Better known for conservatism than outré style statements, Pakistan offered a taste of a more colourful, vibrant approach - one that is readily available to shoppers in Dubai - during its second fashion week in the culture-rich city of Lahore . The Pakistan Fashion Design Council Sunsilk Fashion Week 2010 last week lasted four days and featured the work of 32 designers from across the country, including several who sell their pieces in UAE boutiques such as Studio 8 and HSY (Hassan Sheharyar Yasin).
Most of the designers were graduates of the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD), set up 15 years ago in collaboration with Paris's custodian of couture, the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale. The establishment of a serious design school has elevated the country's fashion scene to a more businesslike discipline. One of the designers, Sara Shahid, of Sublime, says: "Until now, fashion was a mere form of entertainment. I'm glad it's changing now as we work together and give the Pakistani fashion industry a great energy boost. For once, this industry is going to be taken more seriously than ever."
This has been noticed. In 2008, Ann Wanderson, the fashion director of Henri Bendel, commented on Pakistan's attempts to organise a fashion week, telling The New York Times: "It's a way to be part of a global culture and relate to other countries that is not political." Still, for all its new internationalism, Pakistani fashion is hanging on to its traditional affection for arts and crafts, and the age-old merits of embroidery.
The young designer and PIFD graduate Ali Xeeshan received a standing ovation during fashion week for his collection, which was very much in the spirit of couture, as models clad in dirty yellow and heavy velvets walked the runway. And it's not just the traditional embroideries and fashions of the subcontinent that are inspiring designers there: the art of the region also served as a visual cue for Khadija Shah, of Élan, whose collection was based on the paintings of the Pakistani artist Saeed Akhtar, whose recent work portrays tribal women and their lives in the country's desert regions. With ethnic embellishments and jewels, Élan's focus remained on a palette of gold, burnt orange, olive, deep pink and crimson, reflecting life in the sand, hot sun and an evening desert sky.
Certainly the organisers of the fashion week are in no rush to abandon the styles that make the country's dress sense distinctive. The chairwoman Sehr Saigol explains: "Pakistan has endless fashion to show and this is the first step. We are confident about our fashion sense, which is distinct to our rich cultural heritage." Nevertheless, there was no shortage of innovation and imagination as the designers strove to stand out from their peers. Employing fashion as a tool for education, Yahsir Waheed wowed the audience with his pret-a-porter collection, which he called Kee Mein Jana Kaun, quoting a line written almost 400 years ago by the Punjabi Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah.
Yahsir's collection used cotton and chiffon to reinvent the traditional eastern shalwar (trousers) and slogans such as "Education No Bombs", "World Peace Now", "Stay Alive 2010" and "Think Peace Act Peace" embellished his clothes. For the international media and buyers, one of the most interesting aspects of the fashion week has been the myth-busting images of Pakistani women wearing contemporary fashion, rather than the stereotypes of repression that are more commonly portrayed. From a business point of view, too, international buyers have been impressed.
Dubai's demand for Pakistani fashion took Pallavi Bhattia, of the Jumeirah boutique Studio 8, to Lahore for the event. She says: "We didn't really know much about Pakistani fashion before this. We plan to create an entire section dedicated to Pakistani designers at Studio 8." Like many other international spectators, Bhattia's perception of Pakistani fashion has changed for the better. "The long kurtas [shirts] can be made even longer to fit the needs of locals in the Emirates, who favour the traditional jalabiyah."
With fashion weeks competing across the globe, from Madrid to Stockholm, Pakistan has an uphill struggle to maintain a presence and attract buyers, but its distinctive craft-based aesthetic might just help it to carve out a niche in this fickle industry.