Shamaeel Ansari
Shamaeel Ansari

Hope springs eternal, it is said.

But with the coronavirus weighing down upon the world, the fount of hope is going through a few fluctuations. Businesses are shutting down and downsizing and the economy is hitting all-new lows. In this time of crisis, the luxury business is particularly affected. Who would want to buy designer-wear when people are dying?

The fashion industry, the world over, is restructuring, restrategising and despite the changing times, trying to hang on to hope.

In such difficult times, a fashion week gives hope. It gives hope to the many businesses within an industry that have lost their glitter as they struggle to survive.

It also offers a ray of light to the wide audience that loves fashion and turns to it for respite, to just dream a bit about the clothes they would like to wear once things are better and to give them a break from all the morbid updates constantly filtering through in the news.

Mehreen Syed walks for Generation
Mehreen Syed walks for Generation

A physical fashion week in an enclosed space is not possible as long as the virus rages on. But a virtual one is. This is what event organiser Frieha Altaf deduced.

Frieha observed, “A lot of us were in despair when the coronavirus lockdown was implemented. I knew that designers were wondering how they would survive. Everyone was sitting in their homes, fretting. That’s when I decided that we needed to do something about this."

"The future of fashion is digital and this first show, in its own small way, is meant to bring some buzz back into the fashion industry.”

Incidentally, as an event organiser, Frieha herself was also suddenly at home during a time which is usually the busiest in the year, with back to back shows and ceremonies.

The free time lead to the inception of ‘Catwalk Cares’, Pakistan’s first ‘Virtual Fashion Week’. The show was supposed to air on YouTube, over a period of three days, all through Eid.

The original date was postponed due to the plane crash that took place two days prior to Eid and was instead, streamed out this past weekend.

Models and designers were shown working virtually. Hair and makeup was done by the models themselves, with stylist Nabila advising them over video-call.

Videos and images were shot with rudimentary video cameras and phones and then, all these segments were strung together by visual director Asad-ul-Haq in the form of a ‘show’.

Shehla Chatoor
Shehla Chatoor

The ‘catwalk’ itself was simply a picturesque space in a model or designer’s home – these were, truly, some very glamorous spaces straight out of a ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ segment.

To be honest, often the background was so beautiful that it took away attention from the clothes. We’ll put that down to teething issues – this was the first time something like this was being done locally, after all.

The ‘fashion experience’

Coming back to the show, one after the other, a strong line-up of 19 designers showcased small capsule lines: Khaadi, Maheen Karim, Amir Adnan, Nida Azwer, Huma Adnan, Shamaeel Ansari, Generation, Sania Maskatiya, Ali Xeeshan, Ismail Farid, Elan, Hussain Rehar, Asim Jofa, Nomi Ansari, Sana Safinaz, Sonya Battla, Republic by Omar Farooq, Faraz Manan and Shehla Chatoor.

Quite often, the clothes were from collections that had been seen before, either in fashion shoots or on brand’s e-stores. The ‘fashion week’ had been put together in a matter of weeks and most designers, locked in their homes, had not had the resources to create new clothes.

Sania Maskatiya
Sania Maskatiya

Also, in most cases, the clothes weren’t visible the way they would be on the catwalk or in a professional shot video of a fashion week. Shot with less sophisticated cameras, the detailing wasn’t always easy to see.

But even though one may not have had been able to zoom in on the embroidery or to fully appreciate the beauty of a silhouette, the ‘Virtual Fashion Week’, in these dark days, succeeded on delivering a fashion experience.

The designers that take over social media every spring/summer during fashion week season but had receded from the spotlight this year were suddenly seen, sitting at their work desks, connecting with the world virtually, talking about not giving up.

Top models improvised well with the all-new virtual catwalks. Even celebrity showstoppers – Mikaal Zulfiqar for Republic, Sarwat Gilani for Sonya Battla and Ayesha Omar for Shehla Chatoor – made an appearance.

There were colours, bridal finery, the latest in pret and the most gorgeous accessories.

Huma Adnan's embellished masks
Huma Adnan's embellished masks

And one accessory that caught the eye and resonated with present times were the face masks created by some of the brands. Khaadi showcased cotton masks printed in their signature floral motifs, Huma Adnan put forward embellished as well as printed ones while Ali Xeeshan, Shamaeel Ansari and Shehla Chatoor gave couture spins to their creations – the embellished mask to go with luxury wear or, in Shehla’s case, the fully embellished bridal mask!

