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Illustration by Rohail Safdar
Illustration by Rohail Safdar

Fashion is aspirational and covetable. Some would say that, in its purest form, it can be the stuff of dreams. But it can also be what harrowing nightmares are made of.

In one of the most famous scenes from the hit Richard Gere-Julia Roberts movie Pretty Woman, an untidily dressed Julia Roberts walks into a high-end boutique. The snooty saleswomen tell her to leave. She returns the following day, head-to-toe clad in designer-wear purchased via her lover’s credit card, and cheerily tells the saleswomen that they made a ‘big mistake’.

It’s a mistake that fashion designers and their staff make often. Fast-forwarding from ’90’s Hollywood to present day Pakistan, a woman walking into a high-end boutique may be judged by the designer shoes that she wears, or the branded handbag that she carries. These benchmarks could be used by the staff, or the head designer, to assess precisely how much she is capable of spending. Accordingly, she may be met with courteous enthusiasm or just curt nods. A fair bit of snobbery may also intimidate the client, so that she does not haggle too much over the price. There are, of course, those who refuse to get bullied and make sure that they get their money’s worth. But there are also others who get smitten by the designer’s celebrity aura, bear with their haughty tantrums and agree to pay astronomical sums.

Horrifying? There’s more. Ever heard of the bride who broke down on her wedding day because her dress arrived late, stitched in the wrong size? Or the bride who sat waiting in the salon on her wedding day, expecting her designer bridal jorra to be delivered there, but which never arrived? The production had gotten delayed and the designer had assured her that her dress would reach the salon in time for her wedding. Instead, the bride waited till 10 in the night, all made up but sans a dress. In its place she finally received an envelope stuffed with money, with a message from the designer that the dress could not get made. She ended up borrowing the salon owner’s daughter’s old bridal clothes.

In contrast to fashion’s shiny outward veneer, there are plenty of stories of high-end designers delivering wedding orders late, wrong or even not at all. It’s the stuff nightmares about the big day are made of

Or how about the sleeve that ripped off as soon as it was worn? Or the neckline, stitched incorrectly, that plunged down far too deep? Or the designer who had a customer threatened and kicked out of her shop? Or the groom whose sherwani, delivered late, was too tight — or too loose? Or the customer who wanted to meet the designer for a consultation but was told that it was only possible if an order worth several millions was placed first?

The market for wedding wear is indisputably the biggest money-earner for local fashion designers. Fashion aficionados may not have the wherewithal to splurge out on high-end designer pret but, for their big day, they save up just so that they can wear the label of their choice. And indeed, a small number of high-end local designers are well-known for their prowess at creating clothes that are truly artisanal — melding luxe fabrics with intricate craftsmanship and tailoring to create veritable heirlooms that can be treasured forever.

A much larger chunk of designers, however, are fast earning the reputation of messing up orders…

The case of the haughty designer

Designers can be haughty. Wrapped up in their high fashion bubbles, they may arch sardonic eyebrows at the commonplace lack of creativity surrounding them. They may choose to go the Karl Lagerfeld route and try to sit front row at fashion shows, their faces impassive, hidden behind dark sunglasses.

But Lagerfeld was a powerhouse who was constantly creating new design, shifting from one label to the other, catering to a massive clientele. For all his controversial statements, his achievements are impressive. This is no excuse for his arrogance but, on the other hand, it’s still better than the designer who doesn’t manage to deliver but still decides to be haughty. That is annoying rather than impressive.

“My daughter wanted to wear a crimson wedding dress and, when we went to meet the designer of our choice, we showed him a picture of the shade that we wanted,” recalls one disgruntled customer, the mother of the bride. “The designer took it as an affront and told us not to tell him what to do. ‘Am I the designer or are you’ he asked. We weren’t being disrespectful at all towards him. He didn’t need to flare up. Then, after the order was placed, he delivered it a week late. We had to call his office daily, reminding them about our order.

“The dress was beautiful but I think that it wasn’t worth the expenditure and the stress that we had to endure.”

Another woman describes her experience. “My daughter ordered her mehndi jorra from a very well-known designer and then returned to the US. As the event date loomed closer, we began to make calls to the designer’s studio daily. The staff refused to let us talk to the designer directly and kept telling us that our clothes were ‘almost done’ or ‘being couriered tonight’. When the clothes still hadn’t arrived, we asked one of our relatives in Pakistan to go to the designer’s studio and inquire after the clothes. The relative managed to meet the designer and he said to her, ‘I’m so irritated with this order. They keep pestering us with phone calls. We are sending the dress but I don’t feel like sending it at all.’

“It was such a cruel statement. We were livid. We had paid half the advance — quite a large sum — for the dress already so we couldn’t back out. But we were full-paying customers as well as such big fans of this designer. We had actually come to him with high hopes and, given how famous he is, had never expected him to behave so unprofessionally. The dress did arrive — just a day before the mehndi.”

