STYLE: WHERE IS FASHION’S GEN-X?

December 09, 2018

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Illustration By Soonhal Khan | Photo: Tapu Javeri
Illustration By Soonhal Khan | Photo: Tapu Javeri

Pakistani fashion has evolved into a glittering money-minting mammoth, but mammoths can also be lumbering, tiresome creatures. They may momentarily rule the earth — like the dinosaurs before them — but they also run the risk of going extinct. And there are plenty of mammoths presently presiding over local fashion; established veteran names firmly perched at the top since their glory days, receiving awards and christening themselves as ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ of fashion on social media.

There is nothing particularly wrong about this, especially since most of Pakistan’s fashion pioneers truly do set new benchmarks every time they put forward a new collection. Joining them on their pedestal is a motley crew of younger labels that, having completed a decade or two in the industry, can also be slotted under the ‘veteran’ category. This group is still making plenty of waves, entering new collaborations, putting out grandiose solo shows, mastering social media marketing, treading international waters and vying to rule an increasingly crowded high street.

But how can an industry grow simply on the strength of its old guard? Where are the bright sparks that can be identified as fashion’s ‘Gen-X’, ready to take on the future, shaking things up with bouts of creativity, steamrollering fashion right out of dinosaur land and on to newer realms? Where is fashion’s next generation?

It’s around somewhere, that’s for sure, because an increasing number of young people are studying fashion design in schools dotted all about the country. Slotted amongst the top schools currently teaching design-centric academia in Pakistan is the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVSAA) in Karachi and, in Lahore, the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD) and the National College of Arts (NCA).

While an increasing number of young people are studying fashion design in schools dotted all across the country, very few have been identifiable as the ‘future of fashion’. Where are the rest of graduating designers disappearing off to?

Amongst the many other fashion schools with curricula related to fashion, there is Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University (BNU) and the Asian Institute of Fashion Design (AIFD) in Karachi.

And yet, based on recent fashion week showcases, only a very small smattering of designers have been identifiable as the ‘future of fashion’ over the past five years: namely Hira Ali, Hussain Rehar, Hamza Bokhari and Zonia Anwaar. Where are the rest of the graduating designers disappearing off to?

Nabbed by the high street

A model wears Hussain Rehar and the designer backstage with his models at PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week | Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly
A model wears Hussain Rehar and the designer backstage with his models at PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week | Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly

Apparently, they are all getting snapped up by the local high street for ready-to-wear and unstitched fabric. In fact, designer Hassan Shehryar Yasin observes, “Shut the fashion schools and more than half the high street brands in the market will shut down.”

“Creative, fresh, fashion and textile graduates are truly the wheels currently steering the high street,” says designer Zara Shahjahan, whose eponymous label dabbles into multiple design territories, traversing couture, ready-to-wear and high in demand unstitched lines. “There is quite literally a war going on when PIFD students display their final theses collections because every designer wants to immediately hire the really creative graduates. Within my own design house, about half of my team is from NCA and the other half is from PIFD.”

One of the main reasons why young graduates are opting for jobs rather than launching their own label is that the latter option has simply become too expensive. Designer Adnan Pardesy — who has also regularly taught at IVSAA — remembers that when he first started off his career back in 2003, fresh out of AIFD, he just had a single tailor and embroiderer working with him. “Now, a debutante designer needs space for a workshop and enough money to invest into fashion week participation fees and social media marketing,” he says.

On the flipside, a job with a successful high street brand can prove to be quite profitable. Waleed Zaman, Kayseria’s Creative Director, says, “The starting salary of a new designer tends to be somewhere between 45,000 rupees and 55,000 rupees in most cases. But as a designer puts in more years into a company, the job perks and salary increase and a decade of experience can lead up to a salary between 350,000 rupees and 400,000 rupees.

