Capturing True Essence

Tabassum Vally and Ghazala Tikki Zaman
Tabassum Vally and Ghazala Tikki Zaman

In the last 75 years, a lot has changed for the better in the country. The same holds true for the fashion industry. Talented designers are now taking Pakistan to the global runway



Published: Sun 14 Aug 2022, 12:00 AM

‘Pakistan is upbeat with fashion’ is an understatement as the scale at which fashion has progressed is unprecedented.

The reason for this is not far to seek. The colourful culture, a zest for fine living and pride in looks are very much a part of Pakistani culture.

The journey of fashion and style from 1947 to a virtual fashion show conducted in 2021 is dotted with many interesting innovations and twists and turns.

Deepak Perwani
Deepak Perwani

The 1950s saw a young country that had sought independence and was strug¬gling to form its own identity. Fashion, an integral part of self-expression, saw minor changes in the inherited style of the subcontinent. The way Pakistanis dressed was very much influenced by the pre-partition days. Women continued to wear sarees and narrow shalwar and ever-flowing veils ‘dupattas’ were a norm. Men continued to wear ‘kurta pyjamas’ and elegant ‘sherwanis’. Suits with ties and bow ties were also worn by men as a symbol of the influence left by the imperial British Raj.

But it all changed in 1960s. The world was seeking a more bohemian lifestyle and Pakistan was also turning a new leaf in every walk of life. Women were finding self-expression in their dressing sense. They were willing to experiment with style and fashion. The 60s saw a cinema boom and with the advent of home grown films women and men started taking their dressing cues from their favourite movie stars. Many women tried to copy different hair styles and dressing by watching the likes of Zeba and Noor Jehan who were fashion icons of that time. Bold colours, floral patterns and flowing silks became a dream for the fashion-conscious women.

We can safely say that 60s was the be¬ginning of a more confident and vocal woman, who had slowly started to move away from tradition, but still withheld the cultural norms. One of the best dressed icons were the famous air host¬esses of PIA. Short kurtas, narrow pants and elegant caps brought a big change and started to replace the traditional ‘shalwar kameez’ in every day clothing. It meant that Pakistani fashion was changing and that it was ready for western influences.

The 70s saw a lot of political turmoil making and sarees for women and ‘longi’ for men, less popular. The influence of Western fashion had started to cast its spell and women wanted to break away from tradition. They were looking at West through fashion magazines, movies and TV serials. Pakistani women were eager to adopt a new sense of style. The modern woman was seen in Jeans and were ready to rock with Western music.

Amir Adnan
Amir Adnan

Men were also given a new fashion dictate by late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto introduced ‘shalwar kameez’ for men as an official dress to be worn at work. This was the first time that the concept of an ‘Awami’ dress was introduced for men. Bhutto’s inspiration perhaps came from his many visits to China, where everyone wore the same style of clothing to show solidarity and equality. The famous Chinese colour jackets became popular and men were seen in crisp cotton ‘shalwar kameez’ with sleeveless jackets. A new independent identity breaking away from imperialism. Though men continued to wear suits most men found relief and ease in shalwar kurtas during g the oppressive hot days of summer. Hence, 70s saw a lot of changes and many diversified in the way the nation was dressing. It also saw the beginning of boutiques for both men and women. Tanveer Jamshed and Maheen Khan were the pioneers in introducing off-the-rack dressing a concept that was estab¬lishing its roots in Pakistan along with the Western world. Many conservative sections of society still preferred to visit the tailor for made-to-measure clothing, but the younger generation frequented the trendy boutiques. The trendsetters were no longer restricted to cinemas but stars featuring in TV serials also started to influence the nation’s sense of style and fashion.

As fashion and style wandered, the 80s brought a pause to the changing style. A political change also brought in a wave of religious sentiment and the government insisted on influencing the code of dressing, especially for women. It was challenging in Pakistan’s fashion era, as the designers found it hard to create pieces that embraced modern and con¬servative norms.

The 90s saw an influx of boutiques though tailors still remained busy. Both women and men had plenty to choose from in terms of new trendy ready-made clothing. Fashionable Zamzama Street in Karachi or Liberty Chowk in Lahore became a haven of designer boutiques. Young girls were opting for a more modern look. Designers were seeking inspiration from the Western catwalks and magazines. They cleverly weaved the Western styles with traditional colours and embroidery. Beautiful pieces were created for all ages. However, 90s also saw a lot of commercialisation, where style and fashion was being replaced by trends. A more ‘cool and casual look’ was picking up as people started to opting for a comfort¬able, yet elegant dressing.

Stepping into 2000, the world had changed. Globalisation saw universal uniformities in food, music and surely in style and fashion. The West started to use vivid colours and embroidery inspired from the East and the subcontinent adopted many features from the western fashion. There were no parameters defined and comfort became a key point in clothing. The mega fashion houses of the West influenced fashion around the globe.

