Models have fun as Pakistan fashion grows up
- 14 April 2012
- From the section Asia
Pakistan's fashion industry is trying to shed its image as entertainment for a gilded elite and instead get recognition for its business success.
The country's latest fashion show, held this week in Islamabad, was more about buyers and deals than hemlines and necklines.
Meanwhile, models say they are enjoying more freedom than ever to express themselves as the glamour scene grows.
The booming media industry has also given fashion a much larger audience in conservative Pakistan, where risque outfits and even moderate displays of bare flesh are often frowned upon.
While the world has focused on Pakistan's problems in recent years, many other areas of the country's life have gone unremarked.
Fashion shows have become commonplace in cities like Karachi and have even been held in conservative Peshawar, near areas where the Taliban hold sway.
But Pakistan's sedate and decidedly untrendy capital was holding its second Islamabad Fashion Week.
As techno music blasted through the speakers, slinky models paraded down the ramp in a hall packed full of people.
The designs ranged from Western pret-a-porter styles to elaborate bridal outfits to heavily embroidered formal wear suitable both for soirees in Islamabad and London.
Designers who participated in the show included recognised figures such as Umar Sayeed and Bina Sultan.
The designers, though, had their eyes fixed on foreign buyers, not the usual socialite crowd.
"I wanted to run this fashion show like a trade event," explained stylist and celebrity Tariq Amin. "I want the business aspect to grow."
Another designer Fahad Hussayn agreed.
"For the sake of the economy and the business, fashion shows need to attract more buyers and stop being a joke," he told the BBC.
"This time we had buyers from Australia and Europe, but we need more of that. We are providing employment and we need to make money. Otherwise, we'll get sick of it. We'll get sick of fashion."
Rizwan Beyg, a Pakistani fashion icon, believes the country's designers should stop fixating on the West and turn their attention towards the Middle East and Southeast Asia where there is more business to offer.
"Just being in the West doesn't make sense. If it doesn't translate into sales, it doesn't make sense economically."
He and Tariq Amin look to Pakistan's neighbour India, where the fashion industry is considerably larger.
"We are one quarter of India's size - so we're one quarter of India's fashion industry," says Rizwan Beyg, who famously designed a dress for the late Princess Diana.
He says the bridal market is big business in Pakistan, but adds: "It's hard to tell the worth of our entire fashion industry, mainly because people make sales through homes or their studios - it's not done officially. Then there's also tax evasion."
If it's tricky to put an exact figure on the size of Pakistan's fashion industry, banks like HSBC seem in no doubt there is a lot of money to be made.
One of its airport adverts reads: "Pakistan is the world's second largest exporter of clothing. Do you see potential? We do."'
While Pakistani designers lament that there is still a long way to go before their names are recognised on global fashion racks, the models are enjoying the freedom the world of glamour has given them.
Saria Ansari, a model who appeared in the Bina Sultan collection, believes this is all because of the liberalisation of the media.
"People's mindsets are changing," she says. "That is because of the media that was opened up by [former president Pervez] Musharraf. The media gave us the way to show our talent."
Another model, Asma Zarnab, has represented Pakistan at various beauty pageants while living and working in a country that deems such contests un-Islamic.
"I've been to five pageants as Miss Pakistan and I have won titles, like Miss Photogenic and Best Costume," she says, with a wide rehearsed smile.
But while women within the glamour industry are busy pushing the boundaries of Pakistan's predominantly conservative culture, some areas remain a no-go.
Only recently Pakistani actress Veena Malik provoked the fury of Pakistanis both at home and abroad when she posed topless on a magazine cover.
Wearing a strappy purple dress, and showing off a tattoo on her shoulder, Asma Zarnab believes there's always a way to curb the criticism and continue working without hurting religious sentiments.
"I didn't expect to get into modelling, but everyone who met me thought I could be one. Similarly, I was asked to contest in pageants; things just happened. I think if one does things sincerely, the rest works out."
It seems that, against existing odds, fashion and glamour enthusiasts are increasing in Pakistan.
"It's easy to find girls who want to model," said Tariq Amin, gesturing to the throngs of girls backstage.
"They usually need a lot of training, but compared to a few years ago it's not hard to find girl models now."
Fashion design is being taught in almost every large university, and Tariq Amin says the scale is apparent from the fact that every city has its own fashion institute.
"We're headed in the right direction," says Fahad Hussayn.