There’s an economic recession all over the world. Businesses are downsizing, redundancies are getting frequent and budget constraints are a norm. The financial shocks have been far-reaching, touching every sector, every business… especially for luxury goods such as bridal fashion. Luxury is, after all, by definition, not a necessity and the world over, this particular market is in the throes of a crisis. Aficionados may beg to differ but high fashion is certainly a luxury. Pakistani fashion’s upper crust will never admit it, but in these hard, hard times, most of them are struggling against a fast downsliding demand for their work.
Customers are spending less. People who would buy 10 outfits at one time are now only buying two. Other clientele is shifting away from high-end ateliers and making a beeline for the many others, who may not be as fashion-forward, but are more economical and do a good enough job at copying the bigger designers.
There’s more. Showing off is a sad tendency that is predominant amongst most of Pakistan’s fashion clientele. This urge to boast a big designer tag at a high society wedding or soiree has been instrumental in pouring millions into many an atelier. Now, this sector has promptly been brought down to earth by the tax authorities peering vigilantly over their shoulders. It has become risky to show off the huge amounts of tax-free wealth these clients have stowed away. A lot of them are taking a break from their designer-wear shopping sprees. Good for them. A reality check was long overdue.
The dark clouds of recession and the fear of the taxman have dampened the spirits of affluent clientele. That has affected high-end designers as well, and it showed in the PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week
But this is hardly a good thing for the ateliers that this affluent crowd frequented. And it was not a good thing for the PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week (PLBW) which wrapped up in Lahore last week. PLBW is the autumn/winter fashion week edition orchestrated by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) and, for the past nine years, it has been dedicated entirely to bridal design, putting forward luxurious high-end collections that set sartorial trends for weddings in the coming year. The platform has long been recognised for its very prestigious designer line-ups and fashion forward collections. PLBW has, in fact, often been lauded for being the best in the business of bridal-centric fashion weeks.
And yet, with the dark clouds of recession overhead, PLBW couldn’t quite live up to its reputation. The designer line-up looked interesting enough but it turned out that this time round, some of fashion’s very best were setting aside their creative instincts to zone in on commercially friendly designs. The catwalk lost its chutzpah and got drowned in the bright colours and bling of ‘viable’ clothes.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with practical clothes. From a buyer’s perspective, it is always prudent to invest in an expensive, practical outfit rather than in an expensive, experimental one. But on the catwalk, where designers can indulge in crazy fantastical magic, practical can also be forgettable…
The savvy side to retail
A case in point is Hussain Rehar. The fledgling designer has made a name for himself with his eccentric individualism, but this PLBW he toed commercial lines. Embellishments were crafted on a palette of multicolours and silhouettes were kept traditional. Attractive, retail-worthy clothes. But for a designer known to create fireworks, Hussain made none this time. The Pakistani market, after all, doesn’t like fireworks. Pretty, pleasant fairy lights are more appeasing to our conventional tastes. That’s what Hussain delivered.
Similarly, newbie designer Mohsin Naveed Ranjha presented a whopping 65-piece collection that offered an extensive variety. Some of the designs certainly needed to be fine-tuned and the show could hardly be considered experimental. But from a commercial viewpoint, Mohsin’s colour-wheel was beautiful. There was an outfit that could cater to every event of the big fat Pakistani wedding. If competitively priced, I have no doubt that MNR’s collection will haul in a lot of business.
In a similar vein, every collection at PLBW this year seemed to be trying to assert its retail value. This meant that a large number of shows were humdrum and could hardly qualify as ‘designer-wear’. Take them off the catwalk and hang them on a rack in any marketplace and they would fit right in. But then, there were some brands— the very best ones — that managed to make an impact despite being retail-savvy.
Kamiar Rokni particularly comes to mind. His collections in the past have often been very dramatic, purely artisanal, tilting ever so slightly towards costumery. He had once told me that he created drama through design on the catwalk but later tweaked the collections to more wearable, conventional versions according to customers’ requirements.
However, at PLBW this time, Kami opted to waltz a balancing act between retail and creativity. He didn’t risk creating design that would have to be translated to become viable. He simply presented fashion that was outstanding but could be worn just the way it was. The devil was in the details: the unique patterns of embroidery, the play of unconventional colours and in the meticulous placement of gota, mirrors and thread work.
Similarly, Mahgul — who presented one of the best collections at PLBW — abided by wearable silhouettes while making statements with embellishment, styling and the most glorious hues. HSY played with texture and colour while employing his classic beige hand embroideries. Misha Lakhani delivered understated elegance with relaxed silhouettes and some very distinctive gota and mirror-work.
Other major designers opted to play up to their strengths, presenting collections that seemed to be odes to their best work: Sania Maskatiya, highlighting her popular floral embroideries, cutwork and incorporation of gold lame; Nida Azwer doing wonders, as she tends to do, with miniature embroideries, flowing traditional silhouettes, statement shawls and the most minute hand embroideries; and Fahad Hussayn, who went overboard with theatrics, making the clothes difficult to see but which, on close examination, had showcased his quintessentially heavily meshed embroideries. All these collections, crafted with great finesse and incorporated with the designers’ best-selling elements, are bound to attract clientele.
Because clients are important. Business was quite ostensibly a primary concern.
Retail’s dreary quarters
At the other end of the spectrum, PLBW featured far too many shows where bridal design was equated with completely suffocating a garment with thick layers of embroidery. Saira Shakira, who usually like to add interesting contemporary touches to their designs, delivered some highs but played it far too safe to be memorable. Nickie Nina’s designs brought on a sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t we seen so many similar outfits in the past? Republic by Omar Farooq, the recipient of multiple awards for its menswear, presented its weakest collection yet, having shrugged away the edgy design sensibility that has always come so naturally to the brand.
There’s more. The PFDC has always prided itself for being selective about the collections it allows on its platform. It has been a well-known fact that bad collections are rejected or edited out — until now. Some truly lacklustre design was let loose on the runway this time. Skirts untidily lined with tulle were common, long, mundane trails were a favourite and entire collections swept by in a boring, pastel-coloured cloud.
My particular issue was with the early evening shows. These shows are allotted to retail-oriented, lesser known brands which the Council feels need to improve. But does this excuse collections where sheer linings reveal far too much, leaving very little to the imagination? How can a sherwani, worn over chinos and a collared shirt, be allowed on to a fashion forward runway?
The council has often talked about giving newcomers a chance and, indeed, some of fashion’s brightest young stars have risen from its platform. But how can it allow newcomers that are this bad into the designer line-up? Even when slotted in the early evening, these shows still fall under the PLBW umbrella and they undermined the authenticity of the platform.
Were these garish showcases given a chance because many of fashion’s stronger contenders were not part of the event this time around? Did the council incorporate these brands simply because many others backed out, unable to withstand the expense of creating a colossal collection, invest into fashion week participation fees and pay for the logistics of bringing the clothes to the venue?
Could designers also be stepping back from the spotlight because it will catch the attention of the ever-looming tax authorities who are vigilantly trying to catch out any form of evasion? Once again, the story winds back to the recession and the fear of the tax man.
But these are tough times. Sponsors’ requirements have to be entertained. Mundane design has to be looked at with a kindly eye. And let’s not just focus on the negative. PLBW wields its clout on the strength of some truly stellar fashion showcases. There were plenty of fashion highs and it wasn’t an altogether bad fashion week. It just wasn’t a great one either. The PFDC can do so much better. I am blaming the economy.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 6th, 2019