Pakistani fashion became less restricted and women found a liberated self-expression in their clothing. A woman of 2020 is very different from the woman of 1950s to say the least. She is more confident and she knows what she wants. The whole persona of womanhood changed and women were free to choose what they believed was right for them. A bit of rebellion from the tradition, is revealed in their style.

In 2011, a first-ever fashion week attracted many foreign designers Pakistan had come a long way in the world of fashion and style. The clothes were ‘Edgy and bold off shoulder cut’. The concept was to encourage western designers to visit Pakistan and place orders for Paki¬stani fabrics and attires.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

In the gloomy days of pandemic, the fashion industry wowed to spread colours in a grey world. Top designers took the initiative of cheering the world by organising a virtual catwalk.

Catwalk Cares was dedicated to the frontlines and volunteers during pandemic. The concept was well received and brought much needed smiles.

Fashion industry constantly reinvents itself as men and women continue to reinvent themselves. Fashion is fluid and style is permanent, and it can be proudly said that Pakistani sense of fashion and style is not only about trends but also has subtle permanence, embodying the tradition and cultural norms. It takes a lot of effort to blend the new and old, and it’s an art that fashion houses of Pakistan have skillfully adopted.

We were lucky to get some of the top designers to share their journey and thoughts on fashion through the ages. They also talked about how the industry has progressed and the mark it has made globally.

MAHEEN KHAN

An icon and a legendary fashion enthusiast, Maheen Khan has a flair for all things beautiful in the fashion industry.

“Dubai has been a stepping stone in my career. My first store Mashalain, opened its door in 1981 at Grand Hyatt Dubai. Tina Turner would visit our store every time she came to Dubai.”

With a grand and bold step in the fashion industry, Khan has earned recognition for her exquisite work not only in Pakistan, but in countries like Italy, Jordan, the UK and the UAE.

Khan’s journey in the fashion world has been exciting and today, she is revered by all age groups, in her home country and across borders. Her most memorable experience has been her participation at the Milan fashion week in 2007, where the Italian press dubbed her as the ‘Coco Channel of the East’. Khan takes great pride as a Pakistani who was given the opportunity to dress royalty in Italy, Jordan and the Duchess of Cambridge.

Khan expressed her opinion on the changing fashion trends in Pakistan. “Today, the consumers heavily rely on social media. They adopt and move on from fashion trends quicker than before. In the past the power houses of the fashion industry relied on editors, experienced designers and powerful retailers. Till about ten years ago, magazines were still considered the last word on fashion.” However, she commented that in today’s digital world the consumers dictate the fashion trends.

Pakistan is a country that produces a large variety of fabric and this lends great opportunities to work with different categories of fabric. The choice of threads, craftsmanship, dyes and material give myriad of choices to the designers.

Khan believes that fashion is a movement in itself and is fluid taking many forms. In today’s world, Khan feels that women can voice their opinion on how they see themselves and this also has a significant effect on how they prefer to dress.

“The world will continue to influence each other, but regions will maintain their own special design philosophy based on their culture, traditions and art.”

Khan’s contribution to the fashion industry of Pakistan is unparalleled. Years of experience in the fashion industry and a keen eye for finesse led her to be Pakistan’s first fashion designer and the principal force behind the formation of the Fashion Council.

Khan stepped into fashion designing by opening her tailoring salon, The Seamstress in Lahore, which met with immense success. In 1980, she brought her work to Karachi with a refreshing line of Capri pants and stylish shirts. This was a big success and soon her line became ‘the talk’ amongst many fashion addicts at home and abroad. Later in year 2007, she launched her famous Gulabo line, which was an instant hit amongst all age groups.

NOORJEHAN BILGRAMI

Poise, elegance and traditional are the key words that describe Noorjehan Bilgrami. Dressed in her own traditional cotton ‘kurta’ Bilgrami speaks about her creation in the world of fashion.

An artist at heart, Bilgrami has a flair for colours and it’s her artistic bend that led her to curate timeless fabric and exotic dyes for her line of clothing. What started as a small line of clothing from her friend’s garage has now inculcated in Koel, a name synonymous for elegant and traditional clothing.

As one steps into her flagship boutique one cannot help but notice the beautiful ‘Champa’ (Frangipani) tree with a clay pot underneath to hold the fallen flowers. Perhaps this is the sensitivity and elegance in her line of creation.

“It’s all in the fabric” is Bilgrami’s mantra. She has woven exquisite fabric and has introduced natural dyes in her work. She commented that Pakistan produces the finest cotton and it is a favourite component of Pakistani fabric. An ideal choice for the hot climate, Bilgrami has embellished her fabrics with colourful natural dyes. To mention, a few, saffron, pomegranate and indigo are enough to capture the imagination of any fashion enthusiast. The history of indigo narrated by Bilgrami is fascinating.

