Fashionistas Not Revolutionaries

Lahore Fashion Week has brought Pakistan Fashion Debate back in international media.  

The first piece is from  CNN:

Lahore, Pakistan (CNN) — Bare backs, plunging necklines and high-cut hems. Western media recently reported that the bold statements made by Pakistan’s fashionistas at Lahore Fashion Week demonstrated how designers were rejecting conservative dress in the South Asian nation.

But the country’s top designers and models say that last week’s four-day fashion extravaganza wasn’t about defying extremism.

“I won’t go as far as to say that this was defiance of anything,” designer Kamiar Rokni told CNN backstage after his collection was shown. “That’s what the Western world sees because that’s what is news. But we’re making fashion news.”

Karachi may have stolen Lahore’s thunder by launching the country’s first fashion week last November but Lahore is considered Pakistan’s cultural capital and is home to the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design. It meant that Lahore Fashion Week became a sort of homecoming for many of the country’s premier designers who started in the city.

“It’s an extremely important, momentous show, not just for myself, but for everybody,” said Rokni, “because the Pakistan Fashion Design Council has been at it for five years and we’ve finally had our first fashion week.”

Vazeena Ahmed, who at age 37 is one of Pakistan’s oldest and most sought after models, said Pakistan had “trained designers now. Before there were just bored housewives with nothing else to do.”

“Fifteen years ago, when I started, it was looked down upon. There was no industry. There were only two magazines, maybe a handful of designers and one television station and I remember, when I started, my entire family wanted to disown me. They said, ‘No! No way!’ There’s no way that a family member could be a model.”

Ahmed said those perceptions, like the industry, have evolved. And that is most evident on the catwalk, where svelte models sashay in designs as provocative as any couture collection featured in Western societies.

It all seems far removed from any stereotypes of Pakistan having a conservative culture — but it’s these notions that prompt eye rolls from the country’s fashion community.

“You know, we are very liberal — in our way of thinking, in our way of dressing up. Islam does not preach all that the Taliban are telling. For me at least, that’s not being a Muslim. That’s being a terrorist,” Ahmed said.

Many Pakistanis we spoke with bristled at the Western media’s portrayal of the fashion shows as revolutionary. Cafepyala (, a blog that says it offers “ruminations” on everything “but mostly, Pakistan and Pakistani media,” quoted The Christian Science Monitor’s headline “Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan” as breathless hyperbole that did not match reality.

“Just to put the record straight, do recall that fashion shows… were being sponsored by Benazir’s government in the early ’90s and even taken abroad as part of her foreign delegations,” said the anonymous blogger, referring to the former prime minister who was slain in 2007.

That may be, but security was of such high concern for Lahore Fashion Week that event organizers didn’t promote the location of the show. Once the fashion shows started, heavily armed officers and guards flanked each entrance of the Royal Palm Country Club. But even seasoned veterans of Pakistan’s budding fashion world noted that this wasn’t for everyone.

“I wouldn’t say as a whole that Pakistan is becoming Westernized, because it is not,” said Nadia Hussain, a model. “This is just a part of a niche industry.”

Sehyr Saigol, an organizer of the Fashion Week, noted: “This was our first step into the business world. Now we are ready to step out into the world and coming onto the international circuit.”


And this from the Guardian

The Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) kicked off Lahore’s very first fashion week earlier this month amid the glitz, glamour, gloss and beautiful people that come with such events. Although the organisers were eager to provide a showcase for Pakistan’s emerging fashion industry, they were also apprehensive about media coverage. They were well aware of how the Karachi fashion week had been reported by the international media last November, when the all-too-familiar contrasts between liberal Pakistani society and radical Taliban militancy counterposed high-fashion against guns and bombs. Amid apprehensions about this kind of coverage the PFDC decided to invite fashion journalists from different parts of the world – but not the foreign media correspondents currently based in Pakistan. “We’re pretty fed up of the headlines which were sensational and detrimental, saying ‘This is not Pakistan’, or ‘This is Pakistan’,” said Selina Rashid, public relations manager for the event. She added that, contrary to how the media has been portraying such events, they are purely business-related industry events, and not held in order to make outlandish statements of defiance, as was suggested by a Telegraph article last November headed “Pakistan fashion week defies Taliban with non-Islamic dress”. A video report by CNN, also covering the November fashion week in Karachi, created similar sensationalism by talking about “security concerns” and “a country fighting a bloody war against itself” with the backdrop of slender Pakistani models parading on the catwalk in skimpy dresses. Despite the PR effort for last week’s show, publications like the New York Times carried on highlighting the contrast between extremist violence and scantily clad models. The implication that high fashion is somehow another front in the war on terror is something of a fallacy created by the media. Just because this expression of elite culture is diametrically opposed to the Taliban’s vision of female modesty, it doesn’t mean that more fashion shows will somehow damage the Taliban. The “violence versus glamour” contrast isn’t entirely a media fixation though. People involved in fashion shows also voluntarily dive into the discussion of how such events not only create what the government likes to call a “soft image of Pakistan” but might also bring about actual social change. “This is a huge feat for Pakistan, given the total perception of Pakistan at present is dictated by the political and security situations,” said Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, a fashion designer and one of the founders of the PFDC. When asked if such high-fashion events can bring about social change, model Fia Khan replied, “We’ve had so many events. It has already bought some change. People’s minds are changing.” It is obvious, though, that the kinds of outfits displayed in these shows would not be worn by the average Pakistani. Such luxury products are usually targeted towards exceptionally wealthy individuals, and mostly for consumption by foreign markets. Given that fashion is a form of personal expression reflecting the culture and attitudes of society, it is unlikely that developments confined to minute segments of society would create any significant trickle-down effect in the immediate future. In light of this, it is interesting how the news media chooses to cover such events and developments in the context of terrorism, war, insurgency, radicalism and suicide bombings in Pakistan. Various reports in the past have drawn similar parallels such as rock music versus the Taliban, or the film industry versus religious radicalism. The question that arises is why such cultural contrasts in fact become the dominant means of discussing Pakistan in the international media to the extent that it has begun to affect how Pakistanis view themselves. Equally disturbing are the government’s own repeated PR efforts to promote a soft image of Pakistan – as if it is a given that appearances bear more significance than the actual. Instead of making real and on-the-ground efforts to engender tolerance, moderation, and understanding in society, it seems the government is more geared towards a more cosmetic media-hype facelift while letting all Pakistan’s real problems simmer under a low flame.

And the New York Times Blog:

    New York Times

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

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    Filed under Fashion, Pakistan

    3 responses to “Fashionistas Not Revolutionaries

    1. yasserlatifhamdani

      Lahore Zindabad.

      I dedicate this post to Daily Ummat and its staffer Kashif Hafeez Siddiqui.

    2. Mansoor Khalid

      This is a strong blow to all those who favor Talibinization of this nation. It’s a nation of great artists and no one can hole their creativity back.

    3. Ammar

      I do not see Vaneeza ahemd as Che guvara ! Socialites are just part of the bigger picture, such activities are at best business ventures, and the romp is not a battlefield! Owing to all of this Maria B has jumped on the bandwagon to support the hate-mongering of Zaid Hamid could she be a jihadi designer?

      Cat walks cannot be formidable force against terrorism not that I am opposed to them! But that’s just a little too much to digest!