Fashion weeks in Pakistan aren’t what they used to be. People who have witnessed the events through the years will attest to this.
The multi-starrer, highly publicised fashion week omnibus, which is supposed to steer the industry to new heights, has stumbled down the hackneyed route of the run-of-the-mill.
Creative, awe-inspiring fashion moments are few and far between as the clothes begin to look the same, silhouettes lack finesse and the sound of untidily stitched sequins falling on to the runway as models walk resonate with fashion’s fall.
It wasn’t always like this
In its initial stages, local fashion was defined by bona fide creativity. Spearheading fashion was a small milieu with a love for original design.
"Everybody seems to be in a rush now to earn profits," observes veteran Maheen Khan. "The market is dominated by customers who lack sophistication. They are willing to pay for pretty-but-generic clothing but true, cutting-edge fashion doesn’t appeal to them.
"In order to keep their businesses running, designers sometimes don’t have a choice. They don’t want to be left with unsold stock and so, they end up presenting clothes on the runway that are market-friendly, if not fashion forward."
"It’s why fashion weeks now resemble an Abida Parveen concert where all she’s singing is ‘Damadum Mast Qalandar’ instead of any of her beautiful ghazals!" observes Maheen.
Sadly, most designers are unable to strike a balance between retail and high fashion aspirations. Fashion weeks, via social media and TV coverage, have now become veritable catalogues where customers can select favorite designs and order them as is.
Consequently, the local runway becomes an endless monologue of same-looking, blingy concoctions. There are hardly any collections that feature a mix of some retail-friendly clothes and some edgy. And hardly anyone dabbles with design that makes catwalk statements and can then be watered down for retail. What you see is what they’re selling… and what you see isn’t anything great.
It makes one yearn for fashion’s old guard, the veterans that heralded the industry when it was still teething and who are predominantly missing from the catwalk. One remembers Rizwan Beyg stealing the show in 2006’s Carnivale de Couture with his spectacular ‘Carnival’.
Faiza Samee’s exquisite amalgamation of subcontinental influences with the avant-garde West hasn’t been showcased locally for a while now. Umar Sayeed’s craftsmanship has, similarly, been missing from the spotlight and although Maheen Khan continues to be part of the Fashion Pakistan Council, her couture label ‘Maheen’ bid adieu to fashion weeks last year.
"There is an entire milieu of so-called critics who don’t care much for genuine critique. Since they're already on designers' payrolls, they laud even the most substandard work as 'stunning'," says Faiza Samee.
And one can only sigh longingly when visiting Bunto Kazmi’s atelier, where fashion blends into artistry. Bunto Apa has never been a fashion week regular but one wishes that true aficionados could get the chance to see her work on the runway, if not exhibited in a museum. Her ethos is exquisite, traversing fantastical realms in embroideries that are so minute that they resemble a painting. All other local ateliers simply fade in comparison.
"When fashion weeks started out, all I ever heard was that bridal-wear did not signify as fashion," says Bunto Kazmi.
"Pret was lauded while bridals were considered too ostentatious and antiquated for the catwalk. It’s why I didn’t show initially because designing bridals has always been my forte. And now that bridals are suddenly considered fashionable, I feel that I don’t need to generate mileage for my brand through a fashion week. My brand functions according to a different format altogether and people who appreciate my work, come to me regardless. Also, I have an Instagram account where images of designs are regularly posted."
It would also, naturally, be quite disconcerting for a designer of Bunto’s caliber to be part of a show where other younger ateliers replicate her work shamelessly. This is unfortunately a frequent occurrence where Bunto-like shawls, miniature embroideries, capes and even diamante borders have been seen presented under the guise of 'original' design.
"I don’t need to showcase my work on a catwalk and pander to a market where people ask me to create a 'lehnga like Madhuri's'," says Rizwan Beyg.
These sentiments are voiced by Faiza Samee who is contemplating showing at Fashion Pakistan Week next year but isn’t tempted when she looks at the 'quality of design on the catwalk'.
"I am satisfied with the way my business is functioning and I don’t really want to be amongst a group of designers who aren’t willing to work hard and develop their craft. And then there is an entire milieu of so-called critics who don’t care much for genuine critique and are moonlighting as brand managers and marketing agents. Since they are already on designers' payrolls, they laud even the most substandard work as 'stunning'. I just get very disillusioned by the whole atmosphere. My hard work deserves a better platform than that."
Meanwhile, Rizwan Beyg observes that fashion weeks have now become merely ceremonial, managing to generate social media hype more than anything else. "I don’t need to showcase my work on a catwalk and pander to a market where people ask me to create a 'lehnga like Madhuri's'," he reasons.
"People – and even critics – don’t appreciate design that is novel and exciting. I’d rather just quietly go about with my business and if I want my work to be seen on social media, I will just post it on my Instagram and Facebook page where I have thousands of followers."
This signifies a trend that may be on the rise. Earlier this year, Burberry pre-released its Spring/Summer collection via Snapchat, before the actual show. Last year, the set for Kanye West’s show for Adidas was designed especially in an Instagram-friendly format. A designer who may want to forego the expense, politics and fluctuating standards of fashion week, can simply live stream a show in-house via social media.
Does this mean that fashion weeks will eventually wither away?
For now, that seems unlikely. But it may mean that local fashion weeks will cease to be exciting with top ateliers opting for the solo show route or simply connecting with buyers through social media’s all-too-prevalent reach.
In a vicious spin-cycle of sorts, how can established labels even complain of low standards when they opt not to be part of a fashion event and set new benchmarks? The lack of fair fashion critique is a definite downslide to the business but even the fashionably confused can’t be blind to the beauty of an original Bunto Kazmi design and the like.
Should fashion’s old guard choose to show, younger designers may get inspired to also push boundaries. Maheen Khan, who is showing at Pakistan Fashion Week in London in the coming weeks, admits that she will probably be returning to the local catwalk soon.
More veterans need to follow suit. Or will we have to endure more fashion weeks like the ones that prevailed through this Autumn/Winter? That’s a galling thought.