Unfortunately only Zaheer Abbas made it to the show in person.
Unfortunately only Zaheer Abbas made it to the show in person.

London Fashion Week. It was going to be Pakistani fashion’s chance to rub shoulders with international movers and shakers and to try to latch onto the so-far elusive realms of fashion export.

And handpicked by the British Council, Wardha Saleem, Zaheer Abbas, The House of Kamiar Rokni and Akif Mahmood were set to be part of the ‘Fashion DNA’ segment in the Fashion Scout platform, dedicated to encouraging emerging markets.

Mentored for months by professionals from the Council, all four designers were guided into creating designs that would make business sense to Western consumers.

It’s true that Fashion Scout wasn’t exactly a part of mainstream LFW but regardless, it was going to be a step in the right direction. In the past, Pakistani designers have been known to blunder their way through international shows and fairs, arriving without catalogues and the pricing required to generate business.

The Fashion DNA contingent, though, was well-prepared with pricing, fashion shoots and catalogs at hand. What they hadn’t considered was that, despite the British Council’s official support, they may not be able to fly off to the show.

Visa and customs issues leave 3 designers behind in Pakistan

“We’ll be in London in a few days,” Nubain Ali, CEO at Wardha Saleem had told me when I met him for an appointment.

Stacked in a corner of Wardha’s studio was an array of gorgeous leather handbags, painted with vivid splashes of flora and fauna by truck-artist Haider Ali. Complementing these bags was a line-up of apparel: pleated and laser-cut mini-skirts, thigh-high short dresses, a quilted sherwani and a pant merged with a dogri shalwar, among others.

“We have mixed contemporary elements with the traditional, merging prints with minimal machine embroideries,” Wardha had described. “Our mentors for Fashion DNA have guided us into creating designs that are cost-effective, trendy and aren’t over-embellished.”

Wardha couldn't make it to Fashion DNA but her clothes spoke for themselves. Three stand-out looks from Wardha Saleem.
Wardha couldn't make it to Fashion DNA but her clothes spoke for themselves. Three stand-out looks from Wardha Saleem.

Similarly, the House of Kamiar Rokni’s line-up had the design house reaching beyond its predilection for customized couture to taming luxe fabrics onto contemporary silhouettes. Embroideries, though hand-crafted, were minimized.

Unfortunately, the designers' visas were refused before the show.

As a result, Wardha Saleem, Kamiar Rokni and Akif Mahmood were unable to fly into London. Zaheer, having procured his visa some time ago, was able to go to the show. The House of Kamiar Rokni and Wardha Saleem had to make do with just sending their clothes while Akif’s consignment wasn’t able to reach London in time.

Three stand-out looks from Kamiar Rokni
Three stand-out looks from Kamiar Rokni

“It could have possibly been very fruitful had we managed to go,” mulls designer Kamiar Rokni. “The visa refusal was very unexpected.”

“The collection has been very well-received, at least,” smiles Wardha – and she has enthusiastic Tweets on social media to prove it. “But we can’t really further business because we aren’t there.”

Had the designers expected to swoop into London and strike business deals? “Realistically, no,” admits Nubain. “But we would have met people and understood what the market wanted. We had also enrolled into a number of workshops. It would have been very helpful. Now, despite the positive feedback, the collection is just going to return to us.”

London lessons a la Zaheer Abbas

Luckily for Zaheer Abbas, he has been able to meet, greet and talk potential business with London’s entrepreneurs.

With his collection at LFW, he continued his penchant for floral prints over off-white backgrounds. “People really liked it,” he enthused, while talking to Dawn from London, “but what has been really beneficial is meeting people here who can help my business.”

Zaheer showed florals and jungle-inspired prints on cuts more suitable for a western market
Zaheer showed florals and jungle-inspired prints on cuts more suitable for a western market

Catherine West, an MP from UK’s Parliament, Tweeted an image of herself with Zaheer yesterday, calling him an ‘inspiring young designer’. The British Council also arranged meetings for Zaheer with sales consultants and buyers. Among these was Angela Quaintrell, who used to be head buyer at luxury department store Liberty and was one of the first few to introduce McQueen to the market during his initial years. Now working with young designers and helping them build their business models, Angela took a particular interest in Zaheer’s work.

Zaheer Abbas with Angela Quaintrell (L) and Catherine West (R)
Zaheer Abbas with Angela Quaintrell (L) and Catherine West (R)

“I met Angela prior to my show via the British Council,” he explains, “and she asked which of the Pakistani designers had a website. I was the only one amongst all four who has an e-store. She didn’t even attend my LFW showcase but looked into my website and liked my earlier collections like Neo-Nude. When she called me in for a second meeting, the Council was actually very excited. Apparently, she’s quite picky about the designers she likes.”

Although nothing is finalized as yet, Zaheer is in talks with Angela to work with her and fine-tune a collection for the Western market.

Zaheer preps for the show -- he also bumped into Toni & Guy's Shammal Qureshi!
Zaheer preps for the show -- he also bumped into Toni & Guy's Shammal Qureshi!

“She says that some of my designs have a very Parisian feel to them,” enthuses the designer. “And even if nothing works out, I have learnt a lot from Angela. For instance, she has told me that in the West, women increasingly want to wear more modest clothing. They prefer to have their arms covered, if not with full or half-sleeves then at least with capped sleeves that shroud the shoulders. This is something I absolutely did not know. Also, if the zipper of a dress is showing then it is less likely to be purchased by a woman although girls may like it.”

“It’s important to know all this because your first chance at a major store in the West is literally your last chance. The store or you, yourself, have invested in the designs and you have to make sure that they sell well. The British Council’s mentors guided us on the marketing aspects of our collection but they didn’t instruct us regarding the actual clothes we were designing. I wish we had known more about the designing aspect back then. Still, I have learnt so much.”

The upside in all this?

And while the House of Kamiar Rokni and Wardha Saleem may bemoan the loss of an ideal opportunity, it’s good to see Pakistani fashion put its best foot forward on an international runway. Next time should they get the chance, our designers will be ready for the international market.

Next time, though, perhaps the British Council should also be better prepared. The Fashion DNA project is a promising one and involves the investment of considerable effort. Experts like Toby Meadows (author of How to Set Up and Run a Fashion Label), Rebekah Roy (stylist) and Ruby Hoette (MA Fashion, Goldsmiths College) guided the designers through umpteen face-to-face and Skype sessions. While one hopes that the project continues, perhaps the Council should focus on pulling enough clout to ensure visas for the participating designers.

In the meantime, Wardha plans to tweak her collection and showcase it at the Spring/Summer edition of Fashion Pakistan Week and the House of Kamiar Rokni is going to be doing the same in the upcoming PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week.

Judging by how gorgeous both collections look on the LFW runway, Pakistan will certainly buy them, if not London!

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