STYLE: FASHION’S FADING DREAMS

November 03, 2019

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“The times they are a-changin’,” rasped Bob Dylan. He could be singing the soundtrack to the story of Pakistani fashion.

Surf back towards reviews of Pakistani fashion from about a decade ago and you’ll be swept away by glowing details of shows where fashion was akin to artistry, and a very exclusive selection of the country’s crème de la crème and top stars thronged to the front rows of catwalks. There were shows that were staged in unconventional locales: train stations and dilapidated historical sites. There was also talk, of how fashion was blossoming into big business. Major international journalists visited sometimes. And reviewers hinted at a very real possibility of fashion going international, and of style taking over the country’s consciousness, leading to a better dressed Pakistan.

Fast-forward to the present and local fashion is predominantly just pushing forward a bling-infested Pakistan. Shrouded in masses of tulle. Wearing a peplum, maybe. Or perhaps a kaftan. There is a jaded weariness lacing reviews of local fashion weeks. There are more bad collections than good ones. More atrocious designers than spectacular ones. Bucket-loads of badly fitted clothes created from fabric that you could easily purchase from the local bazaar around the corner. Lacklustre fashion weeks instead of spectacular ones.

This is hardly a good beginning to a review on the recently culminated ‘Winter Festive ’19’ edition of Fashion Pakistan Week (FPW) but it is a true one. Fashion’s scintillating dreams of bringing about sartorial changes and pushing boundaries have faded. They have been replaced by a droning deluge of collections that are often untidy, forgettable, same-looking, and seem like they have been stitched by the darzi down the road rather than by a designer atelier. The catwalk at FPW is a case in point.

“The times they are a-changin’,” rasped Bob Dylan. He could be singing the soundtrack to the story of Pakistani fashion.

The event spanned three days and I waited in vain, as fashion critics do, to spot sparks of brilliance that would lead me to declare a certain day to be the best one at fashion week. But there was no best day. Yes, perhaps there were a few collections — I can count them on one hand alone — that showcased clothes that were beautiful, but their impact was lost by the flotsam and jetsam that surrounded them.

Why was this the case? Commerce is an obvious factor. Brands want to show clothes that can sell rather than focus on artistic brilliance. These sellable, wearable clothes tend to be boring. The same economic factor leads to many brands backing out of fashion week — participation fees are expensive and, in these hard times, they decide to make do with exhibits and fashion shoots rather than go all out with a show.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the designer heavyweights who now want to demonstrate their clout by orchestrating solo shows. They do this with great fanfare and attention to detail, building their image as luxurious, covetable entities. These brands once used to be amongst the top few at multi-designer fashion weeks, and the quality at these events now suffers due to their absence.

Deepak Perwani
Deepak Perwani

Simmering just beneath the surface is another factor: the artistic ego. Designers can innately be temperamental, artistic creatures, which makes the fashion industry a contentious and narcissistic one the world over. This means that certain people won’t work with certain others. It’s one of the reasons why, in Pakistan, fashion weeks’ line-ups often suffer, with fewer options available for filling in the slots. A lenient eye tends to be cast over brands that come the organisers’ way. Their work may be mediocre or, worse, downright ugly but they are included simply to fill up space.

This is where I would beg to differ. It’s better to stage a shorter fashion week rather than a longer, mediocre one. I wonder if fashion weeks have to be a certain length in order to appease sponsors. But an appreciation for genuine fashion needs to be rammed into the sponsors’ corporate heads so that they can choose quality over quantity. A shorter event with great fashion can be the stuff of ebullient headlines, and fashion councils need to make sponsors realise this. Of course, I do know that this is a job that is easier said than done.

It is also, of course, a council’s job to allow opportunities to younger brands, but this can’t be done at the risk of undermining its own credibility. So many of the brands allowed on to the Fashion Pakistan Council’s (FPC) catwalk did not deserve the spotlight. A certain young brand, in a bid to be ethnic, ventured into florid menswear, accessorising it with strings of rubies and emeralds. The male models looked like they were part of a fancy dress show. It’s no wonder that they looked so sullen. Another chose to dream of French influences, creating concoctions that were, to put it politely, mind-boggling. One fledgling Lahore-based brand started off with basic Western-wear only to have lehngas begin trooping out in the middle of the show. Where was the Council that was supposed to be editing this collection?

