Modesty a la mode

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 September, 2008, 12:00am

At a swanky shopping mall in Lahore, women murmur in admiration and desire as they sift through rack after rack of designer clothing: silk and chiffon dresses and trouser suits embellished with embroidery, crystals and sequins.

All of the 20-plus labels are Pakistani. The mall, Boulevard, was opened in December to showcase the nation's burgeoning design talent. Although it is little known outside the country, Pakistan has a fast-growing fashion industry that combines a rich craft tradition with cutting-edge designs.

'When you look at the designers and the quality of what they produce, it's quite extraordinary,' says Simon Lock, managing director of IMG Fashion Asia Pacific.

His company, which organises runway shows around the world, wants to bring Pakistani design to the global stage.

But branding the promising industry in a global market that is more likely to associate Pakistan with suicide bombers and failing governments than elegance and fashion is no easy task.

Last year, IMG Fashion scheduled the country's first ever fashion week for November. Up to 50 buyers from boutiques around the world were expected in Lahore, where scores of designers looked forward to showing their collections. But a week before the event was due to begin, then-president Pervez Musharraf called a state of emergency and fashion week was cancelled.

'It was a big disappointment,' says Maria Butt, one of the country's most famous and best-selling designers. 'In the past few years, since fashion has really taken off in Pakistan, we have all the professionals we need; everyone wants to be a designer. But we really need to commercialise.'

There have been big-name couturiers in Pakistan for several decades. But more recently, an unprecedented consumer boom that began under Musharraf has driven demand for ready-to-wear designer fashion. The deregulation of television media has also played its part, heightening Pakistanis' awareness of brands.

Today, although Pakistan's fashion business lacks the international profile enjoyed by that of neighbouring India, which now holds two twice-yearly fashion weeks in Mumbai and Delhi, the country boasts as many domestically famous designers, even though its population is just one-seventh the size.

The industry was given a boost in 1995 with the establishment of the Pakistan School of Fashion Design, in Lahore, which is affiliated with the Chambre de Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, which helps design its syllabus.

Graduates from the college are now to be found working throughout Pakistan's big cities, including Islamabad, a staid, politics-obsessed metropolis.

'Everyone is into fashion now - even in Islamabad,' says 24-year-old Rabiya Umar, a recent graduate of the fashion school who designs for At Yas, a trendy boutique that opened in the city two years ago.

In 2006, a group of designers in Lahore set up the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, which worked with IMG Fashion on last year's doomed event and opened Boulevard - the first, it hopes, of several such malls in the country.

Council president Sehyr Saigol says she even hopes to open a Pakistani designer store in India. Improving relations between the two nuclear-armed powers have increased cross-border trade in recent years, with more Pakistani designers showing their collections in India - although few can resist cocking a snook at their neighbour's sense of style.

'Indians have a very upstartish attitude,' says Saigol, who is also the publisher of style magazine Libas. 'India doesn't have good taste. There is a larger middle class, but it's not discerning.'

She says when she started designing 25 years ago, 'there were hardly any Pakistani models or photographers. Now we have a big and growing business, but still don't know how to present ourselves.'

In business terms, Pakistan's fashion industry constitutes a tiny slice of a market that is globally estimated to be worth some US$35 billion. Lock puts it at between US$25 million and US$50 million, 'and some of that is designers selling US$75,000 outfits to Saudi princesses'. But he, like other observers, sees enormous potential for growth.

The biggest market for Pakistani fashion is close to home. Most designers in Pakistan tend to stick to the chaste, body-covering silhouette of the salwar kameez, a traditional south Asian trouser suit worn with a shawl, making them popular in the Middle East.

'India has traditionally focused more on the sari, but we have the edge on the salwar kameez,' says Sobia Nazir, an Islamabad-based designer who also has stores in Lahore and Karachi.

'We play with that silhouette far more than the Indians - constantly changing the length and shape. In places like Dubai they love it.'

But an increasing number of local designers are experimenting with western looks, including the Karachi-based Maheen Khan, whose Gulabo label is especially popular with young city women.

Butt also plans to launch a new label for teenagers that is 'trendy and modern but doesn't show too much flesh'.

Despite recent advances, observers say many Pakistani designers seem apathetic about pulling together to market their product for buyers overseas.

'Pakistan has the most fragmented fashion business in the world,' says Lock, referring in particular to the animosity that exists between the fashion fraternities of Karachi and Lahore, which rip into each other in the pages of glossy magazines. Karachi has even set up its own version of a fashion council, and 'there were lots of rows about fashion week', says Lock.

Part of the problem is that despite the economic reforms of recent years - foremost among them a privatisation of state-run industries and increased access to credit - which have fuelled the growth of an urban middle class, Pakistani society is still dominated by a prosperous elite. In some cases that translates into a disdain for the corporate world.

Nowhere is this truer than in the fashion business.

'Most designers are from the upper echelons of society,' says designer Kamiar Rokni, as he sprawls on a sofa in his office at the back of a palatial villa in Lahore, his cousin and business partner's family home.

'You need a lot of dosh up front, and most use their own or family funding,' says the designer, who also anchors a popular television chat show.

'In fact, your friends can sustain you for years in Pakistan.'

Often, the more elitist a designer appears to be, the more success they will enjoy, says Rokni. 'People don't like to advertise here. They prefer to be inaccessible. They like that 'he's not that easy to get hold of' thing.'

Some designers are beginning to change that. Butt, for instance, is as much a businesswoman as she is a designer: her Maria B label has six outlets in four cities, a franchise in London, and a thriving online sales business.

Butt says Pakistani designers will become more commercially minded when they have the opportunity to compete before foreign buyers at a Pakistani fashion week.

She just hopes that after months of political turbulence, Pakistan's democratic government will usher in a period of peace and stability that will make that possible.