Pakistan’s cultural heritage may have successfully revived cultural heritage but the larger task of economic viability remains a challenge.
Pakistan’s newest superstar – fashion – stands at the interface of modern pop culture and age-old heritage. To move forward, it needs to look into its past and excavate leitmotifs of that heritage that are fast fading away like the peeling paint on historical buildings. It’s interesting that as ancient monuments and sites crumble away as a result of government neglect, fashion designers – lowest on the power and political food chain – are reviving bits and pieces for the world to enjoy as contemporary and indigenous Pakistani fashion. Urban Pakistan may be a jeans and t-shirt generation but ironically it needs to flash its heritage to catch the eye of the world. Its ethnic identity is Pakistan’s passport to global fashion.
Finally, a ray of optimism as Sara Shahid’s organic cotton t-shirts proudly state, “Made in Fabulous Pakistan.”
Reality, for a majority of Pakistan’s impoverished population, isn’t too fabulous. But here’s where fashion is actually helping. Other than reclaiming lost heritage and making it part of popular culture, it is also eyeing a piece of fashion’s very rich pie. It is estimated that 300 billion dollars ride on global fashion annually (from the generation of raw materials to the retail of luxury goods) and as Pakistani fashion gains steam and strength, it aims to benefit from these figures. Eventually. Locally, the Pakistan Fashion Design Council claims (as stated in their fashion week brochure) that the industry’s value is estimated at ‘20 billion dollars’.
Fashion and financial benefits go hand in hand, whether they come as ostensibly as designers making profits for the garments they sell or the amount of business generated as a result of employment opportunities. The management of holding one three-day fashion week in Lahore, for example, puts over 15 million rupees into the country’s economy. To ensure that its flow is transparent is the government’s job.
Pakistani fashion’s collective value may not have been evaluated yet, but certain designers’ individual efforts are coming forth as a step in the right direction. Ali Xeeshan, a young designer who made his fashion week debut a year ago, is talking numbers these days. After showing two well-received collections, this year he returned in collaboration with retail brand Crimson.
“Frankly speaking I don’t have a business mind at all,” Xeeshan confessed after his show at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week that was held in Lahore. “This synergy with Crimson will ensure that production and retail is handled while I focus on the creative aspect of my brand. Crimson has invested in making my label bigger and more accessible.”
While Crimson, as a brand, did not survive the challenges of the competitive fashion market when it launched several years ago, Crimson by Ali Xeeshan will ensure higher brand equity. It’s a win-win situation when someone like Xeeshan gets the financial backing to promote a label that promotes Pakistan. His fashion week collection caught the eye for its bright palette inspired by the traditional handicraft of Bahawalpur and Multan. Accessorized with bird-cage bags as a runway attraction, the embroidered shawls and printed saris could very easily be adapted for a ready to wear market. And that’s what Xeeshan plans to do with the help of Crimson.
There was much more hand crafted couture to enjoy at fashion week, where rather than designing to ‘impress’ the west, designers designed to ‘dress’ the world in styles of Pakistan. Nickie and Nina brought out shades of rural Sindh in their colourful, hand embroidered ensembles, which could easily be interpreted as tunics, trousers and skirts.
Sahar Atif who designs under her label Saai worked with Kashmiri women on her fashion week collection. The delicately hand embroidered phiran – an indigenous Kashmiri tunic that fashion has taken pleasure at reclaiming – was used for inspiration. An AHAN (Aik Hunar Aik Nagar, a semi government organization) project, the Domail collection employed a cluster of eight to ten women from the earthquake ravaged northern areas for a month, paying them for their efforts in money and priceless training that continues for another few months. Here we see fashion empowering women who have lost livelihoods to the earthquake or floods. These efforts are multifaceted and more than a dozen designers are committed to contributing in any way they can.
The ‘burqa to bikini’ stereotype did play out once again as foreign observers toyed with the ‘fashion and Islam’ debate but instead of shying away from the comparisons, it was refreshing, for once, to see Pakistani designers actually embracing the more conservative side of society. Sara Shahid, for example, deconstructed and redesigned actual Pakhtun ‘shuttlecock’ burqas: the ones that have a cap attached to an opaque netting covering the woman’s face. Sublime’s burqas were flamboyant capes, caps and all, teamed up with wide leg trousers and tank tops. Co-existence and tolerance, the designer said, were the desirable goal.
The quest for co-existence continued with Adnan Pardesy’s sophisticated denim designed with ethnic traces in a chatta-patti churidaar or even a gharara embellished with zippers instead of zardozi. The gharara was a popular trend revival as even Teejays, a brand that is proudly Pakistani in its ethos, brought it back in a contemporary form. Never before has one seen a white cotton ‘cargo’ gharara built with large utilitarian pockets.
FnkAsia was another brand that impressed with its ethnic references, which have always been designer Huma Adnan’s personal style philosophy. A label that has acquired mass popularity over the years, FnkAsia was also one of the few brands at fashion week that have actually managed to equate style with business. The brand operates through eight stand-alone stores in Pakistan, one each in Dubai and Los Angeles; it successfully retails at three Kimaya outlets across India and generates just as much business through e-commerce. In production value, FnkAsia is evaluated “easily over sixty million rupees,” says Huma Adnan. That surely is a model to look up to.
As global fashion turns more and more mechanical, as ready to wear becomes more of a cookie-cutter operation, Pakistan has a good chance of making an impact with its unique ethnic identity. Tie that up with a strong business model and you have a winning formula. Managing to get that formula is the only worry now.