Celebrities have taken over fashion, the fashion runway, to be exact. They’re as invasive as aliens in a sci-fi film and threaten to take over the runway completely unless they are safely shipped back to their own planet. Stars are, after all, destined to shine in the sky and not crawl the catwalks on ground. But we couldn’t be further from the global norm. What started off as a single-celebrity ‘showstopper’ has now grown into an invasion, threatening to assault all aesthetic senses and reduce fashion to a caricature of its former self. Someone needs to read out the riot act!
The benefits of having the odd celebrity on the catwalk were plausible. Termed as ‘essential gimmickry’, celebrity appearances were guaranteed headline grabbers, especially important in a country where sex, scandal and nudity (international norms) could do more harm than benefit. Celebrities worked wonders. One remembers Fawad and Mahira Khan make an appearance for Umar Sayeed at one of the earlier PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Weeks in Lahore. Humsafar was underway at the time and despite the fact that neither of the stars had been touched by Bollywood magic (or curse) their presence was palpable. It’s all anyone could talk about that evening.
‘I am not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me’ are words scrawled next to a red heart on one of Vivienne Westwood’s most iconic tees. Created in 2005 – a few short months after the shooting of innocent man Jean Charles de Menezes in London – in collaboration with civil rights group Liberty, it was a bid to confront the government’s proposed anti-terror legislation, which, among other things, allowed three months detention for suspects without charge. Westwood said at the time: “We can only take democracy for granted if we insist on our liberty.” All profits went to charity.
The problem with Pakistan as a society, and this transcends fashion to all walks of life, is that everyone is perpetually in competition with one another. The urge to outdo kicked into fashion too and the insane drive to do bigger and better shows by bringing in more and more celebrities eventually began to engulf better sense. One celebrity was fine but then along came the entire cast.
“I see this as a general issue with Pakistan,” says Fifi Haroon, one of Pakistan’s first and finest fashion journalists who has seen the very best of Pakistan’s fashion. “I live abroad and when I come back and watch TV I observe that everything is about outdoing the other. Our society hinges on loudness. Fashion is also reflective of our whole society. Everyone is trying to outdo the other and consequently, people are moving away from good taste.”
Amir Adnan, now famous for bringing 16 celebrities into one show, replacing the models completely, feels that democratization of fashion is necessary for it to survive. “Over the past few years clothes put up on the ramp were becoming more and more costume and we wanted to bridge the gap between fashion and the buyer. My purpose was to bring fashion back to real life and celebrities served the purpose of showing how the clothes would look on real people, not models. We simplified the clothes and took the drama away but when we put those simplified clothes on models, they looked bland. Celebrities got into the ethos of the garment and did justice to the clothes. The chemistry came through and we achieved the objective. Using celebrities made it easy for my buyers to relate to the clothes. This was my way of using real people and bringing diversity to the runway. We don’t necessary use celebs but even role models, men and women of all shapes and sizes.”
Celebrity presence in a fashion show became more questionable when one realized that their presence had nothing to do with loyalty to the brand they were endorsing, rather with the channel that had roped them in or the cheque they were offered for their time and commitment. At a time when Hum TV was media partner with fashion weeks, all actors appearing in ongoing Hum TV dramas and films were on a wish list for designers to pick and choose from. The same applied to Urdu One. Television channels associated with fashion weeks were essentially looking for integration that would benefit the show’s TV ratings (when it was aired) and celebrities definitely do. Higher ratings would result in more advertisers. The creativity of fashion week started tethering towards commercial feasibility. And it was counterproductive for fashion and designers, as their collections took a back seat. Sadly most of them still have not figured it out.
How does it help a designer to have a certain celebrity onboard if that celebrity is walking for seven other designers that season? Celebrities like Mahira Khan, Ayesha Omar, Hadiqa Kiani, Mawra and Urwa Hocane (and more if not all of them) have walked for so many designers that it’s impossible to associate them with any one name anymore. There is no distinction between one brand and another and while fashion in the west is suffering too, an Armani would never, ever use the same celebrity as a Versace or Ralph Lauren would.
Iman Ahmed, the mastermind behind Body Focus Museum, is perhaps the only designer in Pakistan who has never used a celebrity in her fashion shows. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” she says. “What we’re trying to show is fashion and you don’t need an appendage of a showstopper or celebrity to show fashion. It’s not necessary. The collection should be a complete story; it should begin and end with clothes. I’m a purist and I’d like to stay that way.”
Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier have had a historic association. According to Tim Blanks, “he gave her a look that people will always associate with her and she gave him a profile which he’s never ever lost.” Commenting on a 1995 Gaultier show in which Madonna walked out with a baby carriage carrying a puppy, Blanks says, “This was a moment for fashion; it really was where everybody’s energy was focused on. It was a time when fashion had a lot of personality.” Madonna has only ever walked the catwalk for Gaultier; he’s designed her tour wardrobes as well as her video and album looks. That’s how a pop star/fashion designer relationship works.
It does no credit to the star either as anywhere in the world a celebrity will handpick a brand or cause that he or she approves of and wants to throw her weight behind. Ellen Degeneres, for example, walked for Richie Rich in 2010 simply because Ellen and the openly gay Richie had previously become friendly in L.A., and she chose his show because of her support for gay designers. When our celebrities make the unfortunate choice of walking for anyone, for the money or under channel pressure, it devalues them and takes away their novelty value. Their starlight dims substantially.
Political statements made by designers at fashion week may also be judged in the same stretch. What a designer says or shows on the catwalk must be a manifestation of his brand ethos. It makes sense for Vivienne Westwood, who is an extremely political designer, to bring politics onto the runway because she works on those lines throughout the year. She has consistently used the runway as a platform to voice her outspoken views on ‘politics, restrictive gender norms, industrial farming to Wikileaks and Margaret Thatcher’. It’s expected of her. It would make no sense if Vera Wang suddenly got up and started producing tee shirts on the Syrian war. Or, as we have seen at fashion weeks in Pakistan, wedding wear designers getting up and dragging philanthropists or war heroes onto the runway. Designers in Pakistan generally prefer to play within commercially safe parameters so it’s bizarre when they suddenly get up and declare themselves political activists. It’s an obviously cry for attention.
What designers don’t understand, and this is where the buck falls, is that their clothes fall into the shadows of all that bright starlight. One celebrity showstopper may provide some sizzle to a show but a troupe will take the focus away from the clothes. Think about it for a moment. Karl Lagerfeld, undoubtedly one of the most powerful designers of the world, would have absolutely no problem getting any celebrity into his show. But he’d never allow an Angelina Jolie to steal the spotlight from him or from his collection. And here lies the backbone of our problem.
Fashion in Pakistan has become symptomatic of society’s overall demise and it is using celebrities to compensate the lack of ideas and innovation.
Creativity is on a decline in Pakistan. Budgets are restrained. Commercial demands keep machinery well oiled, leaving little to no room for experimentation or innovation or risk. With creativity on a decline, celebrities help designers overcome the lack of inventiveness; they are overcompensating the lack of ideas. How do they make a pedestrian collection stand out? They bring in celebrities. How do they stand out on a runway that offers the same backdrop and the same pool of models to 12 other designers? They bring in celebrities.
“One should lament the slow death of Pakistani fashion,” Fifi perfectly wraps up the discussion. “ Celebrity has become the life support of Pakistani fashion. The question is, can Pakistani fashion survive on its own?”
- This article was originally published in Instep on Sunday, December 18 2016.