Arriving in the murky, wet greyness of a hot and steamy Sunday evening in Dhaka, my senses are as usual, assaulted by the sights, sounds and smells of a very different culture from the London I left behind. Having negotiated our way through immigration, and collected our luggage in a surprisingly organised and speedy fashion, we step out into the cacophony of sound that is thousands of people, traffic and constantly beeping horns. The sheer volume of people everywhere I look is overwhelming; we are in the most densely populated capital on earth, and it is a relief to spot a familiar, smiling face in the crowd, fighting his way through to greet us. Having located our colleagues, the four of us on this initial leg of the trip, make our way out to the cars which will whisk us to the relative calm of the nearby hotel, our home for the next 4 nights.
I have barely stepped into the lobby before I am bumping into numerous former colleagues, acquaintances and suppliers – it would seem that a very large proportion of the British retail industry have descended on Dhaka this week, and as there are only really two suitable hotels to choose from, we are all in the same place at the same time (when I say “suitable”, I mean the sort of hotel that doesn’t ask guests to leave their guns and ammunition in a basket whilst they pass through security, as I have experienced on one particularly jaw dropping occasion). It started in Dubai airport, coming across a friend I haven’t seen for many years, who was also making her way to Dhaka, and the same hotel we were. By the time we have eaten dinner and moved on to the “cigar bar”…..not nearly as glamorous as it sounds…..I have come across several more that I do know and recognised a few high profile ones that I don’t. Bangladesh is clearly getting back on its’ feet after the tragedy of the Rana Plaza, investment is growing, as the worldwide retail industry has woken up to the fact that they have an important role to play in rebuilding the manufacturing industry here and maintaining a safe working environment for all those involved in clothing production for the West.
Despite all this, there is always a surprise just around the corner, something that no amount of investment can prepare for….I have learned to expect the unexpected! As we sit, eating our breakfast in the early morning sunshine the next day, the light begins to fade before our eyes, until it is almost as dark as night again, the wind whips up the swaying palm trees into a frenzy and torrential rain lashes the windows; wild forked lightening flashes across the horizon and thunder crashes all around us….it would seem that we have caught the tail end of a typhoon as it headed towards the Phillippines. Consequently, as we climb into the car at 8am to make our way to our first factory, the car park we have to make our way through has turned into a lake, and the rush hour traffic is even worse than usual! And so begins the first of many unpredictable and torturous car journeys through the teeming backstreets of Dhaka and out into the factory districts beyond! There is always, however, something to look at and I find it fascinating just to sit and watch the goings on around me as we pass through the narrow roads; women in brightly coloured saris, picking their way through the potholes and puddles, the delicately painted rickshaws, splattered with mud, lining the sides of the road, the abundant fruit and vegetable markets, randomly roaming pigs, goats, ducks and chickens, and a man in traditional dress of a sarong, wearing no shoes, but talking on a mobile phone. Technology has reached the masses here it seems, despite the obvious poverty! At one point we also pass another new phenomenon…..what appear to be boiling, muddy puddles, apparently caused by the natural gases escaping from beneath the earths surface in one or two places.
By lunchtime we have seen a knitwear factory, a wash house, a dyeing and finishing plant, a print works and three sewing units, stopping only briefly in one location to feed small round loaves of bread to the swarming fish in the pond outside the factory building. This seems to be something of a ritual, as some of our other colleagues go through the same process later in the day, and the factory staff all seem to find it highly amusing to watch us “frisbee” the bread out into the middle of the water. Having drawn a small crowd who stop to watch, I cannot for the life of me understand why they think this is so interesting or funny…….perhaps its just one of those things they like to share in the interests of developing a closer working relationship, or maybe they just like to laugh at the crazy blonde white women; I guess I’ll never know!