“The growth of the high street has been instrumental in getting fashion designing to be perceived as a respectable, lucrative career and made more jobs available to young fashion students,” he continues. “A lot of times, a promising designer may lack the business acumen to run a label of his or her own. By joining into a well-established brand with an efficient infrastructure and offering a good pay package, the designer can focus simply on his or her creativity.”

Regardless, designers working for a brand are required to mould their aesthetics to the design’s ideology. “Only recently, we had to let go of one of our brightest recruits because his preference was more towards Western silhouettes while our brand has always had definitive Eastern roots,” confirms Waleed.

Designer Yahsir Waheed, who has been working with the PIFD ever since its inception, says that fashion schools generally advise young graduates to work for at least two years with a brand before they decide on whether or not they want to fly solo. “That way they learn the ropes, gain some business sense and, if needed, collect the finances required to launch their own labels.”

But in the process, young designers trained to push the sartorial envelope while in school inevitably end up curbing their creativity. Does this creativity take a permanent backseat once they are settled into cushy jobs? Do most of them even want to make a big break into fashion?

Designing realities

“When we were in college, we all used to think that we’d graduate and become the next big designer,” recalls Jannat Gul Tarar, a Bachelors in Fashion graduate from PIFD’s class of May 2018, who is now part of the design team at high street brand Generation. “When we graduate, we realise that it’s not easy to start out on your own. You need space, workers, machinery and enough capital to advertise. I joined Generation thinking that I would work here for a while and then leave to launch my own label. But now, I love the environment, I get paid well and I don’t think that I would want to give all that up and risk starting my own brand. Most of the graduates I know feel the same way.”

Fajar Sajid, another fashion graduate from PIFD’s class of May 2018, is currently working with designer Faraz Manan. “I wanted to work with Faraz Manan because I really like his aesthetic and I knew that I would learn a lot from him. I have also interned with Sana Safinaz in the past. I just think that it’s really important to get work experience and develop my own identity before launching my own brand.”

Up till last year, new designers wanting to make their mark would be given a taste of the spotlight via the Bank Alfalah Rising Talent omnibus at the biannual fashion weeks orchestrated by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) and Fashion Pakistan Council (FPC) in Lahore and Karachi, respectively. Capsule collections of promising young designers would be showcased and, while they were often hit and miss, the shows did prove to be a launch-pad for bright sparks such as Hira Ali, Hamza Bokhari and Maheen Taseer. Both councils were fond of referring to how the show promoted ‘fashion’s future.’ But ever since the main sponsor backed out last year, no announcement has been made about continuing with the platform.

“It’s important that fashion councils continue to support young talent,” points out Imrana Shehryar, Head of Textile Design at IVSAA. “A few — or even one — talented designers can be singled out every season, perhaps in collaboration with fashion schools, and they could be allowed a free slot at fashion week and be mentored by senior designers.”

The dean of IVSAA, Shehnaz Ismail, adds, “The industry has a responsibility to fashion schools to take students on board and help them gain direction.”

The council angle

“As a fashion council, we strong believe that we are not achieving anything unless we are introducing new designers to the industry,” says Sehyr Saigol, Chairperson of the PFDC. “Hira Ali is a new designer and when she debuted her bridal collection at the PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week this year, we sponsored the show entirely. Also, earlier this year, we especially curated the collections of the mostly new designers whose work was featured in the PFDC PEL Art of Craft show. A Belgian trade delegation that met us recently saw the work of over 80 designers which included some very new ones. And in the years that the Rising Talent show was a part of every fashion week, every debutante featured on the platform was given a free rack at the PFDC Boulevard store for a certain amount of time.

“If the dean of PIFD points out a student to us, saying that he or she is promising, we do take a look at that student’s work. However, it is important for young designers to understand the nuances of building a business before they launch on their own. For this, it usually helps if they work within an established atelier for some time.”

Deepak Perwani, Chairperson of FPC, says, “The council will always support fashion potential and, at every fashion week, we subsidise newcomers that we feel deserve a chance. For instance, we recently included Shahmeer Ansari with his brand Sastre in our designer line-up and, earlier, we had given an opportunity to another young brand, Boheme by Kanwal. It is important to note, though, that a lot of designers aren’t very consistent with their work. The council is there to help them out, but if they themselves don’t seriously work on their careers, we can’t do anything about it.”

