Come rain, come shine or life-threatening pandemic, Pakistan’s love story with luxury lawn carries on. It is a passion that defies all odds; a crumbling economy, businesses that have shut down and the education system coming to a halt. The dupatta, fluttering in the air, wins all, beguiling in its multicolored beauty when, in reality, it wields immense power.
One had assumed, of course, that with the world in the throes of a pandemic and budgets getting slashed considerably, the market for designer lawn in Pakistan would recede into the shadows. Where would women wear these elaborate jigsaw puzzles, where embroidery meets cotton, organza and chiffon, with a dash of bling added in for effect?
With one lawn brand following the other relentlessly in launches and queues of buyers forming outside retail stores, the answer seems to be that they will be wearing them everywhere. The coronavirus pandemic may still be at large but a sizable contingent of the country has refused to acknowledge its existence, even when they contract it, and lavish, crowded parties continue to rule the social circuit. The ladies, then, will be wearing their designer lawn when they eschew SOPs, and prepare for a high-flying weekend.
Catering to this very lucrative market, is an extensive gamut of lawn brands. Billboards are up and social media advertisements have been floating out without pause. Based on the images on Instagram, there’s apparently a ‘lawn launch’ every weekend, where all the guests dress up in designs from the collection, pose for photographs and have tea.
The flimsy summer fabric was, until about two decades ago, considered pedestrian. But lawn has evolved manifold since then and, from the way it has been selling even in times of social restrictions and rising prices, it seems that is what Pakistanis want to wear
Not every brand is a hit in lawn’s competitive waters and many will eventually go on sale. There are always a few ‘hit prints’ though, that sell out very quickly. Some are truly popular, others are manufactured in such limited quantities that they inevitably run out. There are also some that pretend to be ‘sold out’ in a twisted, reverse psychology play, making customers covet them and, then, magically ‘reproduce’ more suits that sell very, very quickly. It’s a ploy that works — I’ve seen it happen.
But aside from the usual hype and hoopla, the mind games and sales tactics, what’s new about luxury lawn this year? Beyond the designs, which remain predominantly floral, the one factor that stands out is the escalated price…
Often pitched as the Pakistani version of ‘affordable designer-wear’, luxury lawn prices had until recently teetered around 8,000 rupees per suit. The more elaborate designs would be priced at just below 10,000 rupees. This year, though, the price ceiling was pushed up by some of the country’s most popular lawn heavyweights, touching a lofty 11,000 rupees and sometimes, close to 12,000 rupees.
Add in the stitching costs of a lawn suit, which includes appliqueing motifs and borders, and the overall price could add up to around 14,000 rupees.
Even under normal circumstances, this doesn’t seem affordable. In the midst of a pandemic, the prices seem even more implausible. The fact that many of the brands are still hauling in sales is indicative of the extreme dichotomy in finances that exists within Pakistan.
The price hike, says designer Safinaz Munir of Sana Safinaz, is a result of rising production costs and could not be avoided. “There has been a 40 percent hike in the price of fabric and machine embroideries and it all trickles down to a more expensive collection.”
Zara Shahjahan also cites greater production costs. “Everything from the fabric we import, to the yarn, the dyes and even electricity has become more expensive,” she says. “Prices inevitably had to rise. And I’m afraid that, with import taxes rising, lawn is going to get pricier next year.”
Some ateliers, such as the one headed by designer Fahad Hussayn, who has just relaunched himself into lawn with Shajrahh, a ‘Signature Eid Lawn collection’, have toed more economic lines, however. “I have deliberately kept prices more affordable while also not compromising on quality,” he says. “Even the embroideries are of great quality and I have paid particular attention to the printing. I don’t believe in overcharging my customers. I’d rather reduce my profit margin.”
Value for money
Given these raised prices, are people still buying the lawn? Evidently, it all boils down to brand loyalty, giving value for money — and how big a lawn fanatic you are.
Zainab Chottani’s luxury Chikankari collection, for instance, did well, according to the designer. “This time, it seemed to me that customers wanted to buy everything!” she observes. “Perhaps it was because, in contrast to last year when the world was completely shut down, they felt that they would be able to socialise more this time round. Yes, the prices are higher but because the Chikankari collection tends to be more festive, people are more willing to spend on it.”
At Image Fabrics, Director Marketing and E-commerce Marium Ahmed says that sales have not plummeted despite the rising prices. “It’s all about giving value for money, isn’t it? People are willing to spend a bit more because they know that the fabric is of great quality, there is an identifiable design signature and, at least in our case, the embroideries are all part of the suit and don’t have to be appliqued tediously.”
Similarly, Sana Safinaz lawn aficionados are willing to pay around a thousand or two more than what they paid last year for the brand’s distinctive designs. “The Pakistani summer is long and hot and we wear lawn for about 10 months a year,” says Safinaz. “I remember a time, though, when women would wear synthetic fabrics in the evening. In our 24 years in the business, we have worked hard on elevating lawn from generic day-wear to trendy occasion-wear. There’s our Muzlin line, which is unstitched day-wear, and then we have luxury lawn, where the fabric is enhanced and looks like a million bucks!”
But even in its luxurious avatar, hasn’t lawn become repetitive? Every year, entire collections are dedicated to embroidered necklines and trimmings and pretty prints that are strictly floral because most of the masses have religious reservations against wearing clothes that have faces on them. According to Safinaz, the innovations are in the details.
“We try to bring in new elements into every lawn collection,” she says. “Women love wearing luxurious dupattas and so, we often place a focus on them. This year, we have dupattas worked with kamdani, puff prints and zari borders. The dupattas can be used later with other suits and the chiffon ones can even be dyed another colour! On some of the shirts, we’ve employed crewel embroidery and 3-D embellishments that you’d usually see on a couture outfit, rather than on a three-piece suit in the market.”
