The fashion industry is one of the most exciting prospects of Bangladesh. Given our upgraded status to a lower middle-income country has seen us moving up in the world, people now have a taste for the finer things in life. We are now more concerned about how we carry ourselves and what brand we wear than ever before. This paves the way for the fashion industry to become a very lucrative industry for Bangladesh. It is, however, much easier said than done. From the outside, the fashion industry looks incredibly lavish, vibrant and full of energy but only a few know about the internal struggles. ICE Business Times spoke with Tanjim Haque, Managing Director at one of the pioneering brands in the industry, Ecstasy, to give everyone a more insightful picture of the challenges of the sector faced by fashion entrepreneurs as they strive for local as well as global recognition.
People often mix up the fashion industry with the RMG sector, and although they are loosely related, it has to be understood there are stark differences between the two industries. The RMG sector usually produces clothing items for export purposes. When these items are labeled as a part of designer brands, they enter the realms of the fashion industry. Now Bangladesh is known for its RMG sector, in fact, we are responsible for producing and developing the products of some of the biggest names in the fashion industry worldwide. According to Tanjim, “We are known for our cheap labor and CM (cutting and making) charges. Leading brands in the country have been working hard to change the image Bangladesh has from a country that provides cheap labor to a country with an emerging fashion industry. But it is sad to see that our fashion industry is still in its infancy stage”. Given our cost advantage in terms of cheap labor, why are we still lagging behind? We have people like Tanjim Haque who have dedicated their lives to trying to uplift the fashion industry then why is it that our brands have not yet received global acclaim?
The reasons can be divided into several categories but to put things into simple terms, the lack of support is the biggest challenge the fashion industry faces. Starting from capital accumulation to government assistance to even family support; fashion entrepreneurs go through many struggles in their quest for success. The fashion industry with all its promise is not given enough priority. Accumulating capital is a major challenge as banks do not have enough faith in entrepreneurs in general. Furthermore, in a country where children are expected to become bankers, doctors, and engineers (harsh reality), parents more often than not are hesitant when it comes to their children deviating from safer occupational choices. “I studied medicine; however, I was more passionate about fashion. I got no support from my family so whatever capital I had was from my own savings”, Tanjim recalls. Also, the fashion industry gets no priority from the government as they are not given access to many billboards or prominent locations to set up shop. The industry, until very recently, was not even allowed to take money abroad legally, so they had to rely on third parties to showcase their products on foreign soil. It is also plagued by increasing taxes, VAT and overhead costs which cause entrepreneurs to lose interest. Tanjim added, “Companies in the poultry sector are subjected to very little or no tax at all because the government wants that industry to grow. So why are we not provided with that same privilege? Instead, we are subjected to increasing tax rates. The fashion industry has the potential to become the next RMG sector of Bangladesh. It has the potential to be so big that it can single-handedly increase earnings overnight and carry Bangladesh to the next level.” Despite being such a lucrative industry, its entrepreneurs have to cope with various bizarre issues. One such issue is that of abnormal increases in rent for stores. Landlords demand irrational amounts of rent, and if entrepreneurs refuse to comply, they cut off their power supply or force them to evict. How long can one have the will to go on if no one around them is willing to show support?
On the other side of the story, consumers are playing a vital role. They act as the backbone of the industry as a huge portion of what is to be produced by the brands depends on their tastes and opinions. Predicting how these tastes and perceptions might change turns into one of the biggest challenges for the industry. A huge portion of the consumers is sometimes a couple of seasons behind in the fashion scene. The pioneers of the industry are usually on par with their foreign counterparts which means they will try to develop products which are in style and relatable, but because the consumers are not up to date with the latest trends, new products often receive questionable reactions. Tanjim recalled a particular incident. “When we introduced colorful chinos to Bangladesh, consumers did not receive it too well. They were hesitant to embrace it since they had not seen anything like this before. They did not know how to react to a product which was trending in some of the most fashionable cities in the world.” At times, consumers are skeptical about new trends being introduced by local brands until they see Bollywood or Hollywood celebrities embracing them. Another issue is the fact that consumers mostly look at the price and not the quality. Tanijm regretfully states, “If we make a cotton shirt and someone else makes the same using polyester, people will opt for the polyester shirt as it would be cheaper.” These factors end up discouraging a lot of fashion entrepreneurs who are persistently working to improve the country’s image. With the right support, the fashion industry can be used for positive nation branding which could potentially change Bangladesh’s image. The brands here sell identical products to their foreign international counterparts. Their products are cheaper only because they exchange fewer hands than the products of a foreign country and yet consumers choose to buy international brands over local ones. It is sad really because products of Ecstasy, a brand established in Bangladesh are highly appreciated abroad. Furthermore, most countries showcase their products through mass media, for instance European movies heavily feature cars made by Mercedes and Audi whereas American films show Chevrolet and Ford. This subconsciously convinces consumers to buy cars made by the companies as mentioned earlier as the media has a lot of influence in out tastes. People fail to appreciate the countless hour’s people like Tanjim Haque spend to develop their products. In addition to that, there is also very little scope for segmentation as most brands focus on making products that are profitable and can be catered to everyone in general. “In America, some people have various lifestyles, and some brands make products specifically for them. For instance, if someone is into sailing, there is Nautica who specialize in making apparel for just them. We do not have the scope of doing that in Bangladesh because people have a consensus about the way they dress and do not know much beyond that. If we introduce tuxedos, most people wouldn’t know on what occasion to wear them, although I must admit, there has been progress in recent times.” But the fact remains that despite being so densely populated, segmentation will not be a practical option as it won’t be able to attract enough people. Designers in this country are not allowed to think freely and outside the box, as they are forced to prioritize profitability over passion.
So in short, the fashion industry is not all rainbows and butterflies, it is comprised of blood, sweat, and tears. The silver lining to all the struggle is that as long as there are people like Tanjim Haque, we can we can be assured that there are people still working for the advancement and betterment of the local industry. The next time you go shopping, think how much you will benefit our fashion industry if you choose to purchase from a local brand instead of an international one. A little contribution will go a long way.