New Internationalist

Crazy For Blue

Issue 302

CHARMS cigarettes

Crazy for blue
Outside the US, the world’s largest maker of denim is in India.
Krishnamohan S Rao reports on a surprising development of do-it-yourself jean kits.

Ten years ago I decided to smoke Charms cigarettes – not for their superior flavour, but because the carton matched my first pair of jeans. Those of us in India who had seen them only on TV and Western movies had gone absolutely crazy for them. Barely into my teens and eager to charm the girls, I walked the streets of Bangalore in dirty jeans. A victim of MTV, I was under the illusion that women like men in soiled jeans, with cigarette butts sticking out of their mouths.

Meanwhile, one Indian textile company had spotted the trend. Established in 1931 in Ahmedabad, western India, Arvind Mills used to produce traditional cotton fabrics and garments for domestic consumption. But when, in the 1980s, low-cost powerlooms began flooding the market with cheap cotton fabrics, the company had to change in order to survive. Arvind reckoned denim was a fabric that would never go out of style. So it dismantled all its disorganized mills – which made nearly 250 different products, from saris to handkerchiefs – and concentrated on denim.

This was not a piece of cake – not for an unknown company in a Third World country. There was no local demand for denim. The only market was in the West, where a long-established bias against textiles from India still operates. Rich-world countries continue to use the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) to keep textiles from the Third World out of Western markets. At first Arvind tried to overcome this by hiding its Indian identity. Then it established subsidiaries in Mauritius and Germany. Eventually its high-quality denim, made from low-cost local cotton, began selling well in more and more countries.

On the back of denim, Arvind is now one of a new breed of ‘Third World Transnational Corporations’; the third-largest manufacturer of denim in the world and the largest outside the US. It exports over 150 varieties to 66 countries and is used by many big brand names including Lee, Wrangler, Lee Cooper, Gap, Marks & Spencer, JC Penny and C&A.

The group employs around 20,000 people on relatively good wages and behaves like a decent employer with a sense of social responsibility. It has set up a training centre to improve the skills of its workers, and a rural-development fund to assist the residents of nearby villages. In 1995 it was, it claims, the first denim company in the world to receive ‘Eco-tex’ certification from the European Community for its eco-friendly textiles.

The rise of the Indian middle class after economic liberalization in the early 1990s gave Arvind a chance to market its denim locally. Satellite TV boomed in India during the Gulf War and increased demand for products associated with the West –
especially jeans. Arvind cashed in and introduced its own brand. For the ‘economy’ sector it made Newport, priced at about $10 and sold throughout the country under the slogan ‘Good Jeans for Less’. It went on to become one of the most popular Indian brands. Following this success, Arvind launched denim shirts, T-shirts and even briefs. It ventured into non- traditional areas like Indian outfits, corporate-gift articles, stationery, upholstery and brief-cases. Other Indian companies, like KG Mills and Modern Mills, soon followed suit.

For the rural market – where people still find that tailored garments last longer than ready-made – Arvind introduced Ruf & Tuf, a ready-to-stitch jeans kit. The kit consists of pant-length denim, a pouch of rivets, a leather label and an instruction booklet in the regional language of the tailor.

I suppose all this makes me pleased – for a moment. But the implications are worrying. I see jeans everywhere. Will they destroy the traditional cotton garments of India, just as they destroyed the ponchos and pyjamas of Mexico? I remember a friend complaining about the heat while wearing embroidered denim. But, thanks to those convincing advertisements, people will doubtless keep wearing the things – a superficial symbol of an essentially American dream.

Krishnamohan S Rao is a freelance journalist currently based in Scotland.

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