Custom-designed Fashion: A form of Self-expression among Dhaka’s Zoomers

A t-shirt with a colourful illustration from the famous Bengali detective novel Feluda or a Kamij with a verse by poet Jibananda Das printed on it—young people wearing clothes or carrying accessories with unique but familiar and eye-catchy visuals has recently become a frequent but not so common sight in Dhaka. But you cannot just buy one if you want to. These fashion items are custom-designed by the consumers themselves.

An online-based market is growing in Dhaka, focusing on this custom-design fashion trend where the consumers are the designers—they download or collect images they like and even create visuals using graphic software. Then, they send these images to some online-based fashion houses, which print these visuals on different fashion items as instructed by the customers. This online market, based on industry-grade printing, has enabled consumers to custom-design not only their clothing but also a variety of accessories that are not typically thought of as fashion items, like a notebook, a key ring, or a mobile phone case.

Zoomers and Custom-design Fashion: Since the custom-design fashion market in Bangladesh is primarily based on online platforms, it is inextricably linked to the customers’ digital literacy and internet access. Thus, it is no surprise that younger generations are the primary consumers of this market, particularly the Zoomers— the members of Generation Z or Gen Z. It is a socially-defined generation born between the mid- 1990s and the early 2010s. Growing up with the internet has given Zoomers very different traits from the Millenials, their predecessors who had to adapt to new technologies.

Many zoomers are now the youngest adults and university-going students. To understand the social interaction of people who grew up surrounded by digital technologies, I took custom-design fashion trends as a case and conducted an exploratory case study among the Zoomers at the University of Dhaka . I studied their motivation, preferences, and consumption patterns related to custom-designed fashion and identified three significant characteristics of the group.

Photo: The Teacher-Student Centre, University of Dhaka

Standing Out from the Crowd: Customizing is a time-consuming process. Finding the ideal visual online takes hours of searching and using digital design tools takes days. And after sending your order to the provider, you still have to wait a few days for it to arrive. So why spend all that time when you can simply purchase an attractive outfit from the market? First-year university student Eshna (pseudonym) responded in an interview,

“Obviously, I can get a nice branded cloth at the market. But, regardless of how lovely the cloth is, it is not a one-of-a-kind item; anyone can buy the same cloth. It doesn’t make me unique.”

A major motivation is getting noticed by carrying and showcasing something that no one else can. As Rewaj says during a group discussion, the visuals he carries work like perfume; whether people like it or not, they definitely notice.

The desire to stand out from the crowd, as seen in the study,  can be a conscious choice of Zoomers opting for custom design, as illustrated in Eshna’s case, I noticed her holding a notebook with a Potua Quamrul Hassan painting printed on the cover during our conversation, so I asked her why she was holding it when she could keep it in her backpack. Eshna’s reply was straightforward,

“I spent three days looking for the perfect diary cover! It looks stunning! Why would I want to keep it in my bag? I’m holding it in my hand for everyone to see!”

Willingness to Stick to Similarities: A significant part of Zoomers I interviewed spend most of their time on social media. The study indicates they are more comfortable interacting via virtual platforms than in a physical environment. The fact that they do not have to get into face-to-face in-store interaction influences them to purchase products from online shops, as illustrated in Akib’s case,

“(…)I can spend all the time I want on an (online) page. I don’t have to interact with the salespeople, and I don’t have to buy anything just because I went into the store, and it would be embarrassing if I left empty-handed.”

Again, the study indicates they do not want to get outside their comfortable social bubble and interact with individuals with dissimilarities. While they expect people with similarities to interact with them, they want people with different standards to stay away simultaneously. They showcase their personalities and preferences when they carry certain visuals on their attires and these attires work like their personal notice boards. Dwip, one of the Zoomers at the University of Dhaka whom I interviewed, says,

 “If I see a person wearing something with an image of Hrittik Ghatak, I know s/he is my type even before having a conversation. So maybe I shall talk to them. And the same goes for me.”

Zoomers are well aware of the visuals they carry on their customized attires. One reason the custom-designed fashion trend is becoming popular is that it allows introducing self to people without getting into any kind of verbal interaction and avoids people from different social bubbles.

Establishing Local Identity: The university-going zoomers I have interacted with in my study are well aware of the message their actions and objects are conveying. I found an emphasis on establishing local identity in the choice of their design. Noushin, a study participant, was wearing a saree with motifs of Tapa-Putul (a Bengali rural folk motif). She showed me some images from her mobile phone that she kept for customizing her sarees and T-shirts. The images included Ektara, Kalka, lotus, and a flowering vine- all Bengali rural folk motifs. Eshna, another participant of my study, showed me her mobile phone case with a poster of the famous Bengali classic movie Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen printed on it, and the t-shirt she was wearing had a lyric of renowned Bengali singer-songwriter Arnob. The list goes on and on: an album cover of Bengali urban folk band Mohiner Ghoraguli on a t-shirt, a Sanskrit verse on a saree, a sketch of Lalon Shah on a notebook cover, a poem of Jibananda on a Shawl, and more and more. During a group discussion, Akib, a third-year student, clearly said,

“Wearing western designs is too mainstream! We have so many elements in our own culture. It is ungrateful and lowly to display attachment to these western elements when we have so much to embrace in our own culture. Bangla is the new cool!”

Photo: Mobile phone case designed with a poster of the famous Bengali classic movie Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen

Due to their connectivity, zoomers are likely to be more linked to global cultural elements and trends than any of their preceding generation. Yet, in my study, I found them to be very aware of their local cultural aspects. They did not deny western, eastern, or any other global culture, but when it comes to showcasing their attachments, they chose to establish or redefine a local identity by carrying visuals that signify their attachments to different Bengali cultural elements. It reflects a significant characteristic of the university-going zoomers, the ongoing process of decolonization in their thought process.

Touhidul Islam is a Trainee Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)