STYLE: LEGENDS OF THE LAWN

March 31, 2019

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Pakistan’s love for lawn is undeniable and eternal. Nearly two decades ago, voile manufacturers came up with the bright idea that they should collaborate with designers for collections of unstitched fabric. There has really been no looking back. In international realms, an Alexander McQueen diffused to McQ and an Armani has an Armani Exchange for the high street. In Pakistan, the high-end aesthetics of a Sana Safinaz, Rizwan Beyg or Shamaeel Ansari trickled down to affordable lawn, creating a small furore.

The line-up of lawn designers has magnified manifold and one would think that the frenzy would have abated. But it hasn’t, really. Lawn season arrives every year with mass hysteria surrounding the bookings and pre-bookings of favourite brands, to say nothing of the videos that trend on social media of women screaming, shoving and harassing salesmen for the coveted suits of their choice. And even though such videos surface every year, they never cease to shock. Pakistan’s persevering love for lawn truly is phenomenal.

LAWN AND THE URBAN MYTH

As is the case with most phenomena, lawn is surrounded by many urban legends — many of which turn out to be true. There’s the story of women who place buckets of water in the backseats of their cars when they go off to do their lawn shopping. In a race to be the first ones to wear their lawn suits, they make their purchases and shrink the fabric there and then, before rushing it off to their tailor. I can testify to being an eyewitness to this particular curiosity, having observed it in the days of yore when Sana Safinaz would hold limited edition lawn exhibits.

The phenomenon of lawn and its many urban legends continues, even as the mass hysteria inspired by most designer collections cannot be denied

Then there are the perplexing, Star Plus-like stories of saas-bahu one-upmanship that are commonly heard, of how a woman gave away her brand new lawn suit — usually priced between 6,000 and 9,000 rupees, and stitched for around 2,000 rupees — when she saw her sister-in-law/mum-in-law wearing the same. Tsk.

Also, believe it or not, lawn retailers vouch that, as soon as a lawn suit is declared ‘sold out’, the demand for it increases. Zohaib Nagda, the Managing Director of Al-Zohaib Textiles, churns out multiple collaborative collections with different designers through the year, and he once observed to me that, as soon as the online booking option on his website declares that a suit is no longer available, more customers immediately begin to enquire about it. “I can’t do anything about it,” Zohaib had said.

But a lot of wily lawn manufacturers cash in on this consumer behavior by announcing that a collection is no longer available, making customers fret that they weren’t quick enough to grab the lawns of their choice. The manufacturers then magnanimously announce that more stock of the high-in-demand suits has been especially produced for the benefit of customers who’d missed out, and sales tend to skyrocket.

The local black market for lawn is additionally a big money-earner. Small-time retailers observe which suits are more in demand, quickly buy several of them and, once the stock officially sells out, retail these suits at an increment. Lawn lovers tend to buy them, willing to pay a few extra thousand rupees for the suits of their choice.

There’s more. A very believable lawn legend has been floating about for some time about the low-quality copies of lawn suits that are available at a fraction of the original price, and are readily available in local market-places. Apparently, certain business-savvy designers got tired of losing out on sales when customers chose to buy copies of their designs, and they decided to manufacture the original as well as the substandard copy. This way, the designers earn from the more affluent sector that buys the originals, as well as from the less affluent who gravitate towards the copies. Win-win. And pure business genius.

BUT IS LAWN REALLY FASHION?

One wonders, though, if today’s luxury lawn is truly fashion-forward? There was a time when Rizwan Beyg and Shamaeel Ansari created swathes that were trickled down versions of their couture aesthetics. The collections would be a hit because they allowed customers to wear bona fide designer creations at affordable prices.

Somehow, over the years, the essence of designer lawn has more or less been lost, to be replaced by a rat race where hundreds of brands vie to sell off multiple-piece, embroidered, semi-formal jigsaw puzzles. Sana Hashwani of Sana Safinaz, one of the few brands that continues to have a decipherable ethos dictating its unstitched fabric, observes, “Our lawn is very ostensibly our own because it is a translation of what we create within our couture. However, lawn can’t be too experimental. It can’t be revolutionised completely because that’s not what the customer is looking for. It has to be created in a way that makes its wearer look beautiful, meant to be worn through the day or saved for an evening soiree.”

DECIPHERING LAWN’S MAGIC SPELL

Then again, there are now plenty of ready-to-wear options in the market that can also be worn comfortably through the day and follow conventionally pretty lines. What magic spell does lawn have that continues to entrance consumers? What makes this unstitched fabric so covetable year after year after year? Sana Hashwani points out the obvious. “Lawn is just Pakistan’s indigenous fabric, perfectly suited to our long summers,” she says. “I don’t think that women will ever stop buying it because it’s the most comfortable fabric one can wear when it gets hot.”

Shamoon Sultan of Khaadi elaborates further: “Buying unstitched lawn is often a hobby for women. They design it the way they want to, picking out laces and buttons to go with it, and get it stitched to their size by tailors. Younger women in urban centers may be inclined towards pret but a lot of women, usually above a certain age, prefer to get their fabric stitched themselves.”