After a brief lunch we are back out to see another factory, who happen to be making mens t-shirts for a British fashion retailer, which seems to have a keen interest in displaying semi naked, tattooed women in their printed graphics. Now normally this would not interest or bother me, but it seems at odds with the very traditional dress of the women working in the factory. Here, they all keep their shoulders, their legs and often their heads covered, and it prompts me to ask our host, the factory owner, how the women feel about having to work with garments that, to them, must seem pornographic. It is clearly a question he has never been asked, or considered before, and he ponders for a while, before replying that none of the women has ever expressed any distress or problem with it, although one or two of the male workers have voiced complaints. I have to wonder whether it is their natural shyness, or reservedness, or simply a subservience driven out by the culture that they live in which is responsible for these beautiful, serene women remaining tight lipped, for surely they must find it offensive?
Having moved on to the office, putting development samples into work and negotiating prices, we then clamber back into the car for what turns into a 3 hr journey, to visit Children’s Hope….a charity we help sustain, which funds education, healthcare and financial support for children from the slums and their families. By the time we arrive, delayed by the appalling traffic, I am already feeling very guilty about keeping everyone waiting. We hurry through the bustling backstreets of Dhaka, in the deepening dusk, eventually coming to a school where the students and their parents have gathered to meet us. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and was somewhat unprepared for the formality of the situation…..we were ushered into a classroom, and seated at the front, opposite a room full of expectant faces. Our hosts gave a brief overview, and then moved on to introduce us, speaking in Bengali, before asking me to say a few words!!! Now that, I was not prepared for, and it took me a few minutes to get into my stride, but this is a cause I am absolutely passionate about supporting, and I only hope that my genuine desire to help was apparent in my words, which are translated into Bengali as I speak! One by one, each of the students, from early high school right through to university, then got up to speak, in English, telling us a little about their lives, what brought them to Children’s Hope, and what they hope to do post education. There are many who want to be bankers, accountants and chartered surveyors. I am almost moved to tears by one young woman’s story, as she explains about the death of her mother, and how this would have also ended her education if Children’s Hope had not stepped in. It strikes me that there are many more girls in the room, than there are boys, and I am moved to ask why? Essentially, many families can only afford to pay for one child’s education, and will generally prioritise their sons, who will traditionally one day have families of their own to support. The girls are often expected to leave education by the time they are 10 or 11, in order to help in the home, and many consequently remain illiterate.
It is heart warming to see the enthusiasm and dedication with which these young women are breaking down the barriers of tradition, becoming both confident and eloquent, with every intention of building a career and a better life for themselves and their families. Finally, one of the parents rises to speak, a tall, but undernourished looking man, who clearly has a cataract problem in one eye, talking in Bengali, to explain how grateful he is to Children’s Hope for helping his family. It is humbling to see how much they appreciate our support, particularly as I do not feel that I have done a great deal, personally. As the presentation draws to a close, having posed for a few photographs with the students, we leave, in pitch black darkness, making our way back through the narrow streets to the car, by the light of a small torch. As we walk, I chat to Rachida, one of the younger students, who tells me how she is studying hard because she wants to be a doctor, so that she too, can help other people in her community. The whole experience has been both overwhelming and inspiring, leaving me with a determination to see what more we can do to help, once we are back in the office. We make our way back to the hotel, both physically and emotionally drained….and this is only day 1!
Tuesday dawns and we are up and out early again; today I am visiting a large denim factory with the boyswear team. I am fascinated by denim production, it always amazes me how one very simple garment can be transformed into so many different variations through washing techniques (it is possible to wash with enzymes, softeners, rubber balls….to achieve different levels of fade/appearance) and applications of chemicals and processes (dry brushing, chemical sprays, baking, rip and repair) to create the current fashion “look” of the moment. The factory is vast, well organised, and at this point in time, churning out thousands and thousands of jeans for a Spanish retailer.
This is also another opportunity to see the whole process from beginning to end, starting with the cutting process, which also always amazes me; much of the fabric cutting is done on automated machinery, but some requires cutting by hand. The speed and the accuracy with which the guys operating the band knives are working is spellbinding…..this is a really skilled role!
