KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistan’s fledgling fashion industry knows that to keep business rolling, the show must go on. Earlier this month, organisers of the Telenor Fashion Pakistan Week (TFPW) in Karachi considered postponing the event because of a major political rally taking place in the city. It was a risky time to hold a high-profile fashion week with a guest list including political dignitaries, foreign media and a considerable number of the city’s affluent residents.
Still, preparations were already underway and considerable investment had been poured into the event, which would feature some of the country’s leading designers, such as Shamaeel Ansari, Deepak Perwani and Body Focus Museum by Imaan Ahmed. Ultimately, the Fashion Pakistan Council (FPC) decided that risky times fall upon Karachi far too often to let this upset their plans and stuck to their predetermined four-day schedule.
“We had specifically timed the fashion week to take place at the very onset of the Pakistani spring to highlight trends for Spring/Summer. The designs would have been less impactful had they been showcased at a later time,” says FPC chairperson Sanam Chaudhri. “We did hike security measures and informed the foreign media we had invited of the situation. Quite a few of them backed out.”
With parts of the country spiralling towards violent extremism, the fashion fraternity has to worry that the threats they receive may actually be carried out.
A small group of documentary-makers from Vice.com who came to film the event opted to keep a low profile. “Mention us in the papers once we’ve left,” said actress and writer Hailey Gates to local media. Within its sequestered, cordoned-off location, fashion week went ahead as usual, the red carpet dotted with risqué thigh-high skirts and slinky gowns. But when they stepped outside of the venue, fashion’s most glamorous wrapped themselves in voluminous wraps and shawls.
A brazen, sultry look may work within the closed walls of Karachi’s ‘fashion bubble,’ but it certainly doesn’t translate to the city at large. Everyone here knows that — it’s just one of the many dichotomies that exist within Pakistani fashion, a market that was worth an estimated $7.3 billion in 2014, according to modelled data from Euromonitor.
On one of the busiest roads in Karachi, local high-street brand Junaid Jamshed advertises its summer range of unstitched voile with the image of a headless mannequin wearing a floral print. The religious beliefs of the brand’s management dictate that a model’s face should not be seen on the billboard.
A few paces away, high-street brand Stoneage advertises its latest denim range with the image of a bare-chested man and a denim-clad female model at the beach. Clearly, the two labels reflect disparate cultural and religious values. The chances are that the latter billboard will sooner or later be removed – unless the owners pull the right contacts and pay them into acquiescence. Meanwhile, the headless mannequins will likely cover billboards across the country.
“Pakistan’s fashion industry has grown in short bursts,” says Frieha Altaf, who has spearheaded fashion-based events for over two decades, including some of the initial Lahore-based fashion weeks by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) and the Lux Style Awards, the country’s most acclaimed award ceremony in the fields of music, film, television and fashion.
“In the 1980s, we had to contend with vigilant censors. Fashion shows could only be staged under the guise of ‘cultural events’, with traditional music interspersed in between showcases in order to fulfil the cultural requirement. During General Musharraf’s liberal military regime, in the early 2000s, there were very few checks and balances. This was the time when fashion truly mushroomed from a cottage industry to a fully-fledged business employing thousands and bringing in profits,” she adds.
“In 2010, when I coined the ‘Veet Miss Super Model’ contest, a reality TV show that could bring better groomed models into the industry, I received threatening phone calls, demanding that I stop supporting such “unholy” content. Once, some people even met me pretending to be prospective clients and then lectured me, trying to make me see the light.”
Four major fashion weeks — and a few less credible ones — take place in Pakistan every year: two prêt-a-porter weeks run by the FPC in Karachi and two in Lahore run by the PFDC, alternating between ready-to-wear and bridal. The shows are aired on private television channels and the collections bought by a bourgeoning retail network. A host of multi-label boutiques like Ensemble in Karachi and Lahore, and Labels, which has branches in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Islamabad, specialise in stocking local designers like Sanam Chaudhri, Farah Talib Aziz and Wardha Saleem. Standalone designer stores are also entering the fray.
As increasing numbers of women enter the world of work, the demand for affordable ready-to-wear is growing. Local high-street brands like Gul Ahmed, Khaadi, Satrangi by Bonanza and Sapphire are embracing this market, with most selling a variety of loose tunics. Western apparel brands like Next, Debenham’s, Mango and Monsoon are also available at a few of the more glamorous malls appearing on the country’s horizon, such as Dolmen City in Karachi and Centaurus Mall in Faisalabad.
