Kiran Chaudhry Amlani on the IndianÂ appetite for Pakistani fashion
In many ways, I was trained to be a nomad from an early age. My father, as an upright government officer, got posted and re-posted to different locations across the country more frequently than most of his colleagues. We seldom stayed in the same city for more than two years at a timeâ€”to the extent that before the age of sixteen, I had changed at least twelve schools across four countries. While many would have seen this as disruptive to a child’s school routine, I believe it made me resilient and comfortable in a constantly changing environment.
I have started life ‘all over again’ so many times, that it’s almost second nature now. Far from being scary, I perhaps unconsciously seek it out as a precursor to personal and professional growth. When you are defined by no particular identity or worldview, life is full of possibilities, you see opportunities everywhere and the learning process is intense. It was in this way that, when I started my new life in India post-marriage, I saw the potential of Pakistani fashion in India.
I have always had a very close association with the fashion community in Pakistan, having been to high school with the likes of Kamiar Rokni and Hassan Shehryar Yasin; being their ‘date’ to many a fashion after-party and witnessing many fashion weeks in support whenever my friends would show. My interest in the business of fashion, however, began last year while travelling to India and mostly while I was shopping for my wedding trousseau!
I could not believe the sheer variety I experienced in India â€” the emphasis on local textiles and regional craft. I also realized that the sheer size of the upper middle-class in India makes fashion a very different creature in India than it is in Pakistan, where it still remains elite-driven. There is something for every budget and even top designers cater to a middle class sensibility.
Matters came to a head when two friends of mine from Lahore, Faraz Manan and Shoaib Shafi, got in touch with me as they were planning to come to India for an exhibition and were looking for a venue. I naturally spoke to my husband, who is in the hospitality business and we decided to have the exhibition at one of his venues in Delhi. Normally operating as a restaurant and nightclub called “Shroom,” this venue was perfect as it was already located in a popular mall for designer clothes. Without knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we decided to help Faraz and Shoaib put the whole event together – from getting a good guest-list, renting racks, lights and mirrors, to printing invites and posters.
We were completely overwhelmed by the response that followed. I had not realized the very real curiosity about Pakistan and Pakistani fashion that exists in the Indian mind. So many people already knew about popular brands like Crescent and Sana Safinaz. Interestingly, most people had seen only our cotton ‘lawn’ suits and nothing like the more upper-end, well-styled and very modern pret that Faraz was showcasing. To them, it was interestingly styled, stood out, and nobody else would have it – enough reasons for them to purchase it.
Amusingly, Faraz had asked me to wear one of his outfits each day of the two-day exhibition, and as it happened, I had to change several times a day, as everyone literally wanted to buy the “shirt off my back”! One girl, very sweetly and rather earnestly asked me if I could just “take it off please so I can wear it to my kitty party tomorrow morning”! I thought she was kidding, and tried to laugh it off. But when she didn’t budge and just stood there expectantly, waiting for me to take off my clothes so she could have them, I realized the opportunity that exists. It was then that I decided that I wanted to explore this further and test the market properly.
Harmeet Bajaj, Riyaaz’s close friend and business partner in the Delhi restaurants, agreed to be my partner in this exploratory venture and we hatched a plan to have a multi-designer exhibition in August of this year, on a much larger scale, with some of Pakistan’s top names. Harmeet is a fashion veteran, having taught at NIFT, choreographed numerous shows and run a successful garments export business. Having a ‘fashion insider’ mind-set was a big advantage.
The sheer size of the upper middle-class in India makes fashion a very different creature in India than it is in Pakistan, where it still remains elite-driven
While we viewed this project as more of a learning experience than anything else â€” to identify the ‘type of product’ that would work well in India, as well as the people we could do business with in Pakistan â€” we were amazed by the response. We had some big names like Sana Safinaz, Sania Maskatiya, Elan, Crescent by Faraz Manan, Nida Azwer Umar Sayeed, and Fahad Hussayn on board. For a first venture, we had been ambitious, showcasing nine designers and almost seven hundred pieces! But as they say, “build it and they will come.” The buzz about the exhibition was all over the city, as an exclusively Pakistani fashion event is quite rare in India, especially given the recent political tensions over the line of control. The Delhi fashion circuit was generally very impressed with the offering â€” clamoring to leave their details on our visitor’s book to ensure they were invited to the next exhibition.
Lahore designers fared better in Delhi and Karachi designers better in Bombay
After Delhi, we took selected stock to Bombay and had three trunk shows there in association with a couple of established multi-brand stores with a good clientele. Bombay is a market not many Pakistani designers have tapped into, but it is not one to ignore, especially given that it is the hub of the media and entertainment industries and the impact of Bollywood on fashion cannot be underestimated.
Interestingly, Lahore designers fared better in Delhi and Karachi designers better in Bombay. I realized yet again how much we are a ‘geographically’ rather than a ‘nationally’ defined region. Indeed Bombay and Karachi have far more in common than just an aesthetic. Both cities are commerce-driven and full of practical-minded people; it is easy to see that they were sister-cities until not long ago. Similarly, Delhi and Lahore share a common soul in their bent towards the arts and culture. It makes sense that what works in one city, will work in the other.
Perhaps it was all this talk of fashion, or perhaps it happened more organically, but my husband Riyaaz was simultaneously inspired to incorporate the lure of fashion into his restaurants. His creative team has recently come up with a concept to fuse the world of fashion and food and they regularly have “Deconstruct” events at the Delhi restaurants, where each dish on a special fine dining menu is inspired by a particular fashion designer’s style and design philosophy. Prominent designers like Rohit Bal, Pankaj & Nidhi etc. opened the first deconstruct evening and fashion bigwigs like Pernia Qureshi came out to endorse it. He has been on an expansion drive recently, opening his most popular brand, “Smoke House Deli” in Delhi and Bangalore in the last couple of months and I have also had the opportunity to understand these other cities of India from a cultural and commercial perspective.
I had to change several times a day, as everyone literally wanted to buy the “shirt off my back”! One girl rather earnestly asked me if I could just “take it off please so I can wear it to my kitty party tomorrow morning”!
I think it’s wonderful how the Indians laud and pay homage to the achievements of each other, even if they come from completely different fields. They understand that together they are more than the sum of their parts. I am always amazed at how my husband goes out of his way to support other restaurateurs launch their latest ventures, and vice versa. They help each other get ahead.
But I cannot help but feel that this is just a product of having a market size that is big enough for everyone. The fact remains that the Indian market boasts several major cities that any business can grow into â€” be it fashion or food. They don’t just have Lahore and Karachi, but Delhi, Bombay, Pune, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Calcutta. The list is endless. Also, their focus remains the middle and upper-middle class. This means the market is big enough for everyone to flourish.
I am left with a sense that the Pakistani textile and fashion industry could double almost overnight if the Indian market became available to it â€” not to mention the glorious dividend in the form of lasting peace in the region.