Pakistani couture in the limelight

32 designers parade their creations over four days at the first ever fashion show to be held in Lahore.

LAHORE // When it was time for Hajra Hayat to present her collection at the Lahore Fashion Week, she was more nervous than usual. Ms Hayat has been designing for more than a decade and has numerous fashion shows and exhibitions to her name. But this time around her nervousness had less to do with concerns about how her work would be received than her safety and that of those around her.

"The security situation in Pakistan worried me," said the Lahore-based designer, exhausted after spending several hours putting together her collection. "Nowadays whenever we talk about something happening in Pakistan, be it a fashion show, a party or an exhibition, security concerns go hand in hand with the event." The fashion week, in which 32 designers paraded their creations over four days, was the first ever to be held in Lahore, a sign that Pakistan's fashion industry is taking off.

But the fears expressed by Ms Hayat and others at the show, as well as the strong security presence, speak of Pakistan's current volatility, especially with regard to events that could be deemed "immoral" by militant groups. Sara Salman, a designer who launched her fashion house as a home-based enterprise eight years ago, said fears of being attacked or the show being targetted by a bomb were foremost in her mind as she was preparing for the event.

"Till my last model walked off the ramp, I was worried and praying," Ms Salman said. In the end, the Lahore Fashion Week passed off without incident, adding another notch to Pakistan's nascent fashion industry. Karachi also hosted a smaller but equally prestigious event this year. Sehyr Saigol, chairperson of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, said the Lahore Fashion Week was an important step for the industry.

"This event will work toward formalising the processes needed to help commercialise Pakistan's fashion industry," she said in a press release. "Indeed the main objectives of this week are not only to showcase the country's diverse repertoire of creative talent, but to create meaningful business relationships and to facilitate interaction between the designers, the buyers and the media." The fashion week also marked the first time foreign buyers, albeit in small numbers, made an appearance in Lahore. Potential clients from India and even Europe could be seen sitting in the front rows during a few of the exhibitions.

Kamiar Rokni, a young designer whose cutting edge work has made him one of the most sought-after designers for both haute couture and prêt, was positively glowing after his exhibit. "It was great, great," said Mr Rokni, who was sought out by a number of foreign buyers after his collection appeared on the ramp. Titled "East, West, North, South", it comprised an amalgamation of ethnic influences and inspirations from different parts of Pakistan. The collection used traditional crafts to create modern, trendy clothes and was, in essence, a tribute to the nameless men and women who make their living working with looms and weaves doing cross-stitch or delicate threadwork.

"I wanted to showcase the best of Pakistan and our best workers reside in villages and on mountainsides where they do painstaking and delicate work," he said. "My work was a tribute to the traditional and poorly appreciated craftsmen of Pakistan." Some collections were deliberately designed to lighten the mood and give the audience a reason to smile in what are otherwise dreary and difficult times in Pakistan.

One such example was Sara Salman's collection, titled "Beautiful Me". Her work was based on an elegant and flowing silhouettes, using colourful chiffons stitched into long shirts with full sleeves and multiple layers. "I want women to wear my clothes and have all their fears and worries about security and where we are headed melt away," she said. "I want my clothes to simply make women feel good about themselves," Ms Salman said.

The sister design team Nickie and Nina said their collection was a tribute to the women of Swat, their courage and dignity. Fashion in Pakistan is a new and rapidly growing industry. In the past 15 years or so, the industry has exploded, with many newcomers entering the field attaining both national and international exposure. A major contributing factor to the growth of the fashion industry is the mushrooming of fashion schools, the pioneer of which was the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design, a partnership between the governments of Pakistan and the France. The PFID is affiliated with the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris.

Qais Aslam, an economist, said a prosperous fashion industry may also help bring Pakistan's textile industry out of the darkness. "The power shortages in the country have helped propel the textile industry into a crisis," he said. "One way out of this problem is to do value-addition so that the garments made in this industry are of high quality and export worthy." Already Pakistani designers such as Hassan Sheheryar Yasin and others are holding exhibitions abroad and stocking at various outlets in the United States and Europe.

Ms Hayat, whose clothes can now be purchased in Chicago, said the fashion week and other such initiatives would help to further expose the world to Pakistan's talent and would help soften the country's image abroad. "Far too much spotlight has been cast on the militants within us," she said. "Now it is time for the fashionistas to grab some limelight." * The National