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Monday May 21, 2012

Fascinating fashions of Pakistan

Pakistan’s designers show off their works with aplomb.

THINK of Pakistan, and chances are, images that spring to mind would be that of military rule, thanks to the negative press we’ve been exposed to.

So, when I was asked if I’d like to attend Pakistan Fashion Week, I was surprised such an event even existed, and I had my reservations about going. It didn’t help that when I posted my impending trip on Facebook and asked if I should take US dollars or Pakistan rupees, a German friend joked that I should bring a bullet-proof vest.

Gorgeous gown with rich colours and border, designed by Nickie and Nina.

But my initial doubts were unfounded. The fifth installation of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) Sunsilk Fashion Week – held in Lahore, Pakistan last month – was truly an eye-opener. Not only did it introduce me to some exceptional design talent in the country, I also learnt much about an amazing textile industry that supports this talent. And I had a chance to experience the genuine warmth of the people who are far removed from the images of aggression that are commonly shown in the media.

Such hospitality was extended by not only the hosts of the event, but almost everyone I met – from the people on the airplane to the driver who took us to the hotel, and the hotel staff, including a 213cm-tall security personnel who, after running my bag through a metal detector, gave me a big, genuine smile and wished me: “A very good day, sir.”

A group of us from the international fashion industry had been brought in by the PFDC, not only to witness the fashion week, but also to get a taste of what Pakistan is all about.

I had the privilege of going around with a few international buyers, visiting the country’s top designers in their showrooms, and even a few of their factories. I was amazed by their detailed and intricate hand embroidery and other embellishing methods typical to this part of the world.

During my exploration, I learnt that 90% of the embroidery from the Indian subcontinent originates from Pakistan. I also discovered that Pakistan is the fourth biggest cotton producer in the world, hence it is no wonder that clothing and textile make up two-thirds of the country’s total exports.

Figures aside, I was impressed by the creative talent I saw, which makes the most of the indigenous fabrics, materials and embellishing techniques available in the country.

Much of the design industry has grown from the tradition of women buying their own cotton fabrics and taking these to their tailors to sew. It is this very tradition that inspired the PFDC to bring couturiers and fashion mills together, and have the fashion designers create seasonal collections, which now literally millions of Pakistani women buy and wear.

Flowing gowns by Azeeza Desai Khan (aka Azza).

The PFDC is a non-profit organisation made up of 50 of Pakistan’s leading fashion designers, all driven to grow their country’s fashion industry. Apart from running two multi-label stores stocking their designer members’ fashion, PFDC organises the annual PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week, a highly anticipated fashion event in Lahore, the cultural heart of Pakistan.

Just because it is put together by a group of designers, some may think the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week is a small, casual do. But nothing could be further from the truth. All the designers bring to the table not only their talents but also their teams. And, believe me, these teams are huge in comparison to designers from other countries – with some having hundreds of staff members! It was heartwarming to see how everyone came together for a common goal.

Additionally, PFDC has its own staff and board members as well as a PR agency, which invited dozens of media, including TV stations, and even managed to bring in British Vogue magazine. It was a fashion extravaganza held over four days, with each day showcasing a minimum of six designers. All the shows were held in Lahore’s new, state-of-the-art convention centre, where a stage had been installed with big LCD screens so that guests could get close-ups of the models and clothes.

The shows presented a mix of summery collections from casual wear to pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) and couture.

Couture apparently forms the core of the business for most of the local designers, as intricate creations (costing thousands of US dollars) are much sought-after for weddings. In these couture creations, Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage comes alive in the intricate embroidery, crystal and beadwork, and mukesh, a technique of embedding flat metals (such as silver) into the fabric.

However, not all the designs were traditional or typically Pakistani. I was impressed by a number of designers whose creations would definitely have a market in the West. Ammar Belal’s fun and preppy knits and designer jeans, for example, could easily make the transition from the catwalk straight into any store in the world. Because his designs have such universal appeal, they could be mass-produced in Pakistan. I also liked his story, which he shared with Vogue’s reporter and me, as we were waiting outside for our transport.

“My earliest memories as a child are of playing hide and seek among the vibrant coloured mountains of cotton jersey fabric in my parents’ knitwear factory. This collection is dedicated to my mother who gave me a beautiful childhood that helped me find myself and moulded me into who I am today,” he said.

Other designers who made a mark on me were:

> Sisters Nickie and Nina, who mix East and West, textures and colours in their innovative and universally appealing luxury label, Nicke Nina. Their military-inspired collection was impressive and well thought out, from concept to execution;

> Azeeza Desai Khan, whose label Azza stamps avant garde clothes with traditional embellishments and embroidery;

> Fahad Hussayn, a young bridal couturier, who presented bold monochromatic sheer palazzo trousers, embroidered tunic tops and black bejewelled short shift dresses; and

> Zonia Anwaar, who had easy-to-wear designs in bright block colours inspired by the Inca tribe.

Meanwhile, I thought the fashion brand Karma was very well-managed in terms of marketing and sales; not only do they have four different labels and 11 retail destinations in Pakistan, but their overall business set-up was most professional and ready to conquer the export market. And not forgetting Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, the creator of couture label HSY, who truly knows and understands high fashion.

The list goes on, and there were many more noteworthy designers and brands.

Pakistan is definitely an up-and-coming fashion destination which should definitely be explored, especially as Malaysia and Pakistan enjoy a free trade agreement. But more than fashion, I now know the people are truly amazing hosts, and I definitely plan to return to discover more about this fascinating nation.

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