Indigo is not just a colour but a plant grown on the banks of river indus.

“It caught my, eye and ever since, I have a fascination with this wonderful colour.” Indigo, a plant indigenously grown for thousands of years in the subcontinent, is a colour very close to Bilgrami’s heart. It was her love, for Indigo, that made her travel to Japan. She proudly expressed her delightful experience, where people showed keen interest in the ethnic colours and well-curated fabrics of Pakistan.

Bilgrami is more of a stylist than a fashion enthusiast. She believes that style has longevity and tradition, as compared to fashion fads that are transient. This notion is clearly reflected in her traditional line of clothing. Though Pakistani fashion is now seeing an influence from the West, Bilgrami has kept tradition as a core element in her line of creation. The traditional ‘shalwar’, the elegant flowing ‘kurtas’ and ‘churidars’ are very much a part of her elegantly curated clothes.

The tradition of block print is also very close to her heart. A skill discovered by her in the busy lanes of Kharadar in Karachi inspired her to introduce this craft in her fabric design. The traditional paisely and gold lotus beautifully embellish her fabrics. It is no surprise that her line of creation is talked about and appreciated in many countries, including the UAE.

“Contemporary in a realm of tradi¬tion” is what is seen in Bilgrami’s revival, of famous Indigo ‘ajrak’ prints, block prints , subtle silks and enduring cotton, delightfully refreshing and popular within Pakistan and across borders for those who seek classic style.

DEEPAK PERWANI

“I often visit Dubai and I have held many fashion shows there. Dubai is indeed a great vibrant city,” says Deepak Perwani.

Eloquent, elegant and versatile, Perwani cannot go unnoticed in any local or international gathering.

A winner of six Lux Style Awards, two MTV Style Guru Awards, a standing ovation at Milan Fashion week and best international designer at Miami fashion week are a few of his achievements in his journey, in the world of fashion.

Maheen Khan
Maheen Khan

Perwani started his career in 1994, and is of one of the rare designers, who started his career with menswear and later in 1996 moved to womenswear. Starting with Western line of clothing for women, and then later moving to more traditional full sleeve and bridal wear has been a tremendous experience. His work has taken him to many countries where his brand has not only been successful but has also provided a great learning experience. London, Paris, Milan, China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and Dubai are some of the countries where his creations have created a sensation amongst the fashion addicts.

He believes that “Fashion is influenced by many things. Culture, religion, globalisation, tradition are elements that have a profound effect on fashion. Women have come a long way. Fashion is more defined by personal choices and now women make independent choices in every walk of life.”

Commenting on different eras, in the world of fashion, Perwani narrates how the dressing sense has evolved over the years in Pakistan. 1950’s was a time when ‘churidars’, ‘ghararas’ and ‘sarees’ were commonly worn by women. The influence of subcontinent was dominant as the country had recently gained independence.

However, the 60s saw a different trend as the society opened up to western influences. Women were seen in narrow pants and kameez and bore a modern look.

Nonetheless, with a religious movement in the later years, fashion took a back stage and one, saw less creativity in the fashion world .

In recent years, the world of fashion has changed dramatically. We now see a great mix of traditional and modern couture. Pakistan today, is far more liberated and forgiving in establishing propriety, and women can take more liberty in how they chose to look and what they want to wear.

Pakistan has seen an increase in big fashion houses that bring exclusiveness to their line. However, there is an influx of pret wear, which offers quality garments, both pleasing and comfortable. The pret wear is more about the wearer, whereas the big fashion houses reflect the personalities of the fashion houses themselves thus, differentiating the wearer from the rest.

Perwani’s creation has won hearts ,both at home and internationally.

Dubai is a favourite destination for Perwani, where he has held many shows. The vibrancy of Dubai lends itself to modernity, style and fashion.

UMAR SAYEED

Rarely it is seen that a fashion designer dominates a fashion industry endlessly.

Umar Sayeed, however, is an exception who over the past twenty years or more has continued to enthrall people by producing elegant and exquisite pieces of clothing. Sayeed’s work reflects his own fine understanding of fluid patterns, colours and fabric.

“Everybody’s definition of fashion is different. For me fashion is lifestyle, it’s how you eat, breath, talk and behave in a wholesome way. This is how the great legend of couture industry,” Sayeed defines fashion.

Sayeed is much-loved within the fashion industry in Pakistan but he is equally famous and loved across the globe. His beautifully created silk and chiffon pieces are every woman’s dream.

He has hosted many fashion shows in Dubai and each time his creation has left his audience mesmerised. The choice of colours, fabrics, embroidery and embellishment are unparalleled. He celebrated his 20 years in fashion in Dubai and it gave him immense pleasure to see his keen audience who were captivated by his skillfully curated work.

