Fashion week in Pakistan
Karachi recently played host to Fashion Pakistan Week, a five-day event showcasing the work of 52 designers. But while the fashion weeks of the world — like those in London, Paris, and New York — are known for their cutting-edge designer collections, this latest show in Pakistan was associated with bravery — specifically, defying the ...
Karachi recently played host to Fashion Pakistan Week, a five-day event showcasing the work of 52 designers. But while the fashion weeks of the world -- like those in London, Paris, and New York -- are known for their cutting-edge designer collections, this latest show in Pakistan was associated with bravery -- specifically, defying the Taliban.
Karachi recently played host to Fashion Pakistan Week, a five-day event showcasing the work of 52 designers. But while the fashion weeks of the world — like those in London, Paris, and New York — are known for their cutting-edge designer collections, this latest show in Pakistan was associated with bravery — specifically, defying the Taliban.
Although foreign media coverage of Fashion Pakistan Week has lent the event immense publicity — organizers cite the numerous publications that covered the event as a sign of success — the stories haven’t been about the fashion. A slew of articles and captions published during the first major fashion week held in Pakistan in November 2009 set the tone for the fashion week held this April to be not about draping and design, but about daring and drones.
And though this type of "stereotypical" coverage of fashion being used as political tool has decreased this last year (as designers would say, "That’s so last season!"), there was a notable shift in the messages being delivered at this month’s fashion week in Pakistan. Designers, presumably tired of being branded in heroic terms, attempted to turn attention to their craft and their plans to make Pakistani fashion a recognizable brand abroad.
For the past few years, reportage on Pakistani culture abroad has been all about "defiance," whether it’s a music school or a literary festival. Pakistan has been conducting military operations against the Taliban for years now, and drone attacks conducted by the United States have taken out some of the most notorious terrorists in the country, such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud. Thousands of Pakistanis have died in attacks in the northwest and in other areas of the country, including large cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Quetta. The fact that life still goes on in other parts of the country despite the many suicide attacks seems to have become a wondrous fact for the world at large. And so the stereotype of "look at these brave Pakistanis, carrying on despite all the doom and gloom" has dictated reportage of any event in the country.
But does this cloud of stereotypes have a silver lining?
It does have its benefits. For example, despite being laden with clichés, several facets of Pakistani culture are now being promoted abroad. One of the country’s most promising musical outfits, Zeb and Haniya, who originally hail from the northwest region of Pakistan but are currently based in Lahore, have been profiled in several publications.
In some ways, the coverage has helped translate into the attention that Pakistani designers, for example, really want. Buyers from the Dubai retail stores Soiree, Designer’s Lounge, and Source and Indian retailers such as Carma and Ogaan have descended upon Lahore and Karachi, looking to pick up Pakistani designers they can stock at boutiques abroad. International fashion publications are planning to feature Pakistani fashion, and the focus is finally on the clothes.
Interestingly enough, the past few years have seen an evolution in the mainstream cultural events and projects being planned. While the Pakistani fashion scene was often criticized for being too focused on Western apparel, the designs now heavily feature homespun traditional fabric and ethnic jewelry. The music being played at fashion week includes not just the latest Lady Gaga single, but also Pakistani pop songs from the 1980s and indie music from 2008.
I spoke to American journalist Carla Power about what she thought about Pakistan’s fashion week. "I wasn’t at the first fashion week," she told me, but said she remembered that the "flak jacket" crowd (referring to war correspondents) "came down for the event." So in the short run it helped. "But," she continued, "if that continues to be the case it would be a pity."
I asked Power if there were any underlining benefits to news coverage of fashion weeks that paint designers as brave souls defying the Taliban without any focus on their work.
"Edward Said would be rolling in his grave if he saw an entire country being reduced to being either pro- or anti-Taliban," Power said. "But there is this sense that the only reason the international press was at fashion week to begin with was this so-called war on terror. The tragedy would be if all this creativity was boiled down to the polar opposite."
The cultural references being drawn from Pakistan were center stage on the runway this week as well. Syed Rizwanullah, a young Karachi-based designer, showed a collection called "Depression Chic." A model walked out on the runway in a patchwork burqa, which she threw off to display a modern take on harem pants and traditional tights (called churidar in Urdu). In a conversation after his show, Rizwanullah told me why he thought the burqas would be a hit were he to retail them. "I can imagine why people would want them … if you’re having a bad day and don’t want to be recognized, have a pimple or got too tanned." It was a unique take on a garment that is generally associated with religious convictions.
Couture designer Umar Sayeed paid homage to the brilliant Pakistani artist Sadequain, whose work was translated by Sayeed onto every inch of fabric and even the shoes worn by his models. It is ironic that just across the street from the venue for fashion week, a mural Sadequain painted lies neglected. The reason? It is located on the ceiling of Frere Hall, a venue that has become off limits for the public because the neighborhood also features the U.S. Consulate.
But whether fashion week can ever escape the baggage of stereotypes really does depend how Pakistan’s security situation goes — and whether it will still be necessary to thank the interior minister (as the fashion week emcee did) every night for his support and help for the event to go ahead.
Saba Imtiaz works for the Express Tribune, a newly launched English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
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