Hosted in the sprawling gardens of the designer’s palatial home, the stage set for Palais Indochine recreated old-school decadence to contemporary perfection. One arrived to a dressed up estate; luxury cars pulled up where carriages led by white steeds may once have rolled in and ladies and gentlemen of Lahore’s princely society stepped out in their finest of finery. The Saigols, the Noons, the Manshas and the Mannoos. You could spot the Taseers and the Kasuris amongst several political notables. And there was the very best of Lahore’s fashion industry too. A visibly delighted Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, enjoying the attention Brooke Shields brought to him by wearing his design to the American Ballet Theatre’s 2016 Fall Gala recently. Ali Xeeshan and Mahgul, both confident in their latest, critically acclaimed fashion week collections. Faraz Manan, who will be showcasing his couture in a solo show in London this weekend (in fact he was scheduled to show last night). The Élan show felt like fashion’s success party. And it also felt like a crowning ceremony held to anoint a woman who can now be referred to as Pakistan’s most influential designer. Here’s why.
The collection itself was enough reason to validate that honour. The 51 handcrafted and immaculate pieces were fit for royalty. There were wedding ensembles that trailed like a royal carriage. There were pieces like the velvet pantsuits, lighter and yet aristocratic in their approach. They gave women with a penchant for androgyny the perfect wedding solution. The jingling fringe at the bottom of the oxblood pantsuit Fayeza Ansari wore created music and one was reminded of how fashion, in its right senses, had the power to tease the senses into heady delight.
Ironically, even the heaviest of ensembles looked liberating, perhaps because of their flirtatious use of see-through organza. Khadijah’s use of sheer fabrics, modestly balanced with embellishment, lent the layered ensembles a hint of sex appeal. Bare backs were encrusted with crystal shimmer; a haute favourite was one Chughtai silhouette, the delicate organza pajama of which showed and revealed just the right amount of leg to get the heart racing.
Couture is incomplete without precious adornment and Sherezad Rahimtoola’s priceless collection, named Kohar (the Armenian term for jewellery), designed especially for Palais Indochine complemented the collection and added to its regal value. There was emphasis on chokers built upon layers of rubies and emeralds. Rahimtoola had created this collection especially for the show and adhering to the theme, there was royalty in play. Lotus flower motifs were carved out of uncut rubies (cabochons). And one saw a lot of big, statement earrings incorporating south sea pearls and emeralds in combination with a unique shade of tanzanite. The jhoomers added an exceptional romanticism to the looks.
“Chokers are the look of the season so you saw a lot of those,” Rahimtoola shared after the show. “I thought Amna Ilyas, who wore a diamond choker with emerald strings, looked stunning. We created lots of layers and worked on each of the 34 looks with at least four major pieces per look. It was a time consuming but very enjoyable experience.”
The 51 pieces in the show also included Élan menswear. While Élan has shown menswear before, this was perhaps the first full-fledged range that could very well have stood its own. It was sharp and had impact. All 18 garments for men were streamlined and gentlemanly and they displayed brooches and walking sticks as key accessory trends for men. The Indochine motifs that we saw on the womenswear were also incorporated on Nehru jackets and sherwanis. And one could appreciate the focus on intricate hand-embroideries rather than flashy embellishment. The menswear was primarily designed to complement the womenswear, Shah spoke to us later, but it was a more elaborate effort. And the show continued beyond the clothes.
Yousuf Shahbaz, the brain behind the enchanted garden, explained how all the flowers and colourful shrubbery in Khadijah’s (original) garden had been temporarily relocated to an unseen part of the site as they only wanted to show a clean, white palette. The entire estate had been replanted with blooming white roses, ficuses, palms and plantation that created an oasis of grandeur. One of the most intriguing parts of the plan was the seating; a grid had been created to seat every guest in the front row. “You can’t admire a couture collection from a distance; you have to be close to it to admire it, to absorb it. The perfect couture show begins with the perfect venue, the perfect props, the perfect music and pace. We started working on this a month ago.” Shahbaz laughed while adding that with everyone at the show being a VIP, they wouldn’t dare put anyone in second row!