Career confusions

Perhaps more can be done? Madiha Raza, a young designer who shone as the winner in 2014’s Maybelline NY Millennial Fashion show organised by the FPC, remembers her first — and only — fashion week showcase in 2015. “My prize was a free slot in Fashion Pakistan Week (FPW) the following year. There was no cash prize and this meant that I had to invest into a new collection. And after my show, I still had to consider putting the collection up for retail by renting out a rack at a multi-retail store. Just to start off my career, I needed an investment of about 500,000 rupees! Winners don’t just need a free slot at fashion week — they need some sort of financial investment or subsidised retail space!”

Faiz Rohani, an AIFD graduate who participated in the Rising Talent show in 2014, recalls, “I was still very confused about how to build my career following the Rising Talent showcase. I couldn’t afford to pay the considerable fashion week participation fees or advertise everywhere. Most of my friends who graduated with me faced similar dilemmas and they are now either employed within a fashion brand or operating small-scale businesses where they just design from their homes and sell via exhibits to a limited clientele.” Faiz, meanwhile, switched gears completely and is now working with IRK Films.

Fashion’s flipside: the rich socialite

Hira Ali’s show was entirely sponsored by the PFDC, says Chairperson Sehyr Saigol | Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly
Hira Ali’s show was entirely sponsored by the PFDC, says Chairperson Sehyr Saigol | Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly

With most graduates not having the finances to launch out on their own, a large contingent of ‘designers’ continue to be women who are well-traveled, have great aesthetics and the wherewithal to afford a good design team. Over a span of years, they make heavy duty investments into advertising, flashy exhibits, swanky stores and, lo and behold, they evolve into becoming upper-tier designers despite never having gone to design school. The success stories of these designers — and there are so many of them — brings forward the question: is going to design school even important?

Mohsin Ali, a PIFD graduate who will always be remembered as one of the brightest designers to have ventured on to the PFDC’s catwalk back in 2014, now works at Sana Safinaz and presents his perspective, “Going to fashion school isn’t really important to become a successful designer. If you have the finances and have great aesthetics then that’s all you really need.

“Meanwhile, fashion school graduates need to understand that what they learn in school is not enough for them to know how to start their own brands,” he continues. “You graduate and step out into the real world and realise that you know nothing about what the market wants or how to make your work relatable to the Pakistani market. It doesn’t matter if a designer’s personal ethos differs from that of the brand that he or she works for. There will be always be something to learn. Having worked at Sana Safinaz and learnt so much, I now feel that the whole fashion school scenario really isn’t imperative.”

But without fashion students there would be no booming high street teeming with creative young talent and apparel would lose its finesse at the hands of hit-and-miss tailors. Shawana Khalil, a professor at PIFD stresses, “We keep tweaking the curriculum so that students have a lot of know-how about local and international trends and are adept at working with different fabrics, textures and silhouettes. Not every graduate may become famous but he or she will be an inherent, very important part of the fashion industry.”

HSY, who has lately been devoting time to mentoring the young, says, “An individual may innately have great aesthetic sense but fashion schools hone these aesthetics. If promising designers are ending up playing second fiddle to a woman with a big diamond then it is something that we, as senior designers, need to correct. We need to fund the right designers, help line up investors for them, teach them all that we can and let them fly.”

But very few fledgling designers are flying so far. Many are merely flapping their wings while others have clipped them off and settled into becoming cogwheels within massive design teams. Could senior designers rise to the challenge and not just hire new designers but also support them in their individual careers? Could fashion councils offer greater subsidies and more retail opportunities to promising new brands? Could the government step in and sponsor young fashion entrants? And could all this happen before fashion’s next gen gets lost in the crowd completely?

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 9th, 2018