There was more: a tipsy showstopper tripped about in a large kaftan dress, cholis hung loosely off bodices, cutwork and ruffles were placed in the most unfathomable ways, and a plethora of celebrities who were generally badly dressed and couldn’t save the shows despite their star-power.

This mumbling bumbling motley crew did not deserve to be placed in the same list as the few others that were in a different league. Maheen Khan is a visionary with an eye for true, original style; Deepak Perwani’s finesse is impeccable; Nauman Arfeen has a talent for catering to the refined man; the Pink Tree Company splayed out beautiful colours on to the catwalk this time round and Zainab Chottani proved her mettle with a very varied, eye-catching collection that is bound to entice wedding-bound clientele.

Among the younger brands, SFK Bridals was unique with its uncluttered aesthetic and, on the high street, Splash was uber-cool, while some of the options in AlKaram’s massive line-up were also very pretty. In addition, Italian designer Stella Jean presented her Milan Fashion Week collection, which featured prints inspired by Pakistani truck-art and the indigenous embroideries of the Kalash valley. Stella’s appreciation of Pakistan’s craft, which induced her to come to the country especially for the show, was certainly a proud moment.

But as I mentioned earlier, these memorable moments and the few good collections were surrounded by far too many that were much worse. Thinking back to FPW, I really can’t recall being enthralled. The mind was too bogged down by the bad fashion that dominated.

Making this deluge of fashion faux pas all the more painful were the uncomfortable surroundings. As it had earlier this year in its Spring/Summer edition, the event took place at an open-air venue which is generally lovely. However, October has always been one of Karachi’s most humid months. Fashion week became a sweltering affair rather than a glamorous one. The models, particularly on the last day when they were wearing heavy-duty bridals, looked drained out. No amount of backstage styling wizardry could hide that, in the absence of air-conditioning, their hair and make-up was going askew.

I do realise that a fashion council can’t do anything about the weather — except, perhaps, switch to a better venue next time it decides to have a fashion week at this time of the year. But the FPC could have tried to prevent the long delays preceding the shows. The first show of the day generally started late and, on the last day, the delay stretched to nearly two hours, breaking all previous records! This meant that the finale took place after midnight.

Only some time ago, councils were making deliberate efforts to end reasonably, before 11pm. However, in an unfortunate change of heart, fashion weeks — both in Lahore and Karachi — have lately been downsliding back to the exhausting timings that they had maintained in their fledgling years. At both events, shows are often going beyond midnight. A business-centric event should not be like that.

And business-centric events can’t have media sitting for more than two hours on hard, wooden planks that masquerade as benches. Both fashion weeks in Lahore and Karachi have somehow gotten enthralled by their Parisian counterparts, where the audience often sits on benches. This fortunate audience has to simply sit through a single show and then leave. In Pakistan, the same seating arrangements are being made for elongated multi-designer events. It’s just not fair!

But then there was so much that was unfair. How can Pakistani fashion, described with such hope in those reviews of yore, be allowed to plummet to such lows? How can the veteran designers, who are part of the FPC, allow this to happen to an industry that they have helped build, brick by brick? How could FPW, the country’s pioneering fashion week, responsible for so many magical fashion moments in the past, resort to such a hit-and-miss production?

There is a crib that had often been voiced in the past, around the time when the local design fraternity chose to split into two councils: the Karachi-based FPC and the Lahore-based Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC). It had been pointed out that there weren’t enough high-end brands in Pakistan’s relatively small fashion industry to be able to fill the line-ups of two bi-annual fashion weeks. It had been predicted that standards would fall.

The prediction seems to ring true now. Standards have fallen. Times have changed. But not for the better.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 3rd, 2019