The yearly influx of fresh fashion and textile graduates is also boosting Pakistan’s fashion trade, and even modelling has shed some of its shady reputation to become a viable career option for educated young girls from liberal backgrounds. Heavy-duty sponsors like Unilever, Porsche and L’Oreal are happy to associate with the glitz of the country’s fashion events. In the past, shows would be cancelled during times of political unrest, but now they only get postponed. On the flipside, stores, malls and factories may shut down for a day or two, slowing down production and bringing down sales.
On a more sordid note, with parts of the country spiralling towards violent extremism, the fashion fraternity has to worry that the threats they receive may actually be carried out. Photographer Tapu Javeri, credited for taking some of the most daring photographs in Pakistani fashion, recalls, “We used to ignore the umpteen enraged phone calls we would get, demanding if we would allow our sisters and mothers to dress in this or that way. Now, we just try not to dwell on territory that may be culturally offensive.”
Does this hamper creative expression? Andleeb Rana Farhan, editor of local fashion magazine Xpoze, observes, “Cultural restraint can expand creative expression. Pakistan is probably the only country in the world that has worked so hard on its national dress, the shalwar kameez, that you can now wear it any part of the world.”
Cultural considerations aside, many of the country’s highest-earning designers prefer to stay away from racy sartorial statements, simply because it doesn’t make business sense. “Most women in Pakistan don’t wear revealing clothes and I don’t want to stock anything at my store or advertise something that won’t sell,” points out Shamoon Sultan, CEO of Khaadi, one of the country’s biggest retail success stories.
Almost every designer augments his or her business with regular bridal orders. While the limitations of fashion may change with every government, ricocheting from low backs to head-covers, weddings will always take place and brides will always spend on an expensive designer-made bridal dress.
“Initially, I would show racy designs on the catwalk and then translate them into demure, retail-friendly versions for my clientele,” explains bridal-wear designer, couturier and fashion week regular Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, who creates East-meets-West fusion-wear that keeps the female body mostly covered. “Then, I realized that I was alienating my market. My diverse clientele ranges from modern-day dressers who enjoy Western silhouettes, to others who come donning veils. These women are excited when they see well-tailored, exquisitely embellished clothes on the catwalk. Designer-wear is expensive and nobody wants to splurge out on clothes that they can only wear behind closed doors. Why would I show something that isn’t really acceptable to the market I cater to?”
However, in many cases, designers are compelled into changing their designs, bowing to political and religious pressure. At a show organised last October by the Trade Development Authority Pakistan (TDAP) in an attempt to boost fashion exports, designer Rizwanullah took his catwalk bow and proceeded to kiss the models with him on the cheek. It raised cries that fashion was veering towards the “unacceptable” and “lewd” and political authorities sent memos to designers taking part in the upcoming TFPW, advising them to “show less legs” and “refrain from obscenity”. Many complied, showing safe boxy tunics and narrow pants — a few others couldn’t resist showing some skin.
“Sometimes a designer just wants to create a certain mood on the catwalk and it may involve showing apparel that is risqué,” says Sehyr Saigol, chairperson of the PFDC in Lahore. “We have never unnecessarily tried to curb creativity by censuring a collection just because it shows skin. Having said that, it just makes better business sense for designers to show clothes that are wearable.”
It is a tricky balancing act, creating standout new looks that are also culturally and politically acceptable. At times, politicians have latched onto fashion to make a statement, such as last year when the Pakistan Peoples Party invested in a high-budget fashion show as part of its Sindh festival. At other times, the industry lies low.
Popular designer Sania Maskatiya often incorporates animals and figurines in her luxury designs. These are a big hit with her niche of wealthy clients, but when she translated the same aesthetic onto her more affordable line, the prints with faces on them didn’t sell well, because many of the Pakistani Muslims in that demographic believe that they cannot pray while wearing faces on their clothes. This year, she altered the design by eliminating the eyes of the animals in her prints. “If the figure isn’t “complete”, customers are more than happy to buy the print,” Sania explains.
Pakistani fashion has always needed to be flexible in the face of the nation’s volatile belief systems. Over time, the industry has become accustomed to finding moral and creative loopholes — and adroitly squeezing through them.