Leaving my colleagues behind, I get back into the car and head across town to meet our menswear buyer at a new factory, heading past what we have come to know as “hairy pig corner”…..essentially the local rubbish tip at the side of the road where the pigs congregate to forage for anything edible! By this point I am ravenously hungry, but lunch is to be delayed by another event we cannot plan for. Just as I am arriving, everything starts to shake and sway, and everyone starts pouring out of the building into the vast forecourt , the fear and concern etched on their faces…..what we are feeling is the second of the recent earthquakes in Nepal, to the north of Bangladesh. It is a few hundred miles away, and not strong enough here to cause any serious damage, but nonetheless pretty scary, and not something that I had ever expected to encounter! Ground stability resumed, everyone returns to work as if nothing has happened. We have a brief lunch with the factory management along with one of our colleagues from the office here – it is often the case that the people we are dealing with are clearly uncertain what to feed us, so we end up with a peculiar mash up of dishes including pizza, pasta and local Bangladeshi, always lukewarm by the time it has reached us. I appreciate their efforts in trying to make sure that we are well fed, but I am never quite sure what the after effects of these lunches, or anything else I consume on these trips, are going to be, so I pick my way through the safest looking options and hope for the best!
We head off on a tour of the factory here, and then follow up with a brief, exploratory meeting to discuss potential to work with them. The product is beautiful, with the children’s wear here particularly impressive, great fabrics, interesting styles and fantastic attention to detail…..the only issue is likely to be our relatively small quantities. It is often, if not always the case, that the smaller the garments get, the more the supplier has to make to get to the minimum fabric order, and deliver the production efficiency to make it worth their while.
Loaded up with new information we return to the stifling heat of an afternoon car journey back into the city, to meet with another menswear supplier, whereupon I am reminded of how difficult and time consuming it can be to achieve what is required here. English is not their first language, there is often minimal understanding or experience of the UK market and everything seems to end up more complicated than it ought to be……the process cannot be rushed if you actually want to get back samples, prices and delivery dates that you can work with and that the supplier is fully committed to. Everything has to be repeated several times, backwards and forwards across the table, nailing down every single detail, using samples or drawing diagrams to try and get the message across……it is frustrating and exhausting, and until all the samples come through when we are back in the UK, it is difficult to tell whether the requirements have actually sunk in. Everyone is very willing and desperately wants to get it right, but there is so much opportunity for misinterpretation of language, a gulf of cultural differences, and the fact that these instructions then have to be passed on again to the factory itself, from the management, to the pattern cutters and so on……it is like Chinese whispers, and there are multiple opportunities for things to go wrong unless you dot every “i” and cross every “t”!
Yet again the traffic is diabolical, and by the time we are back at the hotel we have to abort the planned dinner with our colleagues at a local French restaurant, and try to get a table in the very full hotel. This proves to be something of a problem, and while the hotel staff try to find us a table, they insist that we join the hotel managers weekly cocktail reception, generally the sort of event to be avoided! There follows an extremely uncomfortable conversation over a drink with the very sweet, and very earnest, German hotel manager, whilst my colleagues seem to be doing their best to edge away and leave me to it, and I try to keep everyone involved…..I am not carrying this one on my own guys……awkward doesn’t even come close! It is a relief to make it downstairs to the Indian restaurant in the basement, where our “chilli allergic” buyer has an immediate reaction to something in her food, which we were promised was chilli free – yet again, an example of how easily things get misinterpreted here. Every meeting or meal is either a challenge or a minefield but it certainly keeps life interesting, one of the many reasons why I love these trips so much, no two days are ever the same, and there is an unexpected surprise around every corner!
