A new crop of Pakistani fashion and accessory designers are mining their own heritage for inspiration, says Saba Imtiaz. The result is a new cultural confidence in Pakistani design.
<dropcap>A</dropcap>t designer Feeha Jamshed’s store in Karachi in Pakistan, rack upon rack reveals flashes of the past: a tunic inspired by traditional Balochi embroidery, kurtas in the flashy colours of the Eighties. On Jamshed’s Instagram profile is a photo of her muse— actor Mahira Khan, starring in the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan film Raees—at a film premiere in New York. “It’s an inspired peshwaz,” she said, describing Khan’s attire, a traditional outfit with a full skirt and worked bodice. “It’s a crop top with a skirt, but the bottom half is stitched inside, so it becomes a peshwaz.”
The predecessors of Jamshed’s outfits are currently in display cases at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace Museum until at least the end of the year: coats and jackets with elaborate fastenings, a mid-20th-century dress from Kohistan with 350 panels and shirtfronts with Balochi embroidery. Part of a new show at the museum—a pre-Partition property whose post-1947 occupants included Fatima Jinnah and the foreign office before it became an exhibition space—the fabric and detailed clothes are meant to highlight the wide range of textiles and embroideries historically available in the subcontinent, and also couture gowns and dresses you can find in Pakistan today.
Much of the craft and inspiration on display at Mohatta Palace Museum was forgotten for decades. It existed inside the exclusive ateliers of bridal couturiers and was occasionally referenced by an enterprising designer on the runway at a fashion week. Otherwise, you found it in musty handicraft stores. For the most part, Pakistani designers and high-street stores have been fixated on creating formulaic, elaborately embroidered women’s shirts in voile and cotton in that season’s “shape”: structured, boxy or tent-like. Everything seems to follow trends set by a few major global brands and retailers, often to the point of blatant plagiarism. As Fran Lebowitz said about inspiration in fashion: “That is not a mood board, it is a stealing board.”
But a new set of designers seems to have gotten the memo, finally. They’re looking at their own heritage for inspiration. Old-school prints, cumbersome embroidery techniques and verses from Pakistani poets are finding themselves in the hems and sleeves of new designer collections. They’re being supported by a growing segment of customers with an eye for the unconventional.
Jamshed is probably the best positioned to reintroduce old designs to a new audience. Her father ran a chain of retail stores called Teejays, which kick-started ready-to-wear in Pakistan in the 1980s and outfitted the stars of the TV plays so beloved on both sides of the border. She got her start designing womens- wear for the stores. She is eerily good at forecasting trends, but one of her real strengths lies in looking at something her grandmother gave her, or even the Teejays archive, and seeing how she can reinvent it. “When I did the janitor jumpsuit for Teejays, I took the two- leg[ged] sharara and made that the ‘lower’ with a shirt. I was wearing a sharara one day with my shirt tucked in and I thought ‘wow, this could be one piece’.”
It should be noted that this new surge of interest in mining heritage for fashion tips is different from attempts at reviving textile techniques and crafts. Over the years, Pakistani textile designers have brought everything from khaddar and organic dyes to block prints into mainstream fashion. For the textile exhibition at the Mohatta Palace Museum, designer Maheen Khan—who created Benazir Bhutto’s outfit for her first inauguration as prime minister in 1988—worked with local retailer Hilal Silk Palace to create new patterns that she could use in an upcoming collection.
But, while textiles have had their moment, there has been little reinvention of local wardrobe basics, save for urbanite women replacing the shalwar with trousers. The middle class has all but abandoned cotton saris, and mass-produced diamante-studded sandals have shoved khussas and Kolhapuris off the radar.
There is a sense of “sameness” associated with Pakistani fashion. It is often hard to tell one Swarovski crystal-encrusted lehenga from the other at a fashion week, but the trickle-down effect of runway fashion into retail means there is homogeneity in local design. Socialites, fashion bloggers, designers and the aspiration-driven middle classes all follow the same trends, abandoning craftsmanship and uniqueness in favour of a uniform way of dressing, complete with designer handbag.
What has demonstrably suffered is local innovation and the work of craftsmen. “The runway is a place for creativity. When you come into retail you need mass production, and in order for that you need to do embroideries on machines,” said fashion journalist Momina Sibtain. Craft inevitably takes a backseat. “It is very hard to produce so much volume. The artisans are in far-flung areas and they’re mostly women.”
Despite the wealth of ideas—evident from the Mohatta Palace Museum exhibition— local “inspiration” has been largely restricted to replicating truck art. The colourful, kitschy motifs painted on trucks and rickshaws have been painted, embroidered and printed onto everything from T-shirts to expensive crockery and furniture, and even designer handbags. Ironically enough, that particular trend has now come full circle: there are cheap copies of truck art-inspired products in street markets.
But the new crop of designers and younger labels are serious about reinvention. They’re looking beyond the tired tropes of vehicle design. Their creative process involves delving into their personal archives, drawing references from poetry and architecture, and trying to interpret international fashion trends in a Pakistani context, instead of just replicating them. In doing so, they’re looking to put their own stamp on old designs.
Jamshed eschews fashion magazines on principle, as she doesn’t want to subconsciously pick up on a design or trend. “I look back to when I was five years old in the 1980s and what I was wearing: how do I recreate that right now?”