This eye-opener from another client is particularly distasteful: “My daughter and I entered a designer’s studio and we were immediately crowded by his staff. They very rudely asked us, ‘Do you know where you are? Do you know who this designer is?’ We replied that we did and that we wanted to look around the studio since we hadn’t yet decided upon what kind of dress we wanted. At this point, the designer also came out of his office and yelled at us, ‘Do you even know who I am?’ We told him that if he minded it so much, we would just come again, after taking an appointment. But we never did go there again. We just went to another designer, who very respectfully allowed us to look around, decide what we liked and then place our order.”

The woman continues, “Bridal wear is expensive and it is quite common for people to visit different studios, decide what they like and what falls in their budget, and then make a selection. I don’t know why that designer was so rude to us. Was it because my daughter and I wear veils and abayas? Was it because we hadn’t come with the reference of someone famous? Regardless, we were potential paying customers.”

Then there is the case of the groom whose sherwani arrived late — on the day of the wedding — a size too small, with him being forced to borrow clothes from his brother. “If this is how big designers behave, we are better off saving ourselves some money and approaching a smaller, more receptive brand,” rants the riled groom, “or just getting the clothes made ourselves!” 

The case of prices

The curious case of changing price tags is also a common crib against designers, particularly in the case of wedding-wear. Designer wedding-wear is expensive, easily costing a few millions and, leaving aside a few good men (and women), most of the fashion fraternity refrains from writing out receipts for the orders that they take. This allows them to happily evade paying large sums in taxes for the big revenues they are raking in.

“The designer that we went to charged us 0.5 million rupees for a valima dress,” recounts a recent customer. “She’s very popular and we were surprised when she just scrawled out our bill on a small chit. The charges were for the three-piece dress — shirt, lehnga and dupatta — as well as a small bridal clutch that went with it. The receipt did not say this. All she wrote on the chit was our name and the total amount. We were asked to pay the price in cash only. It was evident that she wanted to avoid paying taxes, which is why she was not accepting cheques or credit card payments.

“But when we arrived to pick up our order, the designer told us that we had to pay an extra 30,000 rupees for the clutch bag. We couldn’t even argue because there was nothing written on our receipt. In retrospect, we should have asked her to write the details out when we placed the order but, honestly, we hadn’t expected her to back out. Again, the amount had to be in cash. We had to go to a nearby ATM, get the money out and then pay her.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there are brands that write out detailed receipts and give customers the option to pay however they like. “It actually helps us avoid miscommunications,” says a designer who has a store on Karachi’s ‘it’ E-Street area. “The customer, as well as our team, knows exactly what has been ordered. Also, customers can pay however they like but if they pay by cheque, we tell them that they have to wait for two days while we cash the cheque and then process the order.”

Zoning in on the market, most ateliers with stores run relatively more ethical operations. However, prices of wedding-wear also lead to another issue: designers turning up their noses at clients who are struggling with their budgets.

“We took an appointment with a designer that we really liked,” recounts a woman. “I wanted to order my daughter-in-law’s mehndi dress from her, but I was on a budget. From past experience, I knew that designers are willing to work around a reasonable budget by reducing the embroidery or mixing hand work with machine-made embellishments in order to bring down the cost. When I made this request to this designer, she told me that she could not entertain people such as myself, and that I needed to leave her premises. Her tone was downright rude and derogatory. If she didn’t want to reduce the price, she could have told me this respectfully. She has no right to humiliate me like this!”

Tales from the other side

There are, nevertheless, always two sides to a story. Where there are badly-behaved designers running rampant in Pakistan’s fashion landscape, there are also customers who are just as ghastly. “Customers with a tight budget usually ask us to tweak a design in order to make it more affordable,” says one designer. “If this is possible, we consult with them and reduce the embroideries accordingly. But this means that the design becomes different from the original sometimes, and they throw huge tantrums later, declaring that this wasn’t the design that they wanted.”

A young Lahore-based designer tells me that he has had customers walk into his studio and turn up their noses at his work. “They’ll condescendingly comment on how expensive I am even though my workmanship isn’t as good as this designer or that. I tend to listen to them without responding but there are times when I have had enough, and I ask them why they don’t just go to the other designer.”

He adds, “There are good and bad people everywhere. Ethical, honest designers and dishonest ones. Sincere customers and terrible ones. You can’t generalise.”

You certainly can’t. But when spending millions on a design, especially selected for a big moment in your life, it’s good to not be dazzled by fashion’s outward glamour. To choose wisely and to make sure that you don’t get swindled. Fashion, for all its shiny glamorous veneer, can actually turn out to be a scary, scary business.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 11th, 2019