Photos: Faisal Farooqui @ Dragonfly
Photos: Faisal Farooqui @ Dragonfly

The masks were on. The seating spaced out. But there were lights, live music, a glittery audience and a catwalk, that once ubiquitous installation that had receded into the shadows thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Zainab Chottani’s show was called Bagh-i-Ishq (Garden of Love) and it was truly a love for her design house, built so diligently over the years, that prompted her to fly solo while the world is still in the throes of a pandemic. And it was a love for design and the catwalk which prompted the audience to attend the show, even if it were from behind the restraints of face masks.

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It continues to be far too risky for collective showcases to be crowded together at a fashion week, and solo shows are the inevitable solution for designers wanting to exhibit their latest collections. But not every design house has been coasting smoothly through these economically difficult Covid-19-infested times. Many have been concentrating on damage control, refraining from investing in creating new collections until the market gets better. The fact that Zainab Chottani chose to stage a solo outing at this particular junction indicates that within her atelier, at least, things are going well.

It is also a sign that Zainab means serious business. Stepping away from the fashion week omnibus, where multiple collections are sandwiched together, Zainab is now ready to wield her growing clout, showcasing to a select audience of her very own and having complete command over the headlines and reviews that follow.

Zainab Chottani has a lot to be confident about, and she showed it all off in her solo show Bagh-i-Ishq, which encompassed the entirety of a Pakistani wedding

The thing with headlines, though, is that you never know where they may veer. They may be ebullient or completely lacklustre. At a collective fashion week, the headlines — good or bad — get shared between the best collections, rather than a single one. At an individual show, they belong to a single designer alone.

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A solo show, then, is a brave move and reflects a designer’s confidence in his or her abilities. With a loyal, regular clientele and more than a decade in the business, Zainab has a lot to be confident about. Bagh-i-Ishq was an extensive 50 piece-strong collection, for women and men, flitting over the many events that encompass the Pakistani wedding.

There was plenty of bling and colour, and dashes of zardozi, resham, sequins and thread embroideries mingled with digitally printed florals and tiled patterns. Crushed chiffons were followed by silks, subdued whites and golds preceding bright splashes of colour, classic Eastern silhouettes mixed in with tweaked modern ones. There were embroidered waistcoats, shirts with long embellished necklines, a glittering slim-cut lehnga in peach and pink here and an ombre silk sari there. The men, meanwhile, walked out in sherwanis and kurtas, classic cuts set off often by colour and embroidery.

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In an ostensible nod to the current economic crunch, there weren’t too many heavily embellished outfits in the collection. Many of the designs relied on a festive mix of print and embroidery rather than on the intricate swirls of embellishment that tend to be Zainab’s signature. Block prints and screen prints replaced the borders that are often worked with embroideries, and a smattering of sequins preferred over thick layers of handwork. It was pretty but cost-effective and, also, quintessentially Zainab, who has always been a designer with a strong eye for business.

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With steady marketing, regular shows and launch events, celebrity brand ambassadors and her clothes constantly seen in TV dramas, Zainab has built her atelier into a force. This solo show, too, was a business-savvy one, targeted completely towards client requirements and modulated according to the needs of the economy.

One wishes, though, that this quest for commercial viability could have occasionally deferred towards the occasional moment of vivacious creativity; perhaps an eccentric embroidered pattern, an effervescent, unique colour combination or an erratic tweak to a conventional silhouette. Solo shows tend to be extensive — as this one was — and a sporadic spurt of eccentricity adds so much more chutzpah.

Bolstering the evening was how well-attended it was. It was interesting to note that so many from Karachi’s fashion fraternity turned up to support Zainab: Rizwan Beyg, Zaheer Abbas, Adnan Pardesy, Maheen Khan, Mohsin Sayeed, Umar Sayeed and Nomi Ansari among them.

The celebrity turn-out wasn’t too bad either, with good friends Hania Aamir, Areeba Habib and Humayun Saeed sitting in the front row.

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In Humayun Saeed’s words, “Zainab is a great designer and her clothes feature regularly in our TV productions. She’s also a great friend and I really wanted to be there for her.”

That’s the thing about Zainab Chottani. So many of us have seen her working extremely hard and growing over the years and we want to be there to cheer her on. Watching the catwalk laid out by her that evening, for a while it felt as if all was right with the world and (socially distanced) weddings and parties were lining up the calendar where these clothes could be worn and seen.

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Her very first solo show wrapped up aptly with an exuberant burst of fireworks, splayed out over the venue, Karachi’s Jahangir Kothari Parade. May the next one bring on more fireworks, both figuratively and literally.


Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 31st, 2021


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