Are women still buying lawn the way they used to about five years ago? Have they set aside budgets for the lawn brands of their choice, buying a certain number of suits that will last them all summer? They are, because you can’t survive the Pakistani summer without a few breathy, easy breezy lawns lined up in your wardrobe. Chances are, though, that they are buying much less than they used to.
There’s also a surety that they aren’t queuing up to buy luxury lawn, elbowing through crowds to get that one coveted suit that was quickly getting sold out. They’re more likely to muse upon the suit that they like, surfing through the online catalogue several times, zooming in and zooming out on the details on their cellphones and then, maybe — just maybe — placing an order.
There was a time when luxury lawn, especially the ones with designer tags attached to them, used to attract crazed crowds of buyers. It was a phenomenon unique to Pakistan. Customers would be enthralled that high-end designer labels would trickle down to the mass market with affordable lawn collections. They would wake up at seven in the morning and happily become part of long queues outside lawn exhibition halls.
There were women who would have buckets full of water in their cars so that the minute they bought their lawn suits, they could shrink the fabric and rush it off to the tailor. And once the lawn got stitched, there was a rush to wear it first and you’d start seeing the really popular designs everywhere — cafes, the mall, at work, even at school parent-teacher meetings! Luxury lawn got Pakistani women very, very excited and based on this, more and more brands would enter the fray every year.
It was a phenomenon unique to Pakistan that could be written about endlessly. But I refer to it in the past tense here.
With far too many contenders entering the market, a deluge of unstitched options launching every month and, most significantly, the rising costs of inflation, lawn simply doesn’t inspire the mass hysteria that it used to. The woman who would buy seven suits every summer is now buying four, or maybe even three. There are many others who have opted to eschew the tailor altogether and buy pret. And while the high-end designer tagline is still a very coveted one, cash flows across the country have receded and buying power just isn’t what it used to be.
Maliha Aziz, who heads Farah Talib Aziz, a designer label that releases an extremely popular lawn line every year, observes, “This is our ninth year in the business of selling lawn and this year, I feel that people just don’t have the spending power that they used to have. Earlier, all our suits would sell out within minutes. Now, we have 30% of our stock still with us. I am very optimistic that with Ramazan and Eid coming closer and the weather getting warmer, we will sell the rest of our stock. Nevertheless, customers are taking longer to decide on what they want to buy.”
Like every year, Maliha and her mother, designer Farah Talib Aziz, developed a lawn line that was very formal and emulated the brand signature. The shirts were embroidered, the pants’ fabric was textured, the dupattas dabbled with chiffon, cotton-net and silk and additional borders were included with the suit, for lining a hem, a neckline or a sleeve. And while a lawn suit primarily has to have great fabric and be pretty, innovations were added in, such as entire swathes of fabric with applique worked on them and laser-cut embroideries on shirts.
Prices teetered around Rs15,000 — expensive and yet not as expensive as other designer lawn contenders in the market.
“We try really hard to offer something new to customers every year,” says Maliha, “but keeping prices competitive is becoming increasingly difficult. The only reason why we were able to maintain this year’s price is because we had purchased chiffons and silks for the dupattas some years ago. Now, the cost of raw materials has skyrocketed and perhaps in a year or two we will have no choice but to charge higher prices. The only reason why we’re even managing to break even this time is because we manufacture lawn in mass quantities. Designers creating limited quantities for a niche market will have to set higher prices for their lawns in order to make a profit or simply break even.”
But while lawn manufacturers and designers may find it difficult to bring prices down, customers similarly are going to find it difficult buying lawn suits quite as enthusiastically as they used to. “Lawn has to be accessible,” says designer Misha Lakhani. “The prices of raw materials have risen but a lot of people’s salaries haven’t increased, so everyone’s feeling the pinch. Except for one suit, all the designs in our Unstitched collection this year are priced below Rs20,000 so that people are more inclined to buy them.”
Over at Sania Maskatiya, another designer who has stormed the lawn market with her eponymous collection of unstitched summer fabric, prices range from Rs18,500 to the most formal design priced at a whopping Rs26,500. The designs follow the brand’s classic signature — flora and fauna etched in very neat machine embroideries on fine fabric. From the colours to the embroidery patterns, the designs follow the same aesthetic as Sania Maskatiya’s formal-wear which is far pricier. Nevertheless, with the country grappling with inflation, are people even buying the more expensive suits? Has the brand received flak for their high prices of their suits?
“There will always be some people who will not be happy with the prices,” says the brand’s CEO, Umair Tabani. “However, our main clientele has been very appreciative. There is an aspirational value attached to the designs because from the fabric used to the patterns, they truly are very similar to our luxury-wear. Also, manufacturing costs are high and the unstitched collection is very niche, retailed only by us and not distributed to mass fabric retailers. In that sense, it is more of a luxury line than a product for the high-street. We can’t compete with the prices of brands that create mass quantities.”
Even on the high-street, certain brands have crossed the Rs20,000 price point. The annual Image Lawnkari line, retailed by Image Fabrics, has prices that range between Rs14,990 and Rs21,990. “So far, our sales haven’t gone down,” says the brand’s director Marium Ahmad, “and I think that it has a lot to do with the customer loyalty that we’ve built over the years.”
She added that their unstitched suits always feature our classic chikankari, which makes them very identifiable. “Customers like that. At the same time, if our sales haven’t taken a blow, then perhaps we’ve eaten up some other brands’ sales. Overall, buying power has certainly decreased.”
The fact remains, however, that a lawn suit priced above Rs20,000 would require stitching at a cost of about Rs3,000. The overall expenditure on that one single suit could be as high as Rs27,000. Stitched luxury-wear at most ateliers may be available at about the same price range. Move beyond the realms of high-end designer stores and you may be able to find embellished mediocre quality wedding-wear at about the same price.
Is an unstitched fabric suit worth the expense at such astronomical rates? Will people still buy it? Shamoon Sultan, founder of high-street heavyweight Khaadi, has commented to me on different occasions, “There is a growing market for ready-to-wear especially in the urban centres. But if you look at Pakistan overall, nothing beats the sale of unstitched fabric. Many women like to get their clothes stitched according to their size. Also, they like to design their outfits, innovating with the details.” Since Khaadi caters to an extensive mass market, the brand’s range of unstitched fabrics run the gamut from pricey embellished versions to a basic lawn three-piece for daily-wear.
Omar Saleem, director at Portia Fabrics, one of the country’s largest multi-brand stores retailing unstitched fabric, depicts a clear picture of the market. “Customers generally aren’t appreciating suits that are priced above Rs20,000. Even those customers who do end up buying the suits have given us the feedback that they later realised that there was nothing extraordinary about their purchases despite the high prices. Lawn suits priced at around Rs15,000 are also selling slowly. People want to make sure that if they pay that much, they get value for money.”
He continues, “Some of the suits that have sold very well this time include Maria B.‘s MPrints line and Zara Shahjahan’s Coco range, all priced below Rs10,000. Generally, the under Rs10,000 lines are selling the best while stock is left over from designer collections that are priced higher.”
There may still be lawn aficionados who are willing to fork out huge sums for the suit of their choice but this diaspora is slowly shrinking. There was a time when the lawn market was booming and new contenders would enter the field every year.
Now, perhaps, the effect will be in reverse, with fewer brands entering the mass market and only the competitively priced lineups lasting the long haul.
Header image: Farah Talib Aziz lawn