One further day of meetings in Bangladesh, and then I am on a morning flight to Delhi, again meeting one or two familiar faces along the way. There is the usual immigration chaos on arrival…..they seem to open and close queues at will here, just to amuse themselves; delight etched on their faces when they see all the arrivals reacting with fury as they leave and wander off down the hall! Once out into the arrivals hall, I am quickly met by a representative from the hotel who ushers me to the waiting car, and a driver wearing a white uniform, cap and white gloves (very “officer and a gentleman”, were I not in Delhi!!!), who offers me a cold towel and a bottle of water, before setting off for the hotel, and a slice of calm sophistication, in the infernal heat and chaos. Our babywear and girlswear teams are already here, having had morning meetings with a supplier, and we sit down to catch up on progress so far over lunch, before heading off to the fabric market. It is hot, hot, hot here and we are all fading in the overwhelming, stifling heat, as we make our way from store to store, pulling out roll after roll of fabric, to take swatches or sample lengths, with which to make up samples, which will form part of our SS16 range. There follows another interminable 2hr car journey back to the hotel through the Delhi rush hour traffic, leaving us 5 minutes to freshen up before dinner with a key knitwear supplier. Now this dinner is a new experience! We head to a restaurant called “Wine and Company” (right up our street then!) in the newly built Cyber City, for a lovely meal, in great company, whilst we re-acquaint ourselves with what the business has been up to and swap stories and updates with our colleagues there. This is a company that I have been dealing with for a very long time; I have the utmost respect for them and their business, and I really enjoy working with such a knowledgeable and creative team…..over time they have become true friends as well as colleagues.
The following morning and I am really feeling the burn, I am exhausted and suffering from dehydration……must remember to drink more water (gallons are required in this heat!), which I do, coupled with coke and coffee for a sugar and caffeine hit, until later in the morning I begin to feel completely waterlogged, and a little bit light headed! We head off to meet with our knitwear colleagues, passing “cow corner” en route……cows are regarded as sacred here, and seem to wander freely amongst the cars, snoozing in the middle lane of a highway, sleeping on the central reservation, or stopping for no apparent reason in the middle of a major traffic light junction (not that anyone seems to take any notice of lane restrictions, or traffic lights, anyway!)…. everyone just takes a small diversion around them!
Having arrived at the suppliers’ new offices, and with our multi tasking hats on, we work through the knitwear we require for our babywear department: our designer gets her head down and starts sketching, whilst the buyer and I discuss production plans, prices, colours, delivery dates and so on, looking at some boys and girls styles as well, and then photographing a number of styles which might have potential for our women’s wear division, which we will follow up with the team in the UK. They have, as usual, laid on a delicious Indian lunch and we continue our discussion over our meal with the whole team here. We continue on into the afternoon, returning to the hotel just in time for the heavens to open in a torrential thunderstorm, whilst we sit in the bar catching up on emails and correspondence from the office back home. The rain has the very welcome effect of causing the temperature to drop by a few degrees, but puts paid to our al fresco dining plans, so we join the wacky races again, our two cars playing tag and trying to find an alternative venue, whereupon, yet again, I find myself in a car that seems to be heading the wrong way into three or four lines of oncoming traffic! Why do they do that here???? They seem to think nothing of crossing a three lane motorway, drifting out into the moving traffic, hoping that someone will give way! Dinner with one of our Delhi suppliers, in a very nice Italian restaurant, follows, before we all collapse into bed.
Saturday morning dawns and we head off out with a supplier to another local fabric shop, one we haven’t been to before, and it soon becomes apparent why! It is like entering an Aladdin’s cave of fabric, down in a basement, and we soon find ourselves clambering over small mountains of bagged fabric to get to the rolls we want. It is unbearably hot, claustrophobic and filthy, but we come away happy with a wide selection of additional fabric samples to utilise later in the day! Straight from here we head to the suppliers office and factory, in one of the manufacturing districts in Delhi, thankfully not too far away. At this point we all get stuck in to working our way through all of the fabric swatches and samples to come up with new design ideas….the three of us getting a little production line going to produce sketches with all the relevant trims, fabrics and instructions attached. We work on through the day and into the evening, only just making it back in time for our 8pm dinner with the rest of our colleagues, before the girlswear buyer and head of design head to the airport for an overnight flight home.
A week after leaving home we are firmly established on the buying trip treadmill…..eat, sleep, work, repeat, eat, sleep, work, repeat……interspersed with many hours spent sitting in traffic, and by Sunday morning it is becoming apparent that the relentless pace is beginning to take its toll. The temperature has reached 42 degrees, and one by one, those of us who are left, succumb to the inevitable consequences of eating curry a couple of times a day for a week. There is no time to worry about this, however, as Sunday afternoon finds the menswear buyer departing for Chennai, and myself and the babywear team heading back to the airport for the 2.5hr flight to Bangalore; all three of us are unable to stay awake on the flight, exhausted by the heat and constant stomach cramps….. It is a relief to arrive at our hotel for the next couple of nights, and I see no alternative but to take a sleeping tablet, curl up in the biggest bed, with the most amazing pillows, and hope for the best when I wake up!
By the next morning I am feeling much better, certainly well enough to cope with breakfast in the beautifully tropical garden; the climate is much cooler here and very pleasant. Everything is very lush and green, and I am yet again fascinated by the goings on around me as we are picked up by our driver, Balu, for the journey to the office. We pass a tented “breakfast stop”, where the locals seem to be stopping en route to work for something to eat. It also strikes me that even the animals, mainly the cows, seem to be much healthier looking than those in the arid, drier heat of Delhi. We work our way through the day, though the supplier we are working with has a “fever”……not entirely sure what that means, but he looks as if he is about to keel over, and one of our team is still as white as a sheet and clearly suffering too!
On our second day in Bangalore, and I am all packed up, ready to leave. Our familiar driver, Shankar, who we have met a number of times before, loads my luggage and ushers us into the car, which is filled with the beautiful, clean fragrance of the fresh jasmine hanging from the rear view mirror. It is not long before Shankar, clearly excited to tell us his news, shows us a picture on his phone of his bride, having got married just 3 months before. He is clearly very happy and proud, but also goes on to tell us that, whilst he is working in Bangalore, she is 450 kilometres away, so he is not actually able to see her often……. Taking a short cut through the incredible early morning fruit and vegetable market, there are cows everywhere, and it soon becomes apparent why they look so healthy here, they are eating all the waste vegetables, mountains of them! It is Mango season in India, and they are everywhere, but there are also coconuts, limes, tomatoes, huge bundles of asparagus, watermelons and many other things I do not recognise. We also pass beautiful women, wearing elaborate saris, riding motorbikes, none of them wearing helmets! Now, I am used to seeing a whole family balanced precariously on a motorbike here, usually with only the driver wearing a helmet, but even I have to laugh when I see one couple trying to get from A to B with an enormous dog fidgeting between them! Moving on from the market, we stop at traffic lights to find ourselves surrounded by what, on first appearance, seem to be very glamorous traditionally dressed women, weaving in and out of the cars and tapping on the windows, begging. On closer inspection, however, it soon becomes obvious that these are men, in full drag and make up; never before have I seen this in India, and Shankar explains that it is because they cannot get work, or only very low paid work, and it is more lucrative to beg in this way!
The day flies by in a flurry of meetings, and a factory tour, at an exceptionally well run babywear factory; I always marvel at the spotlessness and efficiency of this place, and I always manage to learn something new whilst here. Yet, again, I am truly inspired! But it is a long way to the airport, and by 4pm I am leaving my babywear colleagues and getting back in the car, beginning the long journey home…..a 2.5hr car journey, 4hr flight to Dubai, where I have a 3hr layover, before boarding a 3am, 7 hour flight to London.
Home sweet home……..beans on toast and a proper cup of tea!