CAMERAS flash and a round of applause breaks out as a file of lissom models traipse through the crowd, testifying that fashion is alive and well in Pakistan. Such extravaganzas, organised on the scale of theatrical productions, have become increasingly common in the last few years. Indeed, several shows are held annually in Karachi, the country's fashion capital; but more recently Lahore has emerged as a parallel centre of style. Here leading names in couture like Neelofer Shahid of Meeras, Rizwan Beyg and many others present their collections before awed audiences who pay exorbitant sums. Recently, when Shamael, one of Pakistan's leading designers, held a show in Karachi, fashion enthusiasts doled out as much as Rs 10,000 for the best seats in the house.
Pakistani fashion really came of age in the '80s, with couturiers like Maheen Mirza and Faiza Samee among the first to earn the coveted status of designers as opposed to mere boutique owners. It was no longer enough to just embellish an outfit. These designers won recognition for their clever cuts and innovative use of fabric. Fashion shoots in magazines began to look more slick and professional and the fashion show became such a crowd-puller that it was immediately adopted as a favourite fund-raiser by a host of charities.
"I'd say that a lot of progress has been made in the last three years or so," says Rizwan Beyg, one of the country's leading couturiers who came into the spotlight when he designed two salwar kameezes for Princess Diana. "Alongside fashion designing, a whole range of associated fields have also developed," adds Beyg. "For instance, models have become much more professional, fashion photography has emerged as a field in its own right, lighting and other equipment has become more sophisticated."
Model Aliya Zaidi points to the last two or three years as the period of real growth. "The information explosion's had its impact. With so many new influences pouring in, the industry has expanded and new people have entered the field. Of course, the process of change is always gradual but it is happening," she says. "One can make a very good living from modelling now. The real money is in commercial modelling which I have not done a lot of, but my goal was always image-oriented, and image is built on the catwalk or in fashion shoots."
In recent years, a host of fashion glossies like Visage and Fashion Collection have been launched, providing designers and makeup artists with a platform to express themselves and delve into more experimental themes. Make-up artist Xeneb, for instance, ran an advertisement for her salon, featuring a set of glassy-eyed dolls sitting a row—a comment on how women are viewed in society.
Meanwhile, the style revolution is spreading. The recent opening of Clippers, an upmarket salon for men, was marked by a hair show which featured bronzed and brawny young models sporting a variety of funky, sometimes outrageous, hairdos. Also, filmstars are increasingly turning to professional designers and expert stylists for grooming and lessons in sartorial correctness.
Inspired by the designer boom, a number of upmarket boutiques selling trendy eastern as well as western wear have mushroomed. Lime green or fuschia knit tops or T-shirts with eccentric motifs are snapped up at shops like Labels and Alter Ego. Quality clothing for men has also received a boost. Of late, menswear boutiques have burgeoned led by designer Amir Adnan who started his career by selling silk ties. Today the Amir label adorns a range of clothing, from salwar kameezes to T-shirts and suits.
"Designers are becoming more experimental, silhouettes are becoming sleeker and one can ultimately see this change on the streets. Of course, the leading couturiers do not design for the masses but their work has a trickledown effect," notes Aliya Zaidi. But the heavily embellished zardozi and dabka ensembles, with which most leading designers made their fortunes, remain an integral part of collections, though couturiers are aiming for a more contemporary look as well. "Traditionally worked outfits are so expensive that they are generally bought for trousseaus," says Zaidi.
Younger designers like Zain Mustapha, who has won criticism as well as acclaim for his avant garde collections, and Nadia Shah, whose signature is her sexy evening wear, are now catering to a younger, more modern clientele. "The fashion industry in Pakistan is still in its adolescence," points out Zain, whose clients include pop stars, actors as well as young professionals. "We have to deal with all the traumas of puberty and during this time there is a search for identity. At the moment there are no rules, no set parameters, so one person's professionalism is not another's. So much new information is being received but it is being swallowed without being chewed properly. In a sense, we are cooking sushi ki nihari...but it's good to go through this phase because from this chaos, direction will emerge."
Zain, who enjoys being described as the enfant terrible of the fashion world, classifies his clothes as "eastern inspired". Says he: "I look at the basic point of the angarkha or the sherwani and reinterpret it. I think it's wonderful that my clothes are considered avant garde without being at all revealing." The designer's eclectic blend of the classical with the futuristic won him accolades last year at a fashion show in Rome organised by the Pakistan embassy. In fact, he was invited by the buyers to Milan as well.
But Zain is not the only Pakistani designer to have created a few ripples on the international circuit. For the same show in which he was represented, designers Maheen Mirza and Shamael also won flattering reviews in the Italian press. Earlier this year, Neelofer Shahid was invited to Paris to present her line of traditional evening wear at the fashion annual held at the Louvre.
And Beyg reveals that he has just broken into the French market. "I have just registered a company in Paris," says the designer who believes that Pakistani fashion has to be rethought for the international market. "Parisians or Italians may love our clothing but it is immediately labelled exotic and cannot really find a steady clientele." Beyg thus intends to draw on his eastern heritage to design a line that would be considered wearable in the West.
Both Princess Diana and Jemima Khan have also helped to bring the salwar kameez into international focus. In fact, the embroidery encrusted, ivory Beyg ensemble worn by the late princess was voted as one of her 30 best outfits in 1996. "And last summer, Armani presented a modified version of the salwar as part of his collection," he notes. And that perhaps is only the beginning.