Pakistan’s traditional cultural capital of Lahore received a much-needed dose of glamour this week as it played host to the country’s second-ever fashion week.
Amid a backdrop of tight security including armed guards, police and airport-style scanning, dozens of models took to the catwalk to showcase the works of Pakistan’s top 32 designers at the city’s Royal Palm Golf and Country Club.
Over the past year or so, several cultural events, including the annual World Performing Arts festival, have been canceled after receiving bomb threats from vigilante groups sympathetic to the Taliban. Last April, the Sri Lankan cricket team fled the country after coming under machine-gun and bazooka fire from terrorists in an attack that left eight dead.
“We’re here to make sure the mullahs don’t make plans to attack you,” a policeman told the Monitor wryly.
Models sashayed down the aisle with bare arms and, in some cases, legs (at least to mid-thigh level), in stark contrast to the modest Islamic dress worn by most women in the country. As they posed for the cameras and completed their pirouettes, the enthusiastic and fashion-starved audiences responded with roars of approval.
The haute couture on display featured exotic blends of Western, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern dress, including creative oversized interpretations of the traditional Islamic “hijab” worn with revealing sleeveless tunics and thigh-high boots.
A male model wearing a simple white t-shirt emblazoned with “Je ne suis pas terroriste” [I am not a terrorist] brought into focus the show’s political themes, or at least the self-awareness exhibited by some designers.
One of the main focuses of the show is promoting “indigenous design” to preserve the heritage of some of Pakistan’s poor and conflict-hit areas such as Swat, a former tourist idyll that was the scene of an Army operation last year, and the crafts of southern Punjab, said designer and organizer Hassan Shehryar Yasin.
“This is a huge feat for Pakistan, given the total perception of Pakistan at present is dictated by the political and security situations. For people to realize we have a Fashion Week too, with so many great designers, is something very new to them,” he said.
'Are you mad?'
Kiran Malik, a British-Asian model who is also due to appear in London fashion week later this month, shared a similar view. “Security is a major concern and my boss asked me, ‘Are you mad? Aren’t their bombs going off all the time there?’ But we really needed this. People talk about Talibanization but fashion is important and it’s playing a big part in bringing change.”
Whether a fashion show aimed at Pakistan's elite can really undercut religious extremism is a matter of debate. Some, like designer Ammar Belal, have other aims, like promoting Pakistan's nascent fashion industry (which represents a tiny fraction of Pakistan's major textile industry) as it sets its sights on expanding into the markets of India and the Gulf. "We can't just stop what we're doing because of terrorism. It's an industry people depend on for their livelihoods."
In a country known for its political infighting, the story wouldn’t have been complete without an old-fashioned tiff. Much of the talk at the show centered around the schism between the Lahore fashionistas and their Karachi counterparts, who held their own show last November.
Deepak Pirwani, a native of Karachi and considered by many to be the country's leading designer (his work debuted at Milan Fashion Week last fall), did not exhibit at the show. “You don’t have a Boston Fashion Week competing with a New York Fashion week. They need to get their act together and put on one show,” said Shehzad Hafeez, a New York based make-up artist.