From Milan Fashion Week to Dhaka

The Bangladeshi capital is earning a growing reputation as a quality producer of high-end fashion.

Recently named the worst city to live in by The Economist, Dhaka may seem an unlikely destination for fashion.

But the city is now quickly becoming a global capital for high-street fashion.

There are no shops here, just factories. Bangladesh is the largest producer of T-shirts in the world and they don’t plan on stopping there.

You might not have heard of Rubana Huq or Pratap Bharat Singh but chances are you have worn clothes they have designed and made. They bring high fashion to the masses making clothes for countless global brands such as Zara, H&M, Bershka or GAP from the garment factories of Dhaka. 

In a marathon of fashion weeks spanning the whole of September, designers unveiled their summer 2013 collection in New York, London, Paris and Milan. Rubana and Pratap are among a growing number of Bangladesh-based garment producers that regularly attend the catwalk shows. They sit in the back row, furiously taking notes of the latest trends.

“We are not copying haute couture. We are making clothes that are more practical to wear with simpler and more affordable fabrics. To do that you need to think creatively.” says 40-year-old Singh as he shows me the Navajo prints he is working on.

His design lab is steps away from a gigantic factory where 30,000 people work day and night earning around $60 a month sewing clothes for global brands. Amid a sea of workers, all in their traditional salwar kameez, Singh stands out, dressed in a trendy striped shirt with loose khakis and camel-coloured plimsoles.

As we walk through the factory floor Singh explains how the brands like to discuss trends. “It’s a collaborative process and it’s good for business.”

Last year, Beximco textiles made $91m in profit manufacturing and designing clothes. Singh, an Indian national who taught at a fashion institute in Delhi before settling in Bangladesh nine years ago, says he is in this for the long run. “Some expats complain there is not much to do in Dhaka on the weekends, but I don’t feel that way”.

Singh spends his weekends experimenting with colours and patterns on the walls of his home and is currently working on paintings of owls and parrots. It’s his inspiration floor, he says. Animal prints are expected to be in fashion next summer.

It is especially the brands struggling through the global economic crisis that come to Bangladesh to make their clothes. “The cost of labour and manufacturing is cheap,” explains Rubana Huq over the phone.

She just sold her entire collection to the Spanish department store El Corte Ingles. The Madrid-based retailer is struggling through Spain’s debt crisis. Sales have plummeted, and Corte Ingles hopes that sourcing from Huq will help them revive the large profits the company once made.

I meet Huq in her office on the 10th floor of a building overlooking a city under construction. In the distance factories compete for space with shiny new apartment blocks and slums built with tin sheeting.

Dhaka is growing rapidly every three minutes a family moves to the capital making it the fastest growing city in the world. Many of the new arrivals find work in garments factories.

From the comfort of Huq’s office the cityscape looks beautiful.

She greets me with a firm handshake and a gentle smile, wearing a handloom green, red and white cotton sari. I’m charmed. She explains how she was handed over the keys to her husband’s garment factory 16 years ago.

A mother of three children and an aspiring poet, she had no intention to go into business. But she took on the challenge with ease. Huq is one of the few women garment factory owners. There has been almost no labour unrest in her factories recently. Workers in other Bangladeshi factories frequently go on strike over pay and working conditions and these demonstrations sometime turn violent.

“Brands are demanding, they want us to be compliant, transparent, deliver on time, pay higher wages for the workers, design their clothes. They want it all, for the cheapest price possible,” Huq says. Designing clothes is a value added, she explains. “It builds trust with the brands, we don’t get paid extra for it.”

Bangladesh garment producers brought in more than $19bn in revenue last year and these numbers are expected to double in the next 10 years, turning Dhaka into a major hub for producing and designing affordable fashion.