BRICS expands membership; looks to boost influence in global fashion industry

A landmark BRICS+ Fashion Summit was held in Moscow in December, attracting delegates from more than 60 nations

By Namrata Thakkar

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Published: Fri 15 Dec 2023, 5:10 PM

In an important development marking the new year, the BRICS alliance — an economic partnership established 17 years ago by the nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — has declared the expansion of its partnership. From January 1, 2024, the alliance will welcome new members, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia.

A series of strategic discussions orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin was undertaken to negotiate this expansion with the Middle Eastern nominees, before UAE assumed its global leadership at COP28. Last week, Putin journeyed to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, discussed matters in person with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, and engaged Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi through a phone call. Escalating issues in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as global energy dynamics, formed the crux of these meetings. But beneath these immediate concerns lay the strategic foresight of Russia and China, both recognising the expansion of BRICS to be a significant move to empower their global economic footprint.

Earlier in the year, at a BRICS summit, President Xi Jinping of China emphasised the substantial part that these countries play in moulding the international order. Traditionally, the alliance has focused its efforts on energy, technological exchange, and food security. However, the textile and clothing industry has only recently appeared on their cooperative agenda.

A landmark BRICS+ Fashion Summit was held in Moscow in December, attracting delegates from more than 60 nations. The importance of this gathering is underscored by the prodigious $182 billion clothing exports from China in 2022, representing a considerable 31.6 per cent of the global supply. India, another active BRICS member, is the world's second-largest producer of textiles and clothing. But the focus isn't just on production. China has also revealed itself to be the primary consumer market for clothing — according to a report from McKinsey & Company, in 2019 China ousted the United States as the largest consumer market for fashion products.

Despite these formidable statistics in production and exports, the BRICS countries appear to have little influence on shaping global fashion trends, a concern that was aired vocally at the Summit. The fashion landscape seems to be dominated by a select handful of brands from the US, France, and Italy. To put numbers to this disparity, globally famed brands constitute a mere three per cent of the total brands, but they command nearly 50 per cent of global sales, according to a figure backed by the United Nations Statistics Division.

The Summit underscored the somewhat passive role of BRICS countries as consumers rather than creators in the global fashion narrative. As part of a resolution, their plan is to open up local markets for homegrown designers, clearing pathways for them into international markets, and simultaneously boosting the visibility and reputation of their brands. China is leveraging its rich cultural heritage, and India is looking to capitalize on its technological prowess. In contrast, Russia is actively promoting local brands to substitute international brands that have withdrawn due to sanctions.

The list of speakers at the BRICS+ Fashion Summit was not without its heavyweights, including influential fashion figures from the United Arab Emirates. Among them was Alia Khan, founder and chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council, who lauded the hope and promise that the BRICS alliance brings.

“BRICS is lighting the way forward, extending a beacon of hope by articulating an alternate creative space rife with untapped opportunities," declared Khan. "It refrains from judgements and allows for authenticity, enabling individuals to remain true to their vision without the usual pressures of trend conformity.”

Khan went on to commend Russia's inaugural Summit in Moscow. “Russia understands the value of individuality, discerning how one can stand resolutely as an individual without the pervasive Western influence. Russia innately possesses the spirit to safeguard authenticity,” she praised.

Apart from international trends, the Summit also drew attention to local fashion industries in developing countries. Another eminent UAE figure, Willy Batura, CEO and Founder of Dubai-based Fort Fashion Council, shed light on this subject.

“When we look at the fashion industry in BRICS countries, the narrative primarily revolves around exposure to the international market. Some brands that have achieved notable local success are actively probing possibilities abroad. Undeniably, there are hurdles to cross: language barriers, financial systems. But the BRICS alliance could provide a common ground, fostering an environment conducive to international brand launches," Batura astutely observed.

These leaders' insights underscore the transformative potential BRICS holds in reshaping the global fashion landscape.

Overwhelming growth in the BRICS-dominated apparel and textile industry — attributed to the diversification of brands and nurturing of talent — has also triggered an educational innovation. This was evident at the Summit, where a multicultural educational initiative was unveiled featuring fashion professors from 15 countries, including China, India, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. They imparted essential skills to students — cultural understanding, inclusivity, and the sensitiveness to fabricate fashion products without cultural appropriation — which are seen as the necessary tools for future designers. The spotlight on these topics at the Summit suggests that they will likely shape the future trajectory of the global fashion industry.

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