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Look for the worst collection at a Pakistani fashion week and it usually turns out to be one dedicated to menswear. The women’s wear may come with its flaws as well, yo-yoing between the mundane and the gaudy but somehow, there is always at least one menswear line that stands out like a sore thumb on the catwalk. When one talks about fashion weeks being ‘hit and miss’, the menswear is usually the perpetrator behind the misses, cheekily vying for the spot of the worst collection at the event.

The blame for this can be pointed towards Pakistan’s coterie of menswear designers. However, the realm of menswear itself is also at fault. The essence of sophisticated menswear has always been great fabric, subdued colours and cunning tailoring. But place a line-up of classic suits on the catwalk and while they may get a few nods of approval, they are hardly likely to make a splash.

Furthermore, very few menswear designers in Pakistan truly understand the technicalities of cutting a smart suit. More often than not, even basic shapes look distorted, with the suit jacket hanging lopsidedly over the shoulders, tilted collars, trousers hitched too high or wrinkles appearing down the sleeves. To draw attention away from their lack of finesse and to save a collection from being utterly banal, most menswear designers choose to innovate.

If one goes by what’s exhibited on the catwalk, Pakistani menswear is dying an excruciating and gaudy death. But the real artistry is alive and well beyond the spotlight

Unfortunately, they end up delivering multitudes of fashion faux pas. It almost seems as if some of them are tuning into Bollywood movies before sketching out their collections — there are plenty of blinding neons on tin foil fabric with dashes of gold embroidery thrown in. The clothes would fit right into a song and dance mehndi number on the cinema screen but they are merely tacky in real life, and even on the catwalk. There is also a sad inclination towards over-the-top suits that are quite Ranveer Singh-esque — the eccentric actor may be able to carry off those wild prints and tartan checks but the regular Pakistani man, and even the Pakistani model, only manages to look clownish in them.

In recent times, one has sat through shows dominated by unpalatable colour palettes, faux grass wound about the pants, titled umbrella prints splayed across salmon pink shirts and even a rather morose-looking model wearing an upside-down tunic fashioned into a baggy shirt — the last one by Jazib Qamar!

If the purpose is to create unforgettable collections, then these designers succeed — but not in a good way. A single bizarre statement, perhaps saved for the show’s opening or finale, may have shock value. An entire collection fashioned along the same lines is just garish.

Menswear, beyond the catwalk

However, does this mean that menswear in Pakistan is dying? Hardly. It’s just not always there on the catwalk. A quick scan reveals a cabal of ateliers that are quietly going about their businesses, creating well-tailored, urbane options for a thriving clientele.

Designer Ismail Farid showcased his work on a catwalk more than a decade ago but his business continues to thrive. Ahmed Bham, similarly, has a consistent clientele. Also far removed from the catwalk, an unpretentious men’s tailoring brand, titled Ambassador, has long been churning out bespoke clothing for the discerning savant. Ambassador, in fact, was recently in the news for stitching suits for former US President Geroge W. Bush. The late President sent a private jet to pick up the tailor from Ambassador so that he could come to the US and measure his fittings. Who needs the fanfare of a catwalk when you can get such royal treatment without it?

“I always go to Ambassador and their work is exceptional in terms of quality and stitching,” says actor Adnan Siddiqui. “My suits, as well as my Eastern-wear, gets stitched there. When I was shooting for the Bollywood movie Mom in India, I would usually be wearing a kurta and shalwar, pairing it with a pair of Peshawari chappals. Everyone loved it. Once I came back to Pakistan, I actually went to Ambassador and got some similar designs stitched for my friends in India.”

He continues, “I don’t usually like what I see on the catwalk. So many basic nitty-gritties are overlooked. In a well-fitted suit, the cuffs of the shirt need to be visible which means that the coat sleeves have to be a specific length, the coat needs to fall at the shoulders in a certain way, the trouser’s fall has to be perfect. There is fabric and colours that are for the day and others that are for the night. So many young designers don’t seem to understand this and so many of my peers tend to get over-experimental, not realising that there’s nothing more sophisticated than wearing a well-tailored suit. I don’t buy any of my formal-wear from abroad but I do make sure that it is stitched right in Pakistan.”

