Every six months, fashion buyers and press troop around the catwalk shows in New York, Milan, Paris and London, looking not just to fill their rails and newspaper columns with the familiar high-profile designers, but also for the next big thing. A few seasons ago it was London's Christopher Kane, six months ago it was New York's Jason Wu and before him Christophe Decarnin at Balmain and Alexander Wang. Now we are two weeks into the spring/summer 2010 collections and it is anyone's guess who will be the stars of tomorrow. However, a group of designers from Pakistan and India have been given the opportunity to make a bid for that role, either individually or collectively. Four designers, two from India, Atsu and Azara, and two from Pakistan, Maheen Khan and Deepak Perwani, have been invited to show their work on the Milan catwalk for the first time, this week.
While cities such as Sydney, Rio and Mumbai have established their own fashion weeks in the last 10 years, introducing new talent and proving that, with the help of the internet, the fashion business has become truly global, many only attract regional attention, finding it difficult to lure the big-store buyers from New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Dubai when their diaries are already so full. For a designer looking to break out of their local scene the only answer is to pack up and head to one of the fashion capitals, which is exactly what these four designers are doing.
Deepak Perwani, Maheen Khan, Atsu and Azara will feature in a special catwalk event launched by the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, the organisers of Milan Fashion Week. N-U-DE (New Upcoming Designers) has been established to promote relatively unknown designers from around the world by providing them with a showcase. "A year ago I was approached by our ambassador in Rome to send her as many portfolios of designers as I could within a week," says Maheen Khan, who is head of Fashion Pakistan, the council for fashion designers in Pakistan. "I did and here we are, unbelievably, heading for Milan!"
Mario Boselli, the chairman of Camera della Moda Italiana, explaining the reasons for establishing N-U-DE, said that the body was looking for creative designers who are not widely known in the outside world but who have a lot to express. The initiative was launched in 2005 to help new Italian and international designers and young fashion brands. "The initiative reflects the search for renewal of the whole fashion system helping the new generation in their professional path. The designers who will be participating are leading ones who we think are worthy of being supported in their jobs - in particular now that Italy and the international market are ready to welcome the innovations coming from apparently far-away cultures."
It is not the first time Indian designers have shown in Milan - some came over last year and young Italian designers already have shown their collections in Mumbai. The project has become so successful, says Boselli, that fashion councils around the world now apply for a slot in the Milan fashion schedule. The benefit as far as the Camera Moda is concerned is that it puts Milan at the top of the list of fashion capitals.
Alpana and Neeraj Chauhan of Azara, one of the two labels invited from India this time, are enthusiastic about the business potential: "It will be a tremendous experience to showcase alongside the biggest names in the fashion world." Showing in Milan, they believe, will help enhance India's presence on the international fashion map. Perwani feels the same about the exposure the fashion event will give Pakistani designers: "Milan is the hub of fashion and they have yet to see the flavour that Pakistan has to offer. We are primarily an unexplored market for fashion inspiration."
The two fashion labels from India are young, but represent an avant-garde movement which is sweeping away assumptions that Indian fashion is all saris and shalwar kameezes. Atsu Sekhose's style is chic, understated and modern and includes modern adaptations of classic silhouettes. Of course, India is renowned for its highly skilled beading and embroideries, but Atsu keeps the effect subtle. "The decorative heritage is something to be proud of but it depends on how you tweak and control your colour palette and embroidery," he says. "My sensibility is very subtle, so I tend to go for sober things but keep in mind how I can retain the beauty of the traditional techniques and revive or tweak it in a modern way."
Atsu has bagged a few accolades, including Vogue India's Most Promising New Designer, since launching his eponymous label two-and-a-half years ago and has been focusing initially on his home market. He worked for a while at the Spanish high-street brand Zara, where he learnt some shrewd lessons about the European market and trends, which may well help him in Milan. "Working for a high-street brand makes you go easy on pricing, making the clothes look luxe and affordable at the same time," he says.
