In Pakistan, fashion weeks thrive beyond the style capitals of the world

April 25, 2012

New York, Paris, Milan . . . Lahore? Fashion week has long been the annual high point for the fashion houses of the most chic cities of Europe and the United States. And now, if the fashion designers of Pakistan have their way, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad could very well be added to the list of fashion capitals of the world.

Last week in Lahore, the Pakistan Fashion Design Council wrapped up its fashion week, a colorful spectacle of lustrous fabrics and elaborate embellishments.

Earlier in the month, Fashion Pakistan, a rival collective based in Karachi, held its fashion week.

Some months in Pakistan, it seems as if every week is fashion week somewhere.

Credit goes to Ayesha Tammy Haq, a British-trained lawyer and chief executive of Fashion Pakistan, who came up with the idea for Pakistan’s first fashion week, held in November 2009. The show was originally scheduled for a month earlier, but that October the Pakistani Army General Headquarters was besieged by suicide attackers in Rawalpindi, a city just outside the capital. The group was forced to postpone its fashion week because the security situation was untenable.

“Everyone was very skeptical,” Haq said. “Most people thought it would not happen, and very few people were willing to fund it.”

But after taking a few weeks to regroup, Haq forged ahead and the show did indeed go on.

The inaugural fashion week was a success and was widely covered in the international media.

“They all came and they all wrote about how fashion was defying the Taliban,” Haq said. “Immediately after we did it in November there was a fashion week in Peshawar. Peshawar! Can you imagine?”

Peshawar is a violence-ridden city in the country’s northwestern province, on the front lines of the Taliban insurgency against the Pakistani government. Peshawar has not hosted another fashion week since that one.

In just a few years, fashion weeks have cropped up all over the place. Besides Fashion Pakistan week and the fashion week run by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, models stroll the runways in Karachi and Islamabad with increasing regularity — glitzy occasions put on by event planners. There is also a bridal couture week and a showcase for emerging talent.

The fashions being shown are priced out of reach for most Pakistanis, at sometimes hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But fashionable options exist for those with far fewer rupees to spend.

The collections coincide with the “lawn” season. Lawn is a thin, lightweight cotton fabric used to make salwar-kameez, the loose-fitting tunic and trouser suits that are worn throughout South Asia and are the national dress of Pakistan.

Each year as spring approaches, women swarm the malls and markets in virtually every major city in the country in a bid to get the prettiest prints to fashionably survive the brutal Pakistani summers.

In recent years, a growing number of fashion houses have started creating “designer lawn” at price points affordable to the masses. Selling the cheaper cloth is a way for designers to reach a wider customer base, increase name recognition and make some elements from the runway available to the average woman.

“This is a huge industry, and you have hundreds and thousands of women fighting over lawn when it comes out,” Haq said. “Literally.”

Tussles have been known to break out as customers scramble to snag the most coveted designer prints. Vogue magazine compared it to a rugby scrum.

The fledgling fashion industry employs millions of people, Haq said. It’s good business for several layers of society, including event planners, media, musicians, hotel workers and florists — and of course textile workers, a large component of the Pakistani economy.

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