Humayun Saeed, another actor who makes plenty of red carpet appearances — and needs the right wardrobe to complement them — also says that he gets his formal-wear made in Pakistan. “I have never really looked at what’s trending on the catwalk. My formal-wear usually gets stitched by designers such as Ahmed Bham and Ismail Farid. For casuals, though, we don’t have too many options in Pakistan. Since I travel for work very often, I end up buying my casual-wear from abroad.”

Actor Ali Rehman Khan, originally from Islamabad and now stationed in Karachi, similarly gets a lot of his eastern kurta shalwars stitched by his tailor in Islamabad. “A lot of my suits are from menswear brand Mohtaram, while the formal eastern-wear is usually by designer Nomi Ansari.”

It’s clear that there do exist some very good menswear ateliers in Pakistan — unfortunately, most of them aren’t always visible on the catwalk. “I haven’t felt the inclination to show on the runway because my business is doing well, regardless,” observes designer Ismail Farid. “I feel that a lot of the models aren’t able to carry my suits well and also, the customers that I’m targeting don’t seem to be too excited by fashion weeks. They would rather come to me and order bespoke suiting. I do invest in fashion editorial shoots, though, because I feel that I’m able to be creative in them.”

A few good men

Nevertheless, there is also a small smattering of menswear designers who understand the balance between elegant design and fashion-forward looks for the catwalk. Republic by Omar Farooq, for instance, has been a fashion week mainstay, showcasing twice a year for the past decade or so. His thematic collections are always impressive, never gaudy but never boring either.

“I like the catwalk to narrate my personal perspective and frequently mix together different pieces,” says Omar. “Every outfit has one particular piece that will be the highlight, and my goal is to make the customer want to wear that piece in his own individual way. I also subliminally follow colour gradients. If one outfit has yellow in it, I will mix the same shade in another way in the next outfit or add it to an accessory in the subsequent look. In this way, the colour very cohesively persists throughout the collection and appeals to the eye.”

In recent times, Republic has put forward some uber-cool Western pret for men, diving into the nightlife of Tokyo or seeking artistic inspiration from historic symbols. But even in the more conventional market for eastern-wear, the brand made a mark at the PFDC Bridal Week last year with traditional wear fashioned from hand-loomed fabric and regal monotone embroideries.

Deepak Perwani, another designer who makes a kill in the menswear market, points out that his forte lies in selecting great fabric and stitching it just right. “Fit and fabric are everything,” says Deepak, “regardless of whether you’re designing eastern pret or anglicised suits. There are so many different layers to menswear in the Pakistani market, running the gamut from the many events that are part of a Pakistani wedding to cocktail-wear — blazers, suits and jackets. One thing that I don’t believe in is in reinventing the suit. A well-cut suit makes an impact. It doesn’t need to be tweaked at all.”

HSY, also a big fan of the classic suit, says that the key to his success in menswear lies in creating clothes that he himself would want to wear. “I just basically design my own wardrobe,” he says. “And I think that my strength lies in knowing exactly how to drape the fabric. There are so many subtle nuances to menswear — where to place the darts, how the coat needs to fall, how the fabric needs to suit the wearer’s unique physique. I enjoy looking into all these details.”

There are some other names that are popular: Amir Adnan’s classic sherwanis, for example, are impeccable — preferably in black — Deepak n Fahad have a flair for artistic tweaks, Emraan Rajput is noticeable for his tailoring and palettes and Nauman Arfeen has an eye for subtle eastern-wear.

At the same time, rising to the fore, are bridal ateliers that are also diversifying into menswear. From Shehla Chatoor’s exquisitely quilted men’s jackets, complementing bridal clothes on the catwalk, to a range of embellished options by brands such as Elan, Sana Safinaz, Nomi Ansari, Fahad Hussayn and SFK Bridals, women’s wear designers are fast developing a sophisticated eye for menswear.

“Grooms-wear really sells,” observes Omar Farooq, “which is why everyone’s extended their businesses to it and making it a part of their bridal shows.”

But what you see on the catwalk may not always be a clear picture of the options available in the market. With the exception of a few brands, menswear on the runway is dying a garish, slow death. Look beyond the spotlight, however, and the market’s buzzing with great design!

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 12th, 2019