Pakistan's Fashion Designers Tackle Stereotypes, Fear and Hate
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The couture you dream of can also be an agent of change.
By Sonya Rehman
For a country obsessed with weddings, Pakistani clothing brand Generation’s choice of a marriage ceremony as the theme for a campaign last December appeared unsurprising. But there was nothing regular about the campaign called Shahnaz ki Shaadi, or Shahnaz’s Wedding.
Revolving around the wedding of a woman in her 50s, the campaign’s images featured the to-be-married bride and groom along with their adult children, enjoying wedding festivities. In Pakistan, where divorce is still an awkward subject, especially for women, Shahnaz ki Shaadi’s message was bold, loud and clear: You can find love at any age, and it’s time to take on the patriarchal pressures where choices are determined by what others may say.
Generation is particularly aptly named, but it isn’t alone. A set of new-age Pakistani fashion designers are using their creativity and craft to tackle stereotypes that have for decades defined society, holding back vulnerable sections and deepening fissures instead of healing them.
In December, fashion designer Ali Xeeshan’s show at the HUM Bridal Couture Week in Lahore featured a 9-year-old girl model, dressed in a “bridal uniform,” walking the ramp with a schoolbag. The designer had teamed up with U.N. Women to shine a light on child marriages in Pakistan. Designer Zara Shahjahan gave a face to the men and women who work for her, featuring them in an #IMadeYourClothes campaign on Instagram in 2016, inspired by the global #IMadeIt campaign by the popular blog Fashion Revolution, which encouraged designers to highlight the work of tailors and artisans.
Despite tensions with India, Pakistani designers are regularly collaborating with Bollywood stars across the border. Designer Faraz Manan frequently works with actor sisters Karisma Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan. Quantico star Priyanka Chopra has posed for designer Fahad Hussayn. And Generation makes it a point to feature in its campaigns ordinary women of all shapes, sizes and skin tones, encouraging body positivity and self-confidence in contrast to apparel brands and high-end local designers who emphasize only professional models in their campaigns.
Since the Pakistani film industry is not as big as Hollywood or Bollywood, fashion gets the spotlight here. That’s why we can really make use of the situation by highlighting social issues.
Ali Xeeshan, designer
These designers are trying to reshape society through their craft at a time fashion in Pakistan has truly become “democratic,” says Xeeshan, with the industry catering not only to the rich but also to the middle class.
“Right now is the ideal time to be in the fashion industry,” he says. “Since the Pakistani film industry is not as big as Hollywood or Bollywood, fashion gets the spotlight here. That’s why we can really make use of the situation by highlighting social issues.”
For sure, Pakistan’s fashion industry has had recent moments of embarrassment too. Earlier this month, retail brand Sana Safinaz released the campaign for its 2018 summer line, shot in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The campaign featured Maasai men and women either holding an umbrella over a model’s head, or as props in the background, sparking charges of racism. The brand — which in 2012 had controversially featured coolies at a railway station — apologized in a statement, while insisting it was “proud of the work we did with the Maasai.”
But the criticism Sana Safinaz faced points to the slow but definite shift in attitudes that others are trying to simultaneously cultivate and tap.
Located in Gulberg, Lahore, Generation is housed in an expansive three-story building. The ready-to-wear clothing brand has dressed generations of Pakistani women since the early ’80s. But with its recent campaigns, the brand has taken on an additional mantle — the challenge of earning profits while also breaking stereotypes. In October 2017, the brand launched a campaign titled Greater Than Fear that featured 20 unlikely women, from a hairstylist to a chef and a transgender model.
“I think all fashion brands have a responsibility about how women see themselves,” says Khadija Rahman, Generation’s creative head, whose parents Nosheen Khan and Saad Rahman launched the brand in 1983. “Women can be seen differently — they’re all beautiful, dark, fair … There’s no one fixed standard.”
Fashion has long helped young Pakistanis define their identity. In the early 1970s, Karachi-based brand Teejays shaped what the average Pakistani woman wore, as its clothes formed the wardrobe for soaps on the country’s state broadcaster, Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), says Lahore-based journalist Mehr F. Husain. That’s why the use of fashion to communicate complex social messages makes sense, suggests the journalist, who has just wrapped up a book about the country’s fashion industry — an Indian publishing house is bringing it out in 2019.
“Pakistan as a nation takes great pride in its clothing,” Husain says. “It’s only natural that if one is to communicate something on a grand scale, then one does so through a medium that reaches as many people as possible.”
That it works, and that one step leads to the next, is something Generation’s Rahman now knows. It was during the Greater Than Fear campaign that one model stood out for her as a “natural choice” for a winter wedding story featuring a second marriage in Shahnaz ki Shaadi. But she hadn’t expected what followed. The campaign resonated with the brand’s audience.
A 35-year-old firm had made a bold decision in a conservative nation, and it had paid off. “It was mind-blowing,” says Rahman. “Fashion definitely makes a social impact.”
- Sonya Rehman, OZY Author Contact Sonya Rehman