Conversation flows easily with Maliha Aziz, Creative Director at Farah Talib Aziz, the eponymous label her mother started a couple of decades back. She speaks softly, pauses frequently, and it could be just that everything Maliha Aziz says sounds informed and intelligent because of her manner; but it is possible her concerns sound completely legitimate because they have come up before as well.
Aziz edged back into the fashion scene after she returned to Karachi post university, working for Hello Magazine.
“Things were just so much simpler then,” Aziz reminisces about the good old days aka around the turn of the previous decade.
Her comment isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. It isn’t just a hankering for more wholesome times. Maliha Aziz is unconsciously echoing a sentiment that lingers within and around the fashion industry as a whole.
The industry was never a given in Pakistan. In a country where most people still live at a social, ideological, and economic disadvantage, fashion was, and still is, hardly a top-of-mind concern for your proverbial common man or garden-variety politician or policymaker. However, the fact that the industry does exist, is thriving, provides employment to millions across the country, and turns over profits even during a recession does say something for it.
But looks, as we know, can be deceptive, and that is truer for this industry, in this particular country, than elsewhere. To produce, present, and sell fashion has been a hard-won right, rather than natural progression. For a whole genre of business to evolve out of its exclusive roots, despite well-documented censure and censorship, to some kind of begrudging, ridiculing acceptance, to a point where professional degrees are offered in its field of study is quite an achievement. To imagine that it took almost three decades to establish a proper fashion week where old and new talent could showcase their work sounds like an overstatement but actually isn’t.
After champions of the industry having labored with love for so long to get it to this point, to imagine that neither of the two fashion councils in Pakistan have held a fashion week in over a year, is just heartbreaking.
Aziz doesn’t dismiss the history of the industry as it stood before she entered it, but she does question the authenticity of it now.
Firstly, she wonders – like anyone grappling with how much algorithms run our universe now – how to siphon the worthy from the not. “Everything is paid content,” she says, “and because you have influencers just putting stuff up as its paid, the real can get lost within that clutter.
“When I had begun my career here, there had been a few magazines that held substance, and for magazines to pick up your campaign meant something. Even in terms of advertising, you have to keep coming up with new things. It’s trial and error, and if that one idea you’ve executed works, everyone else will do it too.”
But that isn’t where it all ends. Like everything else, the fashion industry has been both blessed and challenged by the technology boom resulting in a vast ecommerce space. While buying and selling becomes easier globally, the creative aspect of fashion presentation has taken a hit. There are of course seasonal campaigns that most labels – albeit fast fashion ones – will put out that are great, but by and large, what you’ll see in terms of a fashion editorial is no longer the work of art you might have expected.
There have always been the labels and photographers/art directors who choose to do very point-and-click shoots on tame backdrops with gorgeous but safely styled models. That whole aesthetic has translated to the online catalog really well, and has its place. Maliha Aziz doesn’t think that it was entirely this shift to sales-based imagery that caused the void where beautiful visuals once sat.
“I think you need to ask when the fashion editorial died rather than why,” she says, “it died when magazine started focusing more on social media content.
“Editorials were always FOC (free of cost) from the model, photographer, stylist, and even designer. All the magazine had to do was come up with the concept and put the shoot together. So, one, the effort to want to do that has disappeared. It could be because of Covid, when offices shut down, people started working from home, but perhaps it was just that…”
Here, Aziz takes one of those breaks that punctuate her speech, and breathes in, thinking.
“That concept of working hard towards the fashion editorial died,” she finishes.
“You know what I think,” says Aziz, “when you were having that good time, that golden time of lawn, when everyone was just ready to hand over their cash to you, no one shared their profits with their teams; why were they expected to share losses, during Covid? Everything just ended.
“It’s such a shame, because you see such amazing editorials coming out of the UAE, Saudi, India, and there’s so much talent in Pakistan, and you kind of just need new people to enter the industry, and be able to put their work out there.”
Aziz puts an emphasis on encouraging new talent. Makeup artists and photographers, videographers and stylists, are credited fully on each picture that goes up on the FTA socials, and interns are paid. “It can be a small amount,” she says, “but you have to walk away feeling like you weren’t taken advantage of. There are a lot of people who work hard to make sure our clothes look good in a shoot, and they have to be reimbursed and acknowledged.”
However, of course, comes the rub. There has always been a tussle between established designers, new entrants; the forefathers of the industry, and the crazy kids. