Tuesday 14 February 2012

Bangladesh; a blogging workshop

At the beginning of the month I was thrilled to be recruited by the British Council to undertake some freelance work in Bangladesh. A country I had only ever dreamed of visiting, this was the perfect opportunity to travel to an exotic land and learn about a new culture whilst shedding some light on the West’s love of blogging and the rise of online fashion journalism.
Held in conjunction with the British Council’s touring exhibition, Reconstruction: Cultural Heritage and the Making of Contemporary Fashion I was flown in to host a two-day workshop for local journalists with an aim to open further dialogue between British and Bangladeshi fashion professionals and consumers, communicating word of the indigenous great fashion and heritage in crafts and fabric production to the wider world.
One of the main topics I set out to discuss in the workshop is the lack of information widely available about Bangladeshi fashion. As a Brit looking to swat up on the aforementioned topic, when it came to putting together a presentation I thought the Internet would be a great ally, but it proved fruitless as I found no dedicated fashion content online or in print, native to Bangladesh. This is something that we discussed widely in the workshop, debating whether there is enough national interest in fashion to warrant dedicated consumer magazines, particularly when it comes to menswear.
Currently fashion is documented in a couple of choice lifestyle print magazines, with the most successful and fashion heavy being Canvas, founded by an attendee of the workshop Saifur Rahman, who is Executive Editor of the monthly magazine. Primarily speaking, fashion is covered in national newspapers when high profile events takes place, and is otherwise allocated a few pages in national and regional news supplements.
Whilst articles on events and pieces with a clear journalistic approach are often published in online editions, the scope of Bangladesh’s burgeoning fashion industry and rich heritage in fabric production at present remains a topic of immense national pride, and rightly so, however it is perhaps Bangladesh’s best kept secret.
The first workshop of its kind in Bangladesh, I was privileged to be chosen for the job and was eager to discuss ways in which the aspiring fashion journalists could network and promote their work to a global audience. Everyone was familiar with Twitter and Facebook and these basic social networking tools are widely used on a personal level, but rarely employed for business purposes.
On the morning of the first day I talked mostly about the advantages of blogging, the networking infrastructure open to bloggers and the general opportunity to create a platform independent from regulated media where journalists, commentators and fashion lovers alike can discuss and debate anything and everything, but most importantly blogs can act as a springboard to encourage change and to reform the industry from within.
Covering the basics such as how to review an exhibition, analyse a street-style outfit and write about a fashion show, I hoped to make the structure of the workshop less rigid than those I have attended, giving the attendees ample opportunities to float questions and encourage debate, compare industries in the UK and Bangladesh and generally get more hands on through a series of interactive exercises – producing photographs and taking a fieldtrip to the National Museum in a procession of rickshaws, to name but a few.

Something I personally enjoyed was critiquing the published work of the attendees in a group: the class were split in two and each sub-group nominated a piece of work to be presented to the group, one in Bangla written by Saifur and another written in English from my group. It was great to hear such positive feedback and constructive criticism from all corners of the room.

Perhaps my favourite point of the workshop came on the afternoon of the second day when we were joined by a very special guest; fashion designer, lecturer and contributor to Canvas, Farzana Yusuf. Educated in Bangladesh, India and the UK, Farzana was the perfect guest to speak about her view of the fashion industries in the East and West, perfectly positioned to discuss the mechanics of the industry as a designer looking for sponsorship and press coverage and as a journalist working from the other side to promote home-grown brands and design talent.

Intended as a demonstration of how to conduct an interview, before Farzana arrived each member of the workshop wrote down a few questions which I then posed in an organic and conversational manner. What I enjoyed most about this (other than having a revered designer in our midst) was the debate that ensued in response to some of the questions. For example, everyone had an opinion on whether the Jamdani (a traditional fabric of the Bangladesh loom) should be modernised or altered. Unbeknown to me at the time, this is a really contentious and current issue seeing designers divided on whether to preserve or reinterpret something so close to the country’s national identity.

I also felt it was interesting for the attendees to hear myself and Farzana talk about how smooth the fashion machine runs in the UK, where PRs help to establish designers, find them stockists, increase their profiles in the media and even introduce them to celebrities who will promote and wear their fashions on the red carpet. Also in the UK graduates are supported at every stage and given great access and opportunities to work with reputable brands and head designers to further learn their craft on the job – in essence, things we take for granted in the West. Bangladesh and Dhaka in particular, is moving in the right direction; however everyone was unanimous that there is a long way to go before everyone in the industry understands the importance of their role and the knock on effect they have in the process of promoting fashion.

Something beautiful I observed throughout my stay and indeed in the workshop is how fiercely patriotic the people of Bangladesh are. I loved learning about all of the cultural and religious festivals, traditionally celebrated with costume; different colours are adopted for different times of year and it is seen as a demonstration of unity. February is the month of language and is represented by text on garments and the colours black and white.

Spread evenly throughout the year there is always something to look forward to with celebrations that bring everyone together in a way that I can’t ever imagine being a success in the UK. We are good at uniting for one-off occasions such as the royal wedding of 2011, and this year will see more street parties and local events in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but this is by no means on a national scale and held in such a high regard.

What I learned most in just a few short days is that the West at large greatly underestimates and perhaps even undervalues the knowledge and skills of the East. We all know of the exploitation that goes on, but how often do you hear of the rich heritage in craft, for example, being celebrated. The British Council do an amazing job to build relationships between the UK and countries across the world and the installation of Reconstruction: Cultural Heritage and the Making of Contemporary Fashion in the traditional Bangladesh National Museum is a major coup and a step in the right direction, bringing high-profile British fashion to Bangladesh’s doorstop and by return generating a buzz this side of the world for the wealth of talent within this great nation.

This trip to Bangladesh was an invaluable experience that I’d be excited and keen to repeat. I’ve made several friends along the way and am very much looking forward to contributing to Canvas Magazine in the near future.

Thanks to Alex and Kendall in the UK British Council team, to Eeshita for looking after me so well in Bangladesh and for facilitating the workshop, to Farzana Yusuf for kindly donating her time and answering our probing questions and also to Saifur Rahman for taking me shopping and going out of his way to show me the real Dhaka.

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