In Sayeed’s opinion, the people in Dubai have very fine taste and know what luxury entails. Dubai is a melting pot of cultures and it lends great opportunities to connect with different nationalities.

Today’s woman is surer of herself than ever before and though there are cultural constraints she is ready to bring a change. This is reflected in her choices as to how she wants to appear in front if the world. Chic and mesmerising are the key components of Sayeed’s work and he continues to skillfully incorporate both in his finely curated clothes.

Sayeed is of the opinion that a designer can be successful only if he understands his client’s needs and create what is best suited .

Dubai continues to be a great favourite amongst the fashion enthusiasts and a great venue for the designers from all over to showcase their work.

AMIR ADNAN

“When it comes to my time in Dubai, it is always wonderful to have that opportunity of growth. It was a great opportunity to represent Pakistan on a global scale, and hence, to experience the world of fashion.”

Amir Adnan, a name synonymous with vibrancy and refreshing hues in men’s clothing, is well-known both in Pakistan and internationally. It is Adnan’s flair for colours that makes his work distinct in the world of men’s fashion.

He believes that fashion is always an expression of everything that impacts an individual on a macroscopic level, which, in turn, is an amalgam of all that the nation in which that individual resides is going through socio-economically and politically. It is informed by various factors, and is a sum of these factors, expressed in fabric form. It compliments one’s features, from region to region, all the while keeping the spark of cultural tradition and climactic happenings alive within one’s attire .

Adnan made a keen observation by stating that fashion enters a man’s life at a point where all other factors are taken care of. With a betterment in one’s income alongside all other emotional and physical needs being taken care of one can begin to focus on fashion with a certain degree of autonomy.

Adnan believes that Pakistan, being a young and developing country, may not lend itself to autonomy in fashion, as it can only perpetuate itself once there is more economic independence for the people.

By and large, a man will opt for something simple, with little variance that will last him a long time. Men prefer classic cuts, designs, and colours, with the hope that they can wear it for the next ten years without it going out of fashion.

“Just like painting, songwriting and poetry, fashion is a sense of expression for the designer. The designer breathes life into their philosophy with fashion. All successful designers definitely have an ethos that they follow and more people imbibe the ethos as they become buyers. Fashion designers are like leaders and their buyers become their followers. Thus, a designer will always creates something that holds some form of significance for them. It is a great way to understand the creative process. More often than not it is an amalgamation of who they are.”

Tracing the history of fashion since 50s, 60s and 70s, he believes that Pakistani men have a strong affiliation with their nationality and have a very traditional mindset. Pakistani men are very proud of their national dress, the ‘shalwar kameez’ and thus it has been a consistent fashion statement ever since. Most men find ‘shalwar kameez’ to be comfortable and hence they also express the desire to wear them at any occasion. It is their comfort zone and it instills a great deal of pride in Adnan himself knowing that his countrymen identify greatly with their national dress.

Over the years, Adnan has seen that a very large percentage of men gravitate towards religion and that they hold on to values instilled in them through religion. The basic call for a man being dressed modestly is always present within his dressing sense.

Adnan is of the opinion that today, the media plays an astounding role in influencing personal choices. Everything in the past was editorial, but now it’s easy for people to post things on social media. According to him, though we might think that people are bolder today in making choices, in reality there is an increase in visibility. In the past there might have been thousands of people who might have been willing to experiment with their looks but they never had the support of media and hence remained unnoticed.

Amir Adnan is a great admirer of hand-woven fabric but the growing needs of an ever-growing population cannot sustain limited yards of hand spun material. Hence much to his heart’s lament alternate fabrics that are produced in bulk and hence more affordable is an obvious choice in curating clothes lines.

In Adnan’s opinion, “Fashion will always inspire and borrow, and with rapid globalisation there is bound to be a blurring of lines between the kinds of designers we see. A fusion of East and West has been inevitable, with many of the Pakistani brands not only picking up on Western influences, but also inspiring the same Western giants who have taken a keen interest in South Asia fashion. As the world draws closer together we can expect more of this in the future.”

There is no doubt that designers have great responsibilities in bringing brands and pret clothes, which can meet the test of cultural norms and modernity.

Fashion is a powerful tool as it reflects the mindset of the wearer and the designers themselves. A favourite piece of clothing in any wardrobe is timeless and can make one happy even after years have gone by. The choice of colours, cuts, fabric and embellishments all have a profound effect on people’s mood. A well-designed and well-fitted ensemble when worn gives the wearer confidence and sense of “feel good” on any day in any season.

The vast array of fashion designers from Pakistan continued to bring joy even in the darkest days of the pandemic and when travel was hard many Pakistanis in Dubai would order their favourite lines of clothing online from Pakistan.

What can be more scintillating than a white, beautiful cotton ‘kurta’ on a hot day or a deep red tunic on a cold winter day. Pakistani fashion houses continue to reinvent style hence, redefining fashion ever so often.


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