this point about “Honor” is really the thing we need to recognize, because that is where the whole cycle begins and ends.  If you take away the honor of the work you have taken the honor from the worker, and ultimately you have taken the honor from the final recipient, the customer, who no longer knows high from low, real from fake, who now feels, at some unconscious level, that she is not worthy of the real thing, of real quality.  And least of all, of beauty.

Honor the work, honor the worker, honor yourself.

Revolution is – Bridging the Gap

Years ago, before Shari and I met, I was in the silver and gem business, based here in Jaipur, in an age when there was no internet, no fax, no cell phones, and when an international call cost a fortune, sounded like an echo chamber, and usually broke off after twenty seconds.  I would come to town with cash (because bank transfers were not reliable yet, and there were no ATMs), and try as best I could to spend all of it on merchandise, which I would hand carry back to the States.  I had to have the goods in hand for personal checking, and could not have them safely shipped.  There was really no other way to do things at that time.

Eventually, I found people I felt I might trust with my work, and who were capable of handling the (then) extremely tricky rules involved with export.  There were extended periods, of course, when I waited back in the States, in high anxiety, wondering when my goods would be completed and shipped.  As I mentioned, communications were difficult back then; there were lapses; things didn’t happen according to schedule.  Often I would return to India angry at what I took to be irresponsibility or carelessness, only to learn that my supplier had faced tremendous , unforeseen difficulties that made everything understandable.  My anger would go away, and I would feel a little ashamed at my lack of trust, and also feel gratitude for all his efforts.

Enough of these ups and downs finally made me understand that I did, in fact, trust this person.  More than that, I needed to trust him.  If there wasn’t trust between us, the business would not have been possible.  The same was true on his side.  He understood this, even before I did.

Because I trusted this individual, and he trusted me, we were able to talk frankly with each other about some of the cultural gaps between us—the signals that are often mis-read, the expectations that aren’t understood.  The things that instill suspicion and doubt, where they really aren’t warranted.

I asked him one day, “When you know you can’t do something…say, get something done by the time I say I need it, why don’t you just come out and tell me?  Why do I have to drag it out of you, or wait to figure it out myself?”

He looked a little embarrassed.  “To us, it is rude to say ‘no’ to you like that, not respectful.”

The “not respectful” bit was because I was older than he was.

“But to me, it’s not rude or disrespectful.  I appreciate it.  I can’t plan if I don’t have accurate information.”

As time went by both of us became more conscious of the kinds of  assumptions that led to gaps of understanding, in both directions.  I saw that if I drew a rough sketch for an earring, the silversmith might present me with a finished design far removed from what I intended, but a very good approximation of some traditional design that he thought was similar to my rough sketch, and which, he naturally assumed, is what I was after.  It didn’t benefit anyone for me to get upset by this; I had to learn to be precise about these things. 

And I had to learn that if I put a stone above a certain size in an earring, the required silver to keep it in a setting would weigh up to a point that no one in my market would want it.  Eventually, the smiths came to realize this point, and would warn me in advance.  So the back and forth took time, but after awhile, it actually took.

And on it went.  I came to know other people in my line, from different parts of Europe and Australia, and I noticed that the ones who were making their way toward success were the ones who were doing, basically, what I was doing:  taking the time to get to know the people, and to understand the processes, and the thinking.  They wanted to understand both sides of the business, not just their side.  They were the ones who invested in give-and-take, in the mutuality of exchange.

Then, in 1999, Shari and I initiated the Mehera Shaw clothing line, inspired by our love for traditional textiles, Shari’s interest in clothing design, and fortified by Mark’s supposed “savvy” about doing business in India. 

But as it turned out, Mark’s “savvy” proved to be worth much less than he would have supposed.

Because the apparel business is nothing like the gem and jewelry business.  On the whole, the apparel industry sets up walls and screens between clients, suppliers, and artisans.  Personal relationships don’t count for much in an industry where agreements are frequently, and often shamelessly, broken, and where many relationships are fundamentally adversarial, regardless of the surface  gloss.

Somehow we survived, but at what cost?  And the problem wasn’t just on the supply end; it was equally hazardous on the market side, as we quickly discovered that New York is often more treacherous than New Delhi.

Finally, it became clear to us that we had to start our own production company, not only for our own label, but for others who were floundering around like us, trying to bring their ideas to fulfillment and for the sake of working in a way we could believe in. 

We would be the company we couldn’t get anybody else to be.

In 2007, accompanied by our three small children, we founded Mehera Shaw Textiles, Pvt. Ltd., as a Jaipur based small garment manufacturer.  And in short order it felt as though someone had picked us up and thrown us over a high wall, and when we landed we found ourselves lock, stock, and barrel on the India artisan side of the equation.  We had started as clients; now we were suppliers.  We had started out giving orders; now we were taking them.  The people who had been working for us were now working beside us.  We had spent years scrutinizing suppliers’ failures to communicate intelligibly; now we were faced with clients who didn’t communicate intelligibly and faced with learning how to communicate clearly to clients.  We had been charitable, we thought, when we were understanding about suppliers’ failures; now we identified with those failures, because we were directly involved with keeping them from happening.

Just now I used the image of being thrown over a wall, but I could just as well have said that we suddenly found ourselves sitting on a fence, because once we began to climb back up that is where we ended.  We were now not on one side or the other, neither simply client or supplier, but both. We are on both sides of the face at the same time: we are faced with bridging the gap in understanding between supplier and customer, east and west, traditional and modern. 

We discovered that ‘doing things right’ meant we had a lot to learn and we’ve learned it from the people we work with.

We began to learn things we never thought we’d have to know, and much of this knowledge was hard won and cost us a lot of sleepless nights.  But at the same time we forged bonds with people we deeply respect; we saw, in such cases, that “Honor” still has meaning.  We met creative, humane individuals who are trying to make the world a better place through their work.  We have known people who labor in humble, difficult conditions, who have inspired us with their grace and dignity.

This dual perspective, this being in two worlds, being client and supplier, is going to inform the coming series of articles.  We’re going to explore a lot of issues, things having to do with culture and assumptions, communication and  hard realities, craft and expectation, definitions and standards. 

It’s been quite a ride up to now, and we’re looking forward to sharing some of it with you.