Fashion Week in Pakistan: Can Couture Trump Conservatism?

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Fashionistas the world over will look to the Big Apple as the spotlight falls on New York City ahead of the start of its glitzy Fashion Week this Thursday. But, away from the catwalks and cocktail parties of fashion’s North American capital, the industry struts its stuff in far more troubled frontiers. I attended Pakistan’s Fashion Week in the historic, culturally rich city of Lahore last spring. Pakistan carries with it centuries of South Asian expertise in the craft of weaving and flashy garmentmaking, making it, in many ways, a natural spot for such a colorful event. Hassan Yasin is the designer for his label HSY and is one of the few Pakistani fashion creators to export to the western hemisphere: “What it does is that it gives us discipline, that’s the most important thing. We’ve been doing Fashion Weeks in Dubai and in other places for a long time. Without a Fashion Week it’s very difficult because there is no need, there is no desire to create and the consumer loses out.”

The most obvious question remains: How does such a religiously conservative nation ever teetering on the brink chaos organize itself to put on a fashion show? First and foremost there are practicalities to be dealt with, like security — each guest faces a stringent security process in order to enter the venue, running a gauntlet tantamount to an airport security check. Once inside you’ll find patient fashionistas facing a barrage of political questions while prepping for their shows — not exactly what Karl Lagerfeld concerns himself with. Female designers get harangued about women’s rights, the burqa and blasphemy laws, while male designers are questioned about homosexuality, the tensions with India and the war in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly this is a daunting task, but perhaps the most important interpretation of the event is that of conservatives in the country.

Weighing in is Khalid Zaheer, a professor of Islamic studies and a dean at the University of Central Punjab. “If we go for fashion within the acceptable limits, it’s not that it is acceptable, I think it’s desirable,” says Zaheer. He adds that “God is not against beauty. The trouble is that when you start talking about beauty, there is a danger of evil creeping into it. The evil is of obscenity and of vulgarity. Many orthodox Muslims have taken this idea too far, but many liberals have taken the idea to the other extreme; that is what needs to be done, to bring sanity to most of these people.” Zaheer says that all Pakistanis don’t share his vision in Pakistan, and that organizers of the fashion event must tread lightly given the sentiments of the wider, more conservative public.

Laurent Laughlin is a video journalist based in Paris.