Pakistan's unending love affair with lawn
There’s bling. A deluge of pastels. A motley collection of floral embroideries. Chikankari, eyelets, appliqued motifs, borders, flotsam, jetsam. And dupattas that flutter far and wide a la Sri Devi waving her sari pallu atop a scenic mountaintop in Switzerland. Then, there’s a picture of actor Fawad Khan. ‘Men’s Luxury Lawn’, the caption underneath the Instagram image declares, and it immediately catches one’s attention.
Why should a wide selection of elaborate unstitched luxury lawn be available for women alone? Why should men have to contend with limited variations of latha and generic woven fabric? Why should they not have the choice to select from similar ranges of festive-wear?
The Hazure Luxury Lawn collection, an extension of SFK Bridals and featuring Fawad Khan as its muse, proceeds to list a number of options: kurtas worked with tone-on-tone silk thread embroideries etching out paisleys and architectural details, light cotton jackets layered over kurtas and the piece de resistance, an embroidered shawl in raw silk.
Although similar designs may be available in stitched options at menswear ateliers, designer Sadaf Fawad Khan realised that there wasn’t much variety available in men’s unstitched fabrics. “It struck me as strange, particularly because while women can still be grouped into different body types, men need to have more tailored fitting, according to details like shoulder width, height, arm length,” she observes.
Pakistan has an unrelenting obsession with lawn, and from comfort-wear designed for the long hot desi summer, the lawn umbrella has expanded to include evening-wear, festive-wear and dress-it-up-and-wear-it-to-a-wedding-wear
“And just like luxury lawn for women is often so formal that it can even be worn to a day wedding or a dholki, this men’s lawn line also has options that can masquerade as wedding-wear.” She adds: “We have provided the option of bespoke tailoring, particularly for clients living abroad who don’t have access to tailors.”
The marketing potential of a men’s luxury lawn line also drew Sadaf. “I wanted to make something that I would enjoy but would also make noise. If there are five billboards in a popular marketplace and four of them show a woman wearing designer lawn, the fifth one dedicated to men’s lawn immediately gets noticed.”
Sadaf admits, though, that she is contemplating delving into luxury lawn for women by next year. It’s a market that is hard to resist for any designer or textile mill, where lawn moves beyond its cotton roots to incorporate a dizzying mix of textures and embellishments.
Omar Saleem, director at Portia Fabrics, one of the country’s largest multi-brand stores, states that approximately 12.5 million basic lawn suits have been manufactured this summer, and 3.5 million luxury suits.
“The demand for unstitched lawn has increased,” he says. “The pandemic has led to a rise in online lawn sales. Also, customers have gotten very accustomed to surveying collections on social media, comparing and contrasting designs and pricing before making their purchases.”
The colossal number of brands in the market indicate that competition is tough. For those that do manage to draw in customers, the business can be extremely lucrative, with a constant demand for unstitched fabric in its many variations: basic voile three-pieces, ‘luxury-wear’ that blends lawn with other textures like cotton net, organza, silk and chiffon, and comes with myriad add-ons and all-out festive-wear that may coin itself as ‘lawn’ but is, in actuality, budget wedding-wear.
“The demand for unstitched fabric is unparalleled,” says Shamoon Sultan, CEO of high-street heavyweight Khaadi. “Many women enjoy buying unstitched fabric and then designing it according to their particular preferences and size. Still, we have observed a steady increase in the demand for ready-to-wear, not just because the trend for stitched clothing has caught on, but also because people are travelling abroad less often and the rupee has devalued and imported apparel has become very expensive.
“Buying has become more localised,” continues Shamoon. “Nevertheless, there hasn’t been a decrease in the demand for unstitched lawn because of this. At Khaadi, we release three seasonal collections: basic lawn as Essentials, the Signature collection which is more formal, and Khaas which is entirely festive.”
Khaadi also recently re-launched its menswear which it had discontinued three years ago. The Khaadi Man range is yet to expand to men’s pret — one of their most popular lines in the past — and is currently limited to unstitched men’s fabric.
“We’ve noticed that over the past few years, a lot of Pakistani men have been converting from ready-made clothing to bespoke designs,” says Shamoon, “so we decided to re-enter the market with an unstitched range and bring out ready-to-wear some time later.”
