Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pakistan's fashionistas?

Ayesha Ijaz Khan

Indian consumers are rapidly becoming regular customers of many Pakistani designers. With a stronger Indian rupee, Pakistani fashions are affordable and attractive, causing Pakistani designers to inflate prices even more, much to the chagrin of the local consumers


Most often depicted as a
country plagued by terrorism, Pakistan has a surprisingly active fashion world. Fashion weeks in Karachi, Lahore and Dubai showcase Pakistani haute couture in all its glitter and glory. Spaghetti-strapped models baring their legs in defiance of Taliban dictates is how the western press would like to portray it. But this is not the whole picture.

On a recent visit to Pakistan, I was struck by how the curious combination of Islam and Bollywood themes has taken Pakistan?s over-active wedding scene, intimately connected to Pakistan?s fashion scene, by storm. Whether the invite is for a hip-shaking, booze-flowing Jodha-Akbar inspired dholki or a reverent proselytising pre-nuptial dua, a trip to the fashion designers is certainly on the cards for those who can afford it. Rich Pakistanis, much like elites of other developing nations, live in a bubble economy largely unconnected to the masses who suffer from joblessness, rampant inflation, and paucity of electricity and water.

The Pakistani elite, neither all liberal nor all conservative, is a tantalising mix of imported jeans and hijabs, along with the native shalwar kameez. The designers have tailored their eclectic mix of flowing georgettes and billowing chiffons to accommodate all manner of dress sense, the risqué and the religiously-inclined. The only caveat is the price tag. An order with one of Pakistan?s many up and coming designers will set one back at least $ 200 for an unassuming outfit and $ 2,000 for those who want to make a real statement. During wedding season, moreover, which runs pretty much all year long with the exception of the Islamic months of Ramadan and Muharram, three wedding invitations a week are not uncommon, thus sparking a need for multiple dresses.

This is great news for the fashion and jewellery designers who have a booming business and ready clientele at all times. Long loose kaftans and dangling diamonds are the flavour of the day. Walking into a wedding party in Karachi is a bit like reliving the lost Mughal heritage of the lavish musalmaan. Mesmerised by the sea of beautiful people reclining on plush velvet divans, entertained by musicians on sprawling lawns, feeding on succulent kebabs and tender tikka, I realise I am underdressed and wearing the shortest earrings.

?You must live abroad,? I am told by a woman who volunteers to share her designer contacts with me. Although Pakistanis are helpful people, the designer world comes with its pretensions. It is part of the appeal. One cannot just walk into a store and buy a designer outfit off the rack, unless you are willing to risk running into your double in front of a select fashionable crowd. It is important to be in the know. To be aware of who is in and who is out. Designer fashions, after all, are strictly by appointment only. A sifarish from a regular could go a long way in securing a timely appointment. Besides, as artists of sorts, designers have the luxury of setting their own timings. A bit like Spanish siesta times, some are open for viewing only between 11 and 1, while others will entertain you between 3 and 5. Without insider information, it is simply not possible to be fashionable in Pakistan.

One afternoon, I manage an appointment with one of Pakistan?s sought-after designers. ?If you order now, in March, I can promise delivery by September,? is the first thing he tells me. The gentleman designer is a doctor by profession but has left the world of medicine for more lucrative prospects in fashion. His assistant is suffering from laryngitis that afternoon so three fingers mean Rs 30,000 ($ 350) and two hands mean a hundred thousand ($ 1,200). Outfit samples are not tagged and prices are made up as we go along. Two other women have the same appointment slot as I, and though I am a bit concerned about this pricing mechanism, they seem comfortable with it.

Showing off his collection, he extols Pakistani embroideries and needlework. ?Indians have no clue about fashion. Our work is far superior to theirs,? he informs me, and then asks if I have heard of one of India?s most accomplished movie directors. I am no Bollywood buff, but I recognise the name he drops. ?I recently made her a beautiful peshwaz for $ 6,000,? he tells me. ?And what did she do? She sent it back to have it pulled up by three inches. Long is in these days,? he stresses. Excited, he pulls out a shawl. As he flings the breathtaking tapestry of subtle colours across the table, we women gasp.

?How much?? asks one. He smiles. ?I made this for my daughter,? he boasts, ?to pass on as part of her dowry, but the V&A asked for it,? he says flippantly.

?Victoria & Albert Museum??

?Yes and a visitor from LA saw it and offered me $ 18,000 for it. I have sold it. I just wanted to show you the type of work I do.?

The doctor designer is not the only one laying claim to an international clientele. Indian consumers are rapidly becoming regular customers of many Pakistani designers. With a stronger Indian rupee, Pakistani fashions are affordable and attractive, causing Pakistani designers to inflate prices even more, much to the chagrin of the local consumers. While a saas-bahu designer duo is catering primarily to Indian patrons, a nand-bhabi pair has made their mark as the designers of choice for the hijab crowd.

Innovative niche markets, lucrative dollar exports, a sophisticated, progressive image and a growing cottage industry of artistic needlework and stylish tailoring offering gainful employment to average Pakistanis are all the pluses of Pakistan?s fashion world. But some pressing questions need to be asked. Do tax returns filed by designer houses represent even a fraction of the revenues earned by them? Are sales transactions properly documented? Are price tags avoided so that real income can be fudged? And is customer service commensurate with the steep costs, in line with international competition?

Pakistani fashion is a boon for those who have worked hard to make this industry a financial success for themselves. But would it not be nice if it could be equally beneficial to the country at large? If at least the masses that wear hand-me-downs from charity shops could also benefit through tax rupees paid back. As several economies suffer in the bizarre recession that we find ourselves in today, a recession that somehow escapes the rich, I found a report on Greece?s troubles particularly telling. Only six taxpayers in Greece declared incomes of over a million Euros a year. This is fairly unbelievable given the number of yachts one sees moored along the islands dotting the Aegean Sea. Small wonder Greece is suffering so badly in the current crisis. Pakistan?s elite is no better and it would be nice if the fashion world could set yet another trend, the trend of giving back to the people less fortunate.

The writer's website: www.ayeshaijazkhan.com




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