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).
“People think the women are very oppressed, but we have a very strong cultural identity which is represented by our clothes. It’s not so much about projecting a positive image, but more a case of projecting a real image of what we are.”
“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.”