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December 18, 2017
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Ali Xeeshan Theater Studio's show was characteristically dramatic. Image courtesy of Faisal Farooqui at Dragonfly/Lotus PR.
Mahgul Rashid Pakistan Fashion Week
A model walks down the runway for Mahgul Rashid
wearing a hat inspired by previous political leaders.
Image courtesy of Faisal Farooqui, Dragonfly/Lotus PR.

Pakistan's fashion industry may have progressed significantly in the last decade but international perception about the region's society and consumer culture remains somewhat limited.

First-time visitors to Pakistan's annual fashion weeks, widely expecting to witness modestly dressed, burqa-clad women, are often surprised by the casual displays of models' limbs and navels on the runway.

Many Western journalists ran the requisite "Taliban-defying" headlines after the debut of Fashion Pakistan in late 2009, in an attempt to explain their unexpected experiences. However, the industry's challenges are often more concerned with power shortages that threaten production, and general civil unrest, which hinders domestic travel. This is not to say, however, that the industry is not involved in Pakistan's political scene.

At last month's PFDC (Pakistan Fashion Design Council) Sunsilk Fashion Week in Lahore, an underlying sense of political fervor pervaded many of the ready-to-wear collections. While it had nothing to do with defying the Taliban, the feeling was all about imminent change - and hope - in the country's political destiny. 

Amid the four days of collections from leading and emerging designers, high-street labels and cotton voile manufacturers, Ali Xeeshan Theater Studio's showing characteristically ranked among the most dramatic displays. Xeeshan's runway show, inspired by Pakistan's impending general elections, was introduced with a short film in which the designer took on the avatar of a frenzied politician. An all-white parade of dreamy organza, net and pearl filigree strutted down the runway as part of a collection aptly titled Jalsa-e-Ishq (political rally of love).

"Love is above all political flags," states Xeeshan on his Facebook page; hence the not-so-subtle red hearts pinned on the runway models. "Love is like a swing vote...[and] has the power to turn the tables," he continues. "Everything is fair in love and war!"

We are a nation of survivors and hot blooded warriors driven by love and emotion. It's the only thing that has kept us from falling apart all these years...We still get up every morning and work, because we know we can survive. The way I see it, we are all warriors of love.

A sense of nostalgia pervaded an otherwise contemporary collection of stretch denim, satin and organza by debut designer Mahgul Rashid's Mahgul for Nasreen Shaikh label. Rashid selected British Raj-era photographs, sourced from the archives of the Civil and Military Gazette (the renowned workplace of British poet and author, Rudyard Kipling) to adorn her fabric and clutches in "The Archive Collection". Models strode down the runway wearing hats inspired by Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

"In my mind I tried to reinvent Pakistan through historical references," explains Rashid, when speaking to The Genteel. "I'm not political, but the work has this sense of play on politics with the current political affairs, especially where [political] parties are using history as part of their new narratives. We're always reinventing the past..."

For Fahad Hussayn, fantasy fiction and myths inspired his "Praxus" collection. Hussayn's vision - "a city of warriors who fight for love" - was symbolised in an exotic array of styles. These included delicate printed net with custom photographed "beautiful northern skylines, [and] flowers from the valleys", metallic embroidery and casings echoing Islamic architecture and giving the illusion of armour, and black crystal embellishment inspired by Taxila's history. The headgear - dramatic enough to make Philip Treacy look understated - featured stuffed birds meant to represent various women-led armies, carrying, what Hussayn describes to The Genteel, as the "love and sanity that keeps us alive and wanting to fight back."

Hussayn elaborates, "We are a nation of survivors and hot blooded warriors driven by love and emotion. It's the only thing that has kept us from falling apart all these years, with the current political conditions, energy crises and constant [terrorist] attacks. We still get up every morning and work, because we know we can survive. The way I see it, we are all warriors of love."

Pakistan is a 65-year-old nation that has, for the first time, seen the completion of a full five-year term by a democratically elected civilian government without being dissolved by presidential decree or martial law. The country held its general elections on May 11th.

Naya Pakistan (a new Pakistan) is part of the current popular jargon in Pakistan, a slogan from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) party, led by the charismatic cricketer and philanthropist-turned-politician, Imran Khan. PTI's enormous metropolitan rallies seemed to have an equal number of women and men, hailing from the middle and upper income brackets, along with children and teenagers still too young to vote. Various polling stations also included disabled voters, the elderly, and expatriates who had flown in for the occasion (the Supreme Court recently ruled against allowing Pakistanis to vote overseas until 2018). 

Imran Khan Kurta by MK Nation of Karma
A model walks down the runway wearing an Imran
Khan Kurta by MK Nation of Karma. 
Image courtesy of Faisal Farooqui, 
Dragonfly/Lotus PR.

While the PTI did not gain a majority in the National Assembly's parliamentary seats (considered, by many, to be a result of the lack of support from lower income voters), it nevertheless set the wheels of change in motion, beginning with people's renewed interest in the political system and the spirit of healthy competition between the country's leading political parties. Khan - who remains hospitalised from a fall at his rally - managed to achieve cult-like status in recent months. He also inspired mainstream fashion - a first for a political leader in Pakistan.

In the days leading to Saturday's elections, urban dwellers including professionals, socialites and students sported their Imran Khan Kurtas (classic tunics featuring pop-art prints of Khan) by MK Nation of Karma (also tweeted by Jemima Khan) and Sarah Raza of L'Atelier, accessorised with Imran Khan Infinity Scarves by Daaman and Election Totes by Mahin Hussain Accessories - all sought-after labels during the current wave of optimism.

Events took a bizarre twist, however, when Hussayn, Xeeshan and designer Mohsin Ali were arrested in Lahore by local police for sporting PTI flags on their car. As The News reports, they were released from prison the day before elections.

When coming up with her "Archive" collection, Rashid was greatly inspired by a remark she overheard between an elderly gatekeeper and a young boy: "While researching materials for this collection, I overheard an old chaukidar (guard) say to a young boy who asked him what he was thinking about; he (the boy) said, 'soch reha hain kay aik naya Pakistan kaise banaya jaye' (I'm thinking about how we could possibly build a new Pakistan)."

She added, "That thought might be subliminally present in the collection."

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