Shehnaz Basit, Chief Operating Officer at Gul Ahmed, observes, “The basic lawn suit is a summer essential, and while a lot of brands have shifted focus completely to luxury wear, a large contingent of our customer base appreciates a basic, crisp, good quality lawn suit. Festive wear has its own demand but the shalwar-kameez-dupatta is a part of every Pakistani woman’s day wear.
“Over a span of 70 years in the market, we have observed that customers particularly rely on us for good quality fabric as well as design — basic needs, such as that the fabric should not be see-through, are particularly important. Innovative ideas also gain attention, such as one of our recent lines, inspired by the culture of Pakistan’s four provinces.”
At Maria B., another major high-street player, the lawn collections come in a constant procession: basic collections leading on to festive lines with differing price-points. “Customers always want designer lawn to be luxurious but there are varying categories — the less formal collections amped up by good fabric, schiffli embroideries but not too much bling and the very formal lines,” says Maria.
Doing well in the lawn business comes with its learnings and Maria proceeds to recount them. “These are literally unwritten rules that you learn over time! Most women don’t want to have animals or birds as part of the design because they feel that they won’t be able to pray in the clothes, and so we decided a long time ago to not incorporate them. There is no point in alienating a big chunk of your clientele.
“Also, the palette for unstitched fabric has to be created with the season in mind. Summer collections tend to have more pastel shades and with Eid taking place in the summer, the festive lines consistently feature plenty of whites — they always sell extremely well, although customers demand variations. If there was a white chikankari outfit in the last collection, there needs to be a different kind of white next time.”
The designer niche
Beyond the realm of high-street brands with multiple branches, efficient online stores and a loyal mass clientele, there are hundreds of ‘designer’ lawns that surface every year, investing in billboards, social media advertising, celebrities as models and soirees where guests dress up in the lawn and get photographed.
The collections get retailed via the thousands of unstitched fabric retail stores dotted around the country but many don’t make much of a mark — simply because every collection looks the same.
Designer Nomi Ansari, who once dabbled with lawn and released some standout collections, explains: “Investors still approach me but they want the collection to be designed in a certain way, replicating an international trend or whatever is popular in the local market. There are a lot of very pretty prints in the market, some pushed forward as designer lawn, but there is nothing distinctive about them. Being an artist, I can’t curb my creativity and copy someone else’s work.”
There are other designers who have attempted to find a solution by eschewing mass market aspirations. Many years ago, the likes of Sana Safinaz, Rizwan Beyg and Shamaeel Ansari had pioneered designer lawn by collaborating with major mills and creating collections that truly reflected their high-end ethos.
Now, similarly distinctive aesthetics have resurfaced with exclusive ‘limited edition’ ranges that actually look like they have been created by a designer rather than by a marketing team simply coming up with whatever is ‘in’.
Sania Maskatiya, for instance, launched her eponymous lawn range this year, selling solely through her standalone stores and online. The price-points for most luxury lawn suits for women range between 8,000 rupees and 12,000 rupees — Sania’s collection was, meanwhile, priced between 12,500 rupees and 17,500 rupees. According to the designer, the production costs were higher because the designs were manufactured in more limited numbers and quality control was prioritised. The designs, which resonated with Sania’s luxury-wear aesthetic, did very well.
Similarly, designer Nida Azwer launched her lawn last year, retailing via her stores and online. Other designers retail via multi-brand stores as well as on their own: Zainab Chottani with her classic ‘Chikankari’ luxury lawn and the less formal Tahra range, Zara Shahjahan, Farah Talib Aziz, Elan and the Crimson x Saira Shakira lines. On the high-street, Image fabrics sticks to their signature chikan fabric, retailing through their own stores.
Marching to his own drumbeat, Fahad Hussayn tends to give lawn his personal, eccentric touch, etching rainbows, flora and fauna on bright canvases, and retailing the stitched and unstitched Fahad Hussayn Print Museum lawn online.
The latest Fahad Hussayn lawn collection is titled ‘Lawndemic’ — the designer has always had a way with spinning words — and no better phrase could truly describe Pakistan’s unrelenting obsession with lawn.
From comfort-wear designed for the long hot desi summer, the lawn umbrella has expanded to include evening-wear, festive-wear and dress-it-up-and-wear-it-to-a-wedding-wear. The designs do get repetitive and yet, every year, lawn inches towards slightly new directions — such as lawn for men this year and the more exclusive, curated designer collections.
Customers may shift their loyalties from one brand to the other but the demand never ceases, regardless of a prevailing pandemic, inflation or political upheavals. The lawndemic never ever ends.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 10th, 2022