Khadijah Shah, creative head at Elan lawn, explains her perspective: “You can’t fool the customer with a substandard product. Elan lawn is very popular because we’ve always been very particular about using quality fabrics and mixing them with the elaborate embroideries that are now considered the brand’s highpoints. This time round, we’ve incorporated lavishly embroidered dupattas with suits and worked with classic designs that aren’t overwhelming. I don’t think that net and organza dupattas are comfortable in the summer, so instead the collection features beautiful silk and voile dupattas.”
Elan, also, has a sister brand, Zaha, which dabbles with less pricey, slightly less elaborate lawn. This constitutes as day-wear. Similarly, designer Zainab Chottani has diversified this year to bring out two lawn collections: the pricier ‘ZC Luxury Chikankari 21’ and the more economical ‘Tahra Lawn’.
Heavyweights such as Gul Ahmed, Khaadi, Sapphire, Bonanza and Al-Karam — and many, many more — have always offered variations in their unstitched suits, from the high-priced ‘festive’ designs to more basic lawns for daily-wear.
The copycat culture
However, even more affordable lawn brands cannot beat the pricing that is the result of the lawn plagiarism trade running rampant in local marketplaces. Small kiosks in popular markets, such as Lahore’s Liberty and Aashiana in Karachi, are stacked high with designer lawn replicas at a fraction of the original’s price. From the chiffon dupatta to the embroidered border, every design detail may get replicated into an inferior version. Even the packaging may seem the same, boxes and plastic bags proudly declaring the original brand name!
Back in 2015, when designer Faraz Manan would bring out seasonal lawn collections, some of his designs were somehow leaked prior to their official release. Counterfeits were created with great efficiency and were released into the market on the same day as the original lawn! Faraz had, at the time, stated that customers who preferred a high-quality original would always end up buying it. Nevertheless, seeing a substandard copy at a mall of your brand new lawn suit must diminish some of the excitement of wearing the design.
Given that lawn designers have now become savvier, offering regular sales in order to draw the customer away from copycats, does plagiarism still hurt luxury lawn sales?
Asim Jofa, one of the most copied brands in the market, observes, “I don’t think that it hurts as much as it used to. In my 11 years’ experience of creating designer lawn, I have noticed that customers that buy the original will always choose to do so. Over time, I have also seen a greater diversification between people who buy the original and those who opt for copies. They are unlikely to be moving in the same social circles so, usually, my customer won’t be bothered by the copies at all.
“Also, it’s important to keep moving on to new collections. I don’t want to keep selling a single range of prints for six months. The copies may come out but, by then, I’ll be marketing a new collection. I’ve even seen entire collections in the market that are not copies of my designs, but boldly have my brand logo printed on them!” laughs Asim.
A common story whispered in Lahore is of a very popular lawn brand that got tired of copycats and decided to surreptitiously produce a copycat substandard brand of their own, catering to a lower economic bracket. Quite ingenious!
The marketing of lawn has also always been a case study all on its own. Before relations soured with India, Bollywood actresses were often enlisted to model collections — Faraz Manan’s campaigns with Kareena Kapoor come to mind. Once India was ruled out, the focus quickly zeroed in on local actresses who continue to be the faces for collections — sometimes to the point of ubiquity.
Ayeza Khan, for instance, is possibly the face of more than five lawn collections this year. The actress looks beautiful, but it is truly difficult to tell one collection from the other in most cases.
Trying to stand apart from the celebrity circus, brands have also often opted to shoot their collections in exotic foreign locations. Before the coronavirus pandemic came along, this meant that a lawn catalogue could be a veritable travelogue, traversing the nooks of European towns, cosmopolitan cities and tropical isles. This year, though, it meant that many of Pakistan’s lawn moguls had the same bright idea: of shooting in Turkey, one of the few countries open for travel during the pandemic.
From Zainab Chottani to Elan, Maria B. and a host of lesser known brands, Turkey was the location du jour. Some of the shoots were artistically done, sweeping over scenery in lesser known parts of the country. Many times, though, the ancient colosseums and European structures that are part of Turkish history made multiple appearances.
Maria B.’s summer luxury lawn particularly brought on the Turkish touch by featuring Ayeza Khan as well as Gulsim Ali, who acted in the popular Turkish series Dirilis: Ertugrul. The campaign was advertised extensively and, judging from the response on the brand’s e-store, the suits have sold quite well.
“Turkey’s a great location generally because it is so picturesque and there are so many production facilities available,” says Maria. “I think that the marketing campaign worked very well too but, ultimately, if the final product hadn’t been good, then customers couldn’t have been tricked into buying it.”
Amongst other marketing ploys that have stood out, Sana Safinaz made their lawn look uber-glamorous by creating an entire fashion film showcasing the new collection. Asim Jofa introduced his lawn collection with a song sung by Farhan Saeed and featuring the singer and actress Hania Aamir. Fahad Hussayn’s lawn fashion film starred actress Noor Zafar Khan and told the story of a young girl returning home from abroad and celebrating Eid with her family.
It’s a lot of effort for a fabric that was, about two decades ago, considered pedestrian. But lawn has evolved manifold since then. With its many added-on frills and fripperies, it’s now occasion-wear for women all across Pakistan.
It may often get stuck in a repetitive over-the-top rut, the pricing may sky-rocket and a lot of times you may find it difficult to ascertain how it can be considered fashion-forward, but based on the continued hype, it is what Pakistanis want to wear — to all those parties that they’re going to despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 28th, 2021