In the luxurious surroundings of a top hotel, a parade of glamorous, impossibly slim women walk with gazelle-like grace down the catwalk. Bare midriffs and legs are proudly displayed in intricately embroidered golden fabrics, and there isn’t a veil in sight. This is Pakistan Fashion Week, the jewel in the country’s haute couture crown and an unrivalled glimpse into a creative industry that has surged in recent years. There’s just one thing that’s not quite as you might expect: Pakistan Fashion Week is not in Karachi or Islamabad but in London.
“The religious identity that is given to our country to some extent precedes the cultural identity. Many things that are beautiful in our culture are often suppressed and not prominent to their full extent at times,” says the fashion designer Fahad Hussayn. “There is a clash between the religious right and the cosmopolitan youth.” In Pakistan itself, the location of fashion shows is rarely publicised in advance and they are subject to strict security measures, meaning that they tend to be held in Europe and Dubai.
The industry has become a battleground between the religious right, desperate to maintain its influence, and the growing strength of young people, particularly the burgeoning middle classes, with women at the forefront of the battle for Pakistan’s cultural identity.
“It’s sad to see the kind of image that Pakistan has in the west. It’s a country that’s full of art, music and creativity and there are lots of talented people here that nobody gets to hear about.
“All we hear about is the political turmoil and the religious issues. Everyone thinks it’s all bombs and burqas,” says Adnan Ansari, the celebrity make-up artist and fashion entrepreneur who eight years ago set up Pakistan Fashion Week (in fact just a weekend, held at the London Hilton on Park Lane).
The renaissance of Pakistani fashion in the past five years has been the result of a seismic cultural shift where women are becoming more educated and independent with increased access to opportunities in the work place, and many are expressing their new-found socio-cultural freedom and economic power through fashion. Much of this has been fuelled by the boom in social media – to the chagrin of the religious conservatives who feel they are being influenced more by the Kardashians than the Qur’an.
Fashion accounts for nearly 20% of the country’s exports, and with social media influencers hungry for the next big thing western stars are looking east for inspiration: the supermodel Gigi Hadid hit the headlines in August when she posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing a traditional Pakistani outfit from the brand Almirah.
“Young women in Pakistan are more educated, well-travelled and independent than ever before,” says Ansari. “Middle-class women are very career-orientated and their spending power is very strong. They are very influenced by western media like Netflix and what they see online.” The liberal attitude has filtered from the catwalk into colleges via Instagram with many young women choosing to forgo the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez consisting of tunic and loose trousers for jeans and western styles. Consequently the fashion industry has attracted the ire of the increasingly vocal religious conservatives who see this cultural shift as a threat to their authority.
“Fashion is criticised in our part of the world, where some parts of society are more conservative,” says the designer, Asim Jofa, who is considered the Pakistani equivalent of Gianni Versace, thanks to his regal and geometric embroidery. “Society is becoming more liberal and women are driving this. This change is reflected in our fashion, but it is going to be contentious for some conservatives because it shows their power is waning.”
Sometimes the clash in visions proves more than just contentious. Qandeel Baloch, a model who was regularly targeted for her controversial fashion choices, was murdered by her brother in 2016. Her death came after she revealed that she had a flirtatious meeting with a cleric.
“People want change to come because the religious extremists don’t allow you to feel safe. It is very scary and painful and there is a real divide. Everyone is sick of it,” says the model, Hira Shah, 25. “Pakistan is changing a lot though and if we are going to change mindsets, we have to be strong.”
The trend towards more cosmopolitan fashion is part of a cycle. “Pakistani fashion was very liberal in the 60s and early 70s, but there was a real crackdown on women under General Zia, who stamped a very Islamic-focused identity on Pakistan. Women’s bodies were policed through sharia law and through the media. This started to change in the 90s, but even today there is still the tension between the religious conservatives and the image of women,” said Amina Yaqin, a senior lecturer in post-colonial studies at SOAS.
“The tension you see now is that women are taking a stance and want the freedom to wear what they want, but it is not freely available to all women because of a complex network of systems such as class, economic mobility and honour issues.
“The new generation from the middle classes are fed up and don’t want to be restricted, and as they become more visible it starts to matter to them. The question is whether this power is real or just being offered for consumption by the fashion industry.”