The evening, once the bubblies were flowing freely and the guests had mingled to their heart’s delight, started with a performance by the Sachal Orchestra. It began with their popular Pink Panther symphony and continued with compositions that even Tansen would have been pleased with. Perched on an elevated stage, the Sachal Orchestra was Elan’s birdsong, reincarnating classical music with a modern twist of jazz.
The evening was refreshing in its lack of dependency on a sponsor; corporate names always take the focus away from fashion’s purity of purpose. And Shah is, after all, her own best sponsor. The lack of the show’s dependency on film and TV stars for hype was also very welcome. The odd celebrity appearance once provided pleasant sizzle at fashion shows but now, with the involvement of TV channels, this sizzle has become akin to a house on fire. And not necessarily in a good way. Fashion isn’t so weak that it cannot stand on its own two feet without the crutch of celebrity. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Khadijah Shah certainly did not think so and kept things delightfully focused.
This solo show put Khadijah Shah at the top of a Mughal minaret, letting the world know that she has the steam to pull this off, alone and independently. That message, loud and clear, should be enough to motivate others into self-reliance. The fashion industry has been experiencing a lull for over a year; its boredom stemming from overactive consumerism and very little time and effort left to put things into the creative process. Creative juices have, in fact, dried up. Someone had to step out of the line and shake things back into order and that is precisely what this event did. This wasn’t the first solo show to take place; one remembers Nida Azwer’s solo show a decade ago and Faraz Manan (more recently) set that tradition in motion when he started showcasing his couture independently. The scale of the Élan show, however, was massive in comparison and it jostled many big names into thinking.
Even the Taj Mahal isn’t flawless and of course, certain things could have been better. The uneven flooring did cause a damsel or a two a graceful fall. The lighting was a little dim and while a full moon would have been idyllic, one can hardly accuse the planetary constellation for not cooperating. The show flow had several pauses; it could have flowed more seamlessly but then a relatively new Fahad Hussayn was in charge and it’ll take him some time and experience to master the process. At the end of the day this was all trivia compared to what the show did deliver. At the end of the day, one can’t think of a single other designer in Pakistan who could pull off a show of this magnitude as effortlessly as Khadijah Shah did. Was it worth the effort?
“Absolutely,” Khadijah Shah said when we caught up with her several days later. “For a brand our size it is very important to stand out and this is the only way to project your brand the way you want it projected. Fashion weeks and collective shows are essentially trade shows; this way we got to convey the mood and feel of the brand. It was an expensive endeavor but the benefits are undeniable.”
The expenses, if calculated, are mind-boggling. The cost of the event plus the cost of creating that 51-piece collection and figuring in the cost of the jewellery would bring the entire evening’s worth up to a million dollars (ten crore rupees), if not slightly more. And the million-dollar question is, would Élan think of doing a similar solo show next year?
“Having done it once, I definitely feel it was worth it and we will absolutely do it again next year,” a confident and beaming Shah informed, without giving away the official costing. “That’s not to say we won’t participate in collective shows, we’ll do those as well, but a solo show is essential for our brand.”
The bigger the brand, the louder the noise it needs to make and this was hype well generated. Not many brands would be able to put up a show of this magnitude but those that can should rethink their marketing strategy and invest in diversifying the dynamic of the industry. It’s okay to ride on the glamorous shoulders of celebrity once in a while, to get corporate sponsorship and pay social media to create brand awareness every now and then but at the end of the day nothing defines a designer better than his creativity, competence and confidence. And with Palais Indochine, Khadijah Shah defined Élan as a market leader.
Photography by Faisal Farooqui @ Dragonfly
Hair and makeup: Nabila
This article was originally published in Instep, 30th October 2016.