“It’s challenging, I have to admit,” said accessories designer Mahin Hussain of the creative process for her eponymous line. “But … my mind picks up potential material automatically. I’m especially drawn to the 1960s and have a special affinity with retro colours, shapes, pattern and fashion,” she said. She marries zardozi work with vintage leather in new bags, and has been inspired by Sindhi mirror-work for one of her collections.
“We’ve worked tirelessly to achieve a luxe feel for our products and to make something that speaks to those who care about quality and finesse,” said Saba Gul, founder of Popinjay, an accessories brand whose products are handmade by women in Punjab. “In my view, that’s one of the biggest reasons people are paying attention to our products.” She knows her market: her company’s bags have been stocked online by Anthropologie, and prices run up to US$250 for an intricately worked clutch. With totes and satchels embroidered in locally inspired motifs, Popinjay has pitched itself as a luxury company that can compete with the world.
Lines like Popinjay are also cutting away at the perception of tradition-inspired products being raw, unfinished and dusty, or that an ethnic bag is a badly stitched cotton sling sold for a pittance at a street market.
These designers aren’t operating in a bubble, and they don’t seem to care that their customer base swears by Chanel and Louis Vuitton. They believe it’s their job to put out—and aggressively sell—what they think the customer needs. The formula seems to be working. This isn’t exhibition wear; they are stocked at major retail stores and sold through e-commerce sites and are active on social media.
Pakistan’s hipsters have bought in. They crowd Facebook pages with likes, price requests, comments and photos modelling their purchases. Actor Ayesha Omar, who starred in the new Pakistani film Karachi Se Lahore, took a Mahin Hussain satchel with her for the LA premiere of her film. “I think products which seem to have a local influence are actually gaining popularity,” Hussain said. “The Pakistani consumer is looking for quality along with innovative, culturally influenced designs.”
Mochari’s Facebook page is a case in point. It isn’t just reinventing accessories or putting a local stamp on its product: it’s also changing the norms of footwear. The Lahore- based footwear brand produces a version of the ubiquitous Peshawari sandal, the bulky men’s shoe favoured by everyone from politicians to bridegrooms. But Mochari’s range of Peshawaris is a far cry from the staid versions in black and tan leather. These shoes are covered in khadi and silk, in fuchsia, yellow and blue shades, with faux gold and pearl embellishments, and can be worn with shalwar kameez and jeans. (UK brand Paul Smith’s launch of a similar version sparked outrage over “cultural appropriation”.)
“The Peshawari chappal was just a starting point to bring forward all the forgotten shoes of Pakistan,” said Hina Fatima, who started Mochari with her sister and mother. Mochari’s customers aren’t just the Instagram crowd either. People in their 60s have been buying their products. The brand works with a team of craftsmen and scours local markets to source fabric. “It’s not just a shoe,” Fatima said over email. “It is a human communicating through numerous strands and threads.”
Chapter 13, based out of Lahore, has reinvented another menswear staple: the Kohati sandal, with a version in gold with a flower motif. Qurat-ul-ain and Sadia Ansari— from a family that runs a shoe manufactur- ing business—started designing almost two years ago. Peshawari sandals feature in their collection for women too, with versions in red leather and gold sequins. They’ve also created a Baroque-inspired version of the khussa. And they’re selling, breaking the stereotype of what women’s shoes ought to be. Mochari’s and Chapter 13’s Facebook testimonials are proof.
Inspiration comes from more than just craftsmanship. Designers are drawing on old images and iconography. Hussain produces bags featuring quotes from speeches by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as well as an image of Madam Noor Jehan, the iconic singer. Her 2014 collection, Get Drenched, took its cue from a verse by the acclaimed late poet Parveen Shakir: “Listen, girl, these moments are clouds, you let them pass and they’re gone. Soak up their moist touch.” The “Listen Girl” theme made its way onto bags and belts and clutches—a collection Hussain described at the time as her “personal expressive rant against all the restrictions that are imposed on the female sex”. It’s still selling a year later.
Popinjay found inspiration in the latticework windows in the walled city of Lahore. “Everyone knows about places like the Badshahi and Wazir Khan mosques,” said Gul. “Lahore has countless lesser-known gems that have inspired our collections— from the patterns you see in the wooden jharokas to colourful frescos and motifs in the smaller mosques.”
There seems to be a cultural confidence about the new breed. “We don’t need to look towards anywhere else—at least not for the next 10–15 years,” said Mochari’s Hina Fatima. But perhaps that’s a luxury small and well-funded label owners can afford. Sibtain, the journalist, pointed out that only a few major fashion houses have proper studios and workspaces—let alone libraries—and that retail in Pakistan is still very young. But that isn’t stopping those already knee-deep in the archives.
“At the end of the day, every fashion era that you’ve seen is always inspired by another era. I can’t say ‘Oh my God, I invented this’,” said Jamshed. “But I can say that I made an invention out of something which was already there. Every era comes back. It’s how you tweak it.”
Saba Imtiaz is a Karachi-based Pakistani author and journalist. Her first novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me! was published by Random House India in 2014 and is being adapted into a film. Saba reports on politics, human rights, culture and religious movements. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Guardian and the BBC. She is currently working on a non-fiction book about the conflict in Karachi.
This article was published in the first issue of Volume four of The Indian Quarterly. Buy the magazine here.