Designer face masks are certainly the single-most significant trend to steamroll into fashion this year – borne as much out of necessity as the need to look good – and Catwalk Cares’ virtual runway highlighted this well. The show did ‘care’, it seems, for fashion.

But there’s more. The tagline that accompanied the fashion show read out, ‘United fashion front for front-liners’. The show may have very evidently boosted morale in the fashion industry but how was it helping the personnel fighting the coronavirus on the front-liners?

‘Catwalk cares’ for front-liners – or does it?

“We wanted to recognise the efforts being made by the front-liners battling the coronavirus,” explains Frieha, “and designers have sent out Eid outfits to them to show their appreciation.”

CEO of Khaadi, Shamoon Sultan, in his video segment, stated, “… it is a very small token compared to the effort that these people are putting in…”

But at this point in time, people facing a pandemic head-on may not be too interested in designer-wear. Wouldn’t it have had been better to extend some other token of appreciation to them? Cash, perhaps?

Frieha elaborates, “We are all facing this crisis together. The show has been organised in a matter of weeks and this was all that could be done this time around. Everyone working in this show did so free of cost."

"At any other point in time, it would have cost millions to shoot videos featuring so many top models and celebrities, put together by an ace director, stylist and hair and makeup team. But all of us, including myself, worked pro bono simply because we felt that the message behind the show was very important: to bring hope into the fashion industry and to salute the front-liners.”

A list of sponsors was shown at the end of the show – did these sponsors also not pay for having their products placed in the show?

According to Frieha, even the sponsors’ support was extended in the form of a barter. TCS, for instance, helped in the transport of clothes and makeup back and forth between models and designers’ homes and in delivering gifts to front-liners. And Nabila, helped out virtually with the styling often referring to her Zero Makeup palette, which was very visible in the video segments.

Fashion, united

”This is just the beginning,” said Frieha. “I do want to work on another, more properly planned virtual fashion event for next season. This is the future, as I foresee it.”

Fashion’s new reality, in a corona-ridden world, does seem to be digital to a large extent. Fashion weeks in India, Shanghai, Moscow and London have already announced that they will be operating virtually for their next season. And the virtual catwalk can effectively lead up to business.

I recall the Daraz Fashion Week, organised by online retailer Daraz some four years ago, which operated on a ‘See now, buy now’ format. If a properly planned fashion week worked along the same lines, supported by an active retail format, new changes could be brought about in the fashion playing field.

As first time efforts go, the Virtual Fashion Week was a good one. On the first day, a poignant tribute was paid to model Zara Abid, with Strings’ ‘Urr Jaoon’ playing in the backdrop and Zara’s images flitting on to the screen along with quotes by her friends from the industry. It was a sad video – but one which featured a very varied mix of industry players.

This variation extended to the designer lineup. After a long time, a very diverse range of Pakistani fashion’s top names were united on a single platform, their loyalties to their home-towns or certain fashion councils set aside.

This was a welcome change. I do hope that this change persists and each city and council doesn’t go off and launch virtual fashion weeks of their own. Anyone who is aware of the divisive loyalties in local fashion knows this is a certain possibility.

Moving away from that rather debilitating notion, there is a lot more to appreciate in a virtual fashion presentation. One is able to skip out the painful delays that take place prior to a show. The shows can be watched at our own convenience, whenever we like.

And there are no squabbles for a front-row seat – everyone’s in the front row!

Having said this, cyber-shows could be a new avenue for local fashion but they can’t possibly be the only one. Nothing can replace the experience of a live show, the images that filter when the model poses at the tail-end of the catwalk, the excitement that takes over the industry when it unites at a single venue and the glamour of a star-studded front row (though this has been rare in recent fashion weeks).

But as long as the world remains beleaguered by the coronavirus, a Virtual Fashion Week sounds like a great idea. I do hope, though, that the next time fashion decides to ‘care’, better planned solutions are devised.

Sending clothes to front-liners is a sweet idea but given that these people are valiantly fighting for the country, perhaps more could be planned out for them. Maybe they don’t care too much about designer-wear and need help in other ways. Perhaps next time?