“My understanding of the social fabric came from the weekly visits I have been making with my mother to low-income neighbourhoods in Delhi, since I was 12. That’s when she started her NGO Adharshila that serves the needs of the underserved population,” says Gayatri Jolly, the founder of the first and only all-women design, manufacturing and skill development ecosystem for the global apparel industry — MasterG and Daughters.
It was at an early age that Gayatri was exposed to the social and ideological construct of gender and class, and it is this very notion that she wanted to shatter. With an undying passion to provide women with a “safe space”, and instill in them a sense of security and self-belief, she began weaving her dream, piece by piece.
The first milestone of her journey goes back to 2013, when Gayatri left for the US to study fashion design at the Parsons School of Design, New York. Previously, she had pursued a degree in Business from Babson College, Massachusetts, but it was only during this stint that she learnt to question certain beliefs, and the conditioning that has been ingrained in our society for generations.
With every stitch and pattern, her confidence rose, making her more self-assured of what she was cut out for.
“This was the first time I was able to imagine and act on my choices,” adds Gayatri.
The motivation behind MasterG
Although she worked with some top-of-the-line global fashion houses in New York after completing her design course, Gayatri longed to return to India to introduce a more equitable gender dynamic in the fashion industry.
Armed with renewed vigour to manufacture her own label in an all-women factory, she returned, only to realise that it was impossible to find a woman pattern maker. That was, indeed, an eye-opener.
“When I raised an inquiry to find where the women were, I found them cramped on silai machines at the margins of the same fabric — cutting loose ends to make theirs meet. It hit me then — my audacity to question ‘why not women’ — ushered a discerning power to reject illogical societal frameworks that were systemically holding me back,” she says.
The apparel industry is buoyed by women’s wear, which is why it almost seems ironic that those who are trusted and respected with design and pattern making are masterjis, male figures who command authority. An intrinsic part of the traditional khandaani darzi system, they are the ones who carry forward the legacy of these skills, while women remain excluded from the power of decision-making and livelihood.
“Often, the members of the industry underestimate women’s skill, ethics and labour. They are often considered liabilities - given how many women are coerced into leaving their jobs or made to compromise their work to balance their household chores. Many belong to families, where they do not get the chance to apply for a job, as the companies and factories lie in the outskirts of their village. These problems resurface in our everyday context, but have deeper roots in cultural and social networks, which have run unquestioned for generations,” explains Gayatri.
It was this very drive to break out of patterns of systemic inequalities that fortified the vision of MasterG.
Breaking patterns, one step at a time
It is almost fitting that the women participants are trained in the ‘Breaking Patterns’ pedagogy that literally and metaphorically provides them with an outlet to unleash their creativity, without being shackled by the chains of patriarchy.MasterG’s year-long intensive course is helmed by traditionally trained masterjis, who have at least a decade of experience in the field. It all starts by training the trainer, who is polished in-class delivery and conduction by their Master Trainers, before they share their trade with the women. These lessons are conducted at MasterG’s Training Centres in Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat.
“Our ecosystems and centres are run in collaboration with our partners — Fena Foundation, Sleepwell Foundation, Nayara Energy and ASF Infrastructures, and implementation partners — Adharshila and BAIF, whose contributions enable us to reach the students at affordable fees,” explains Gayatri.
As these women learn various skills — research, flat sketching, pattern making, fabric cutting, stitching, and costing — they bring down the many walls that have proved to be impediments to their growth. In the process, they feel more confident of themselves to take on the world.
At their ecosystem in Delhi, they have manufactured collections for sustainable and ethical brands like Gundi, Bodice, Doodlage, Fool Dost, Naushad Ali, Helena Bajaj Larson and many others.
Giving wings to women’s dreams
Once the training is complete, the women have to pass and certify MasterG’s proprietary scoring mechanism — GScore — to be recruited in their All-Women Sustainable Ecosystems.
The women are also employed by Gayatri’s in-house label, HEIMAT (meaning ‘homecoming’ in German) that offers a line of contemporary and high-quality clothing in comfortable fabrics made for the multifaceted men and women.
Apart from working on their in-house label, HEIMAT, the women also do contract manufacturing with some of MasterG’s Fashion Allies through a decentralised cloud manufacturing system.
“Through our signature processes, they equip themselves with critical thinking, computer and language skills, which can be deployed in other industries as well,” says Gayatri.
So far, 1700 women have entrusted their lives in MasterG’s course, and have access to their path to social, emotional and economic resilience.
Gayatri believes that the art of pattern making is not just another pillar of the apparel industry, it is a medium of expression for women to claim a space of belonging, something that they have been deprived of for generations.
“I believe in self enablement over ‘empowerment’, which resonates in the image of women walking around confidently across the factory floor: cutting, designing and sewing, playing multi various roles in our ecosystem, that were once reserved for men in all other garment factories in India,” she says.
The idea is to take the ‘Breaking Patterns’ emancipatory pedagogy to different quarters, and transform small skilling centres into sustainable and self-sufficient ecosystems, run by an all-women workforce. With funding in the pipeline, the future looks bright.“By 2030, we want to reach 1,00,000 students and trainers, which will facilitate community discussions on policy change, and help in using our ideology as a tool to rethink other social issues,” says Gayatri, signing off.