Recently when I saw a Japanese film, “A stitch of Life”, directed by Yukiko Mishima, I was reminded of a vain Gandhian dream of forging close connections between producer and consumer through customized products and services. A Seamstress, Ichie persists with her vision of tailoring western design cloths using an old sewing machine for her customers. Despite various proposals, suggestions and persuasive appeal, she doesn’t want to shift towards mass market through branding. There are obviously customers who admire her tenacity and commitment to quality. She learnt from her grandmother that a well-designed cloth actually influences one’s thinking. When there isn’t even one stitch either more or less than needed, the crafted cloth becomes a meditative prayer. Her attention to detail has convinced her that tailoring of clothes may even be tailoring of ties. It is not just a cloth a tailor stitches, a tie is formed and a customer may come back to get clothes mended. When another tailor known for refitting/altering the clothes wants to shut his shop because of increasing craze for readymade clothes, she tries to persuade him to persist too.
Even large companies are trying to offer customization possibilities to consumers. It is not inconceivable that in future only a few standard components will be designed for mass consumption, much of the customized adaptation will be done by the street corner shops/mechnics/artisans. When big marketing malls were being planned, many small shop keepers were worried that they might have to close their shops. If anything, number of small shops has increased whereas many big malls have closed down. People don’t buy just things, they engage in a conversation. If communication is the key, who can compose something that touches our heart better than the one who knows us more intimately. May be, the intimacy will be the currency of future.
Are we moving towards distributed manufacturing and consumption through tools like 3D printing? Or is it a wishful thinking? There is no doubt that artisanal attention to detail can never be substituted by mass produced goods and services. May be, there is a case for slower but more intimate production through street corner bakeries, tailoring shops, shoe designers and other service and product providers. Elaben talks about meeting one’s requirement from within 100 kms., which in the age of electronic goods from around the world may seem a bit difficult. But the point is whether our desire to be ourselves will manifest in much bigger market for customized products and services. If so , then skill development policies and programmes need to be redesigned. A skill India will not serve an indistinguishable Indian or foreigner. Home made bread, pickles, vegetables, embroidered clothes, cushions, car seats, etc., can give us a personality that does not seek approval from the peers or masses for standing out. May be our creativity and originality will flourish more in customized market. May be we will find Gandhi more relevant for creating differentiated skills for distinguished customers. We all know that our shoes don’t always fit well. If large number of leather workers use modern technology to make shoes according to our dimensions, many more of us will be happier and many more skilled workers will become entrepreneurs. A society having large number of small entrepreneurs is much more democratic than the one dominated by a few large businesses. Unless we create a bridge between the large and the small sector, the intimate, affectionate and reassuring spaces will not survive, much less grow in our society. It is our choice whether we want to be reckoned with as we are.