But while there may always be a demand for lawn, the market is constantly expanding with more contenders. How do veteran lawn labels make sure that they stay ahead in the game and keep catching customers’ attention? “One has to keep innovating, of course,” says Sana. “Every year, we add new nuances to a lawn suit: a net dupatta, new weaves, chikankari, little buttons or a shift from print to more solid colours.

“Over the years, we have also realised that women require slightly less formal suits for day-wear and more elaborate ones for the evening,” Sana continues. “Our ‘Muzlin’ collection is more in line with the high street, less embellished and more economical.”

Many other textile mills and designers also opt to create different lawn collections through the year, some catering to the market for luxury-wear and others that are lighter and lower-priced. Designer Khadijah Shah, for instance, creates lower-priced options under her label ‘Zaha’ and pricier, more formal suits for her longstanding brand ‘Elan’. “I am very vigilant about quality even with the low-priced suits,” says the designer. “Customers need to be given value for money. I think this is the main reason why our collections are so popular. I also keep making changes in the designs, of course. This year, for instance, there are chikans, cut-worked chifflies and textured fabric incorporated into many of the lawn outfits.”

In the clustered, competitive market for lawn, almost all major brands have the foresight to innovate with their yearly fabric collections. The basic leitmotif gets tweaked constantly. Designer Zara Shahjahan has dabbled with new textures this year — her ‘Cross-Stitch’ collection boasts woven dupattas — Farah Talib Aziz is fixated with chikankari, Image Fabrics mixes and matches their classic chikan with chiffon and silk dupattas, and so on. Massive amounts of time and money are also invested into marketing lawn in an attractive way — this usually involves shooting the catalogue in a foreign location, advertising with multiple online platforms and hiring a celebrity as the face of the brand. This celebrity was earlier often from Bollywood, back when India and Pakistan were on more cordial terms. This year, though, brands are restricting themselves to local stars.

Faraz Manan
Faraz Manan

“Every designer lawn has its market,” Israr, a salesman at the thriving Saleem Fabrics in Lahore’s Liberty Market tells me. “From Crimson to Sana Safinaz, Elan, Zara Shahjahan, Farah Talib Aziz and Faraz Manan, there is a demand for hit suits in every collection. Some of the crowds have diverted to these designers’ flagship stores where the suits are also available, but a lot of women come here also, because we have a wider variety of different labels available under a single roof.”

WHAT SELLS OUT?

Regardless, not all lawn suits get sold out and very few collections are all-out hits. Usually, a few suits are high in demand while the rest are seen festering away in fabric retail shops for months, sold away at discounts. In a market that is overflowing with options, there are more flops than hits. The few hit suits run out quickly, and it is a common practice for shopkeepers to secretly stash them away for loyal customers, selling them at an additional premium.

“These suits will be sold out at a profit of 2,000 rupees. They are hit suits,” a retailer in Karachi’s Plaza Market tells me on the condition that I don’t mention the name of his shop.

“The hit suits in every collection run out really soon and we get to hear about how they are being sold at catastrophically high prices in the black market,” reveals Faraz Manan. “I only recently found out that two of the most popular suits in my latest lawn collection are being sold at 18,000 rupees when they are originally priced at 7,500 rupees!”

What is the secret to making a collection that boasts more hits than misses, that can proudly claim to be ‘sold out’?

“Being sold-out isn’t necessarily a sign that a lawn collection is a hit,” says Shamoon Sultan, referring to his more-than-six years of experience in retailing unstitched lawn at Khaadi. “Designers working on their own, without a collaboration with a known textile mill, produce only limited quantities that are likely to finish off very soon. A retail business like Khaadi, on the other hand, needs to ensure that an abundant supply of fabric is available at all times. The quantities that we sell are significantly larger and are distributed across our branches in Pakistan and the GCC.”

Likewise, other retail stores such as Gul Ahmed, Al-Karam, Sapphire and Nishat Linen will mostly have clothing racks that are full. This may not necessarily mean that they haven’t been selling well — it’s just that they create far more stock than standalone designer labels.

But regardless of whether there is more stock or less, the mass hysteria inspired by certain collections can’t be denied. This year, for instance, Elan lawn’s pre-booking in Lahore alone resulted in a mini-stampede with masses of women screaming for the suits that they wanted, captured in a video that has promptly gone viral on social media.

Elan’s designer Khadijah Shah posted on her Insta-story, “Our customers are our pride and joy! … They are free to be passionate about what they like, like people all over the world! ... We’ve all seen mad sales abroad, whether at Zara, HNM [H&M] … kudos to women who go for what they want … and to Elan’s valued customers, guys I’d just like you to know that there is enough stock …”

The video had apparently been filmed by a customer, but gossip was rife in the fashion industry that Elan itself had chosen to film the crowds of women, that this was a planned PR strategy calculated to raise hype about the upcoming lawn and so on. The phenomenon of lawn and its many urban legends, it seems, will continue.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 31st, 2019