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Fashion Frontier: Fashion’s unlikely hero

December 19, 2010

When you think about it, selling dresses in Pakistan must be as difficult as selling ball gowns to the Taliban. But that’s what Sadaf Malaterre does: design dresses, that is.

You may now wonder how someone making dresses for a living could be so significant in the larger scheme of predominantly traditional things. It has its challenges but Malaterre has made quite the name for herself, living fashion in Karachi while drawing inspiration from the world’s fashion capital, Paris, where she has lived and still travels to frequently.

It’s that little bit of Paris enmeshed in a wraparound skirt, a shift constructed from three feet tassels or her signature piece of clothing — the handkerchief kimono — which lends her label such allure. She’s done it without ever designing a shalwar kameez, a conventional bridal or even a paneled shirt that is the rage these days.

She does make the occasional bridal, Sadaf shares, but it’s only when someone as likeminded as accessory designer Mahin Hussein comes along and asks for a zero-kaam outfit for her Valima. Sadaf is busy whipping up a gold concoction these days, which undoubtedly will be unique. The uniqueness of her designs also comes with the fact that they come without embroidery.

“I don’t need to embroider clothes because I have nothing to hide,” she says with the pride of a true fashion designer, though her ego ends there and fortunately doesn’t permeate her as a person. “My patterns are great and I don’t have to decorate clothes to make them look good.”

Incidentally she’s the only one wearing anything even moderately unique when we meet at a popular café on Zamzama in Karachi. Sadaf’s chic black and white androgynous look stands out amongst a sea of embroidered, paneled and voluminous kurtas. After showing two strong collections at fashion weeks in Pakistan, this designer shows how integral being unique is to fashion. It’s what is different that stands out and Sadaf Malaterre has a tendency of standing out personally and professionally, from her distinctive surname to her often whimsical dress sense.

The white streak in her hair is eye catching; it’s natural and any hair stylist will verify that it’s impossible to dye your hair white. Complimenting a heavy fringe and a light frame, Sadaf’s personal wardrobe is just as striking. She’ll tell you bridals are costume whereas Ammar Belal’s Chrysler Building jeans (from the New York collection) are totally wearable. She would wear them; them and the jumpsuits she designs, the queer handmade jewellery, the ruffled polka-dot saris and variety of experimental jeans that come with embroidery, patchwork detailing and what not.

“I find it very bizarre when people expect me to wear only my own designs,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be incredibly boring? I love dressing up and wearing whatever excites me.”

Showing at the PFDC Fashion Week, she says, has excited her as well. Born and bred in Karachi, people were surprised to see her liaison with the Lahore-based fashion council — Pakistan Fashion Design Council — and show ‘there’ instead of ‘here’. Sadaf is quick and clear in her reasoning.

“They are great people to work with,” she puts it simply. “I’m not a member of the PFDC — they haven’t even pressurised me to join — but I showed at their fashion week and benefitted from it. Fashion weeks are about generating business not friends and Pakistan’s fashion industry should start operating like an industry as opposed to a clan.”

“I was approached by buyers I’m still in touch with,” she continues. “I got good media coverage as well. I was already stocking at Ensemble in Lahore and my market expanded substantially after fashion week. I would like to show again.”

The business of fashion, Sadaf continues, is essential to its development. Freedom, on the other hand, gives it a vital creative license. Television, she believes strongly, kills that creative freedom. This is one designer who feels fashion and television should not be in a relationship with each other.

“I don’t think fashion is for television,” she insists. “Fashion is elitist and isn’t for the masses. Why should people be exposed to what they cannot access?

“Fashion television has never worked in Paris and it makes even less sense here. Fashion is for the glossies. It’s to see and buy. When our channels put it on TV they kill peoples’ individuality in the process. Shows that are to be televised come with checks and balances; they tell us what we cannot show or wear. That’s not promoting fashion; it’s curbing it.”

Frustration falls into the conversation as she furthers, “Fashion in Pakistan is operated by clans, not an industry. I don’t know whether it will ever become an industry. And as a clan we suffer from fashion hypochondria where we’ve convinced ourselves that fashion exists but it doesn’t!”

That said, she agrees that fashion weeks are making a gradual difference. People have started thinking “colour of the season” as opposed to “model of the season”. They are coming to shows for trend insights and not a “fun evening”. Designers are realising that it’s better to have relevant people at their shows as opposed to more people. A “full house” doesn’t necessarily mean a successful show. This is not the movies.

Sadaf Malaterre wants to see fashion develop significance in Pakistan and sure enough, it is individuals like her who help it move along. The awami side of fashion may get most of the publicity as channels happily peddle it for mass consumption, but it will often be a designer like her who’ll bring it the credibility others will bank on. A couple more unlikely heroes like Sadaf would most definitely spike it up a level or two.