Azara's designs are similarly edgy and fashion-forward, featuring unusual prints, from animal to architectural themes, unusual shapes and silhouettes and some surprise detailing. However the label likes to keep it wearable and add a touch of humour. "Our aesthetics are global as we cater to a highly cosmopolitan clientele," says Alpana Chauhan. Azara's collections also sell in London (they dressed the actress and socialite Elizabeth Hurley for her wedding celebrations in India), the US and across the Middle East and Gulf states. "Our clients are women who don't follow trends, who can carry off anything with the least effort and who ares not afraid to experiment," Chauhan adds.
Atsu, Azara, Perwani and Khan may not figure on the international fashion radar as yet, but, if you rifle through the rails of boutiques in the UAE you will find that buyers here already have the inside track on these designers. Atsu's jackets, tops and skirts, and Azara's dresses and kaftans hang alongside more established names like Rohit Bal and Tarun Tahiliani at Samsaara in Dubai. "As a boutique we focus on getting Asian designers to the Middle East, while most stores focus on US and European brands," explains the owner, Rohini Gehani. "We see potential in their talent."
Samsaara stocks some of the biggest names in Indian fashion including Shane and Falguni Peacock, Arjun Khanna menswear and Vikram Phadnis, all of whom dress Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai, Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra. "We always get customers who want the same dress that Priyanka Chopra wore in this song or that movie, and when the designers come to the store to do personal appearances it drives a lot of interest," says Rohini Gehani. "Bollywood going global is helping as we have seen a growing interest from western residents and tourists in Indian designer labels."
Bollywood has had an enormous impact on Indian fashion, but so has the arrival of international luxury brands. Fashion consumers still favour traditional or fusion dress over imported labels and this has given Indian designers an edge. The average discerning customer is not shifting into all-western clothes. This has encouraged designers such as Atsu and Azara to develop their niche collections that mix East and West. "India has grown in leaps and bounds - fashion was not considered a serious business," says Alpana and Neeraj Chauhan. "With the introduction of fashion weeks and exposure to foreign markets there is a strong breed of talented young designers who have minds of their own. Also the mindset of the target customers has changed: people look to experiment and no longer want to shop just for big labels."
In Pakistan, Khan and Deepak Perwani are feeling the pressure as representatives of the nascent but vibrant fashion industry. "The pressure is enormous," says Khan, one of the pillars of the fashion business. "Deepak and I both feel this will go a long way in building a positive image for our country." The fashion industry in Pakistan, she explains, has grown enormously - largely, she says, "due to the excellent fashion schools accredited to well-known international names".
Khan's glamorous, sensuous use of fabric, which makes her tunics, dresses and shalwar kameezes flutter about the wearer, comes she says, "because I believe in clothes that women can wear with comfort and confidence". Her ultra-feminine look has found favour with Princesses Sarwat of Jordan, Badiya el Hassan, Salima Aga Khan, and Jemima Khan in London. She has worked closely with the film industry in Europe on sets doing costumes and is currently working on the new Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe and Kate Winslet. Khan has also collaborated with Catherine Walker (the late Princess Diana's preferred designer).
Perwani, a rising star, has shown his collections in Malaysia and at private diplomatic events in New York and London, but this is the first time he has had such a high-profile event as being part of the main catwalk schedule in Milan. Like Khan, he is a minimalist at heart. "My personal mantra is 'less is more'," he says. Perwani fuses East with West in a chic, understated way with his mainline collections; his more youthful D Philosophy collection, meanwhile, is colourful and exuberant. His clothes are bought by young, stylish Pakistani women who either know the ins and outs of fashion or are learning from the global media.
Perwani explains how he has "always tried to break away from traditional Pakistani wear, to be part of global fashion rather than just Pakistan". Perwani's collection is a cornerstone of the collections selling at the Soiree boutique in Dubai. Soiree specialises in flowing, elegant evening gowns and abayas. Perwani's clothes, says the owner, Mariya Kassam, "are dramatic with their colours and unique embroidery". She concentrates on designers from Pakistan and the UAE as the talent is "prevalent and untapped". With a skill for fusing eastern and western tastes, their collections are selling well to her international clientele.
"We are a progressive design house that is proud to take Pakistani design forward," says Perwani. Along with talents such as Khan and Atsu and Azara, it is a safe bet that this week he will begin to prove this to the rest of the fashion world.