The spring 2012 issue of Hue profiled three alums who update traditional crafts into designs that feel very now. Just as the issue was going to press, Hue found another.
Richa Agarwal, Fashion Design ’97, Production Management ’99, is a project manager for Aarong, the top fashion brand in Bangladesh. (See note at the end of this piece.) In 1978, the top brass at BRAC, a now-billion-dollar umbrella organization that fights poverty through empowerment, saw that Bangladeshi women needed a market for the silk garments they were sewing. They decided to sell the silk themselves and cut out the middleman. Thus Aarong was born.
Aarong is now perhaps the most recognized fashion brand in Bangladesh. It employs 65,000 craftspeople, mostly women, from 2,000 villages to create the clothes. And 80 to 100 designers work closely with the artisans to teach them how to make each new fashion. All but 5 percent of the clothing is sold domestically.
“65,000 is a decent number,” Agarwal says, “but there’s millions more who still need employment.”Aarong does more than sell clothes. A lot of the rural women artisans were buying cows with microfinance loans from BRAC, so now–to support these women–Aarong operates the second-largest dairy in Bangladesh, and BRAC runs three feed mills, a livestock vaccination program, and an artificial insemination business (for cows, not people).
The nonprofit’s success has spawned copycat brands that also draw on hand work. But counterintuitively, Agarwal is thrilled. “This is really good for the industry. The more of these brands that emerge, the more work artisans have.”
*Note: Agarwal recently left Aarong to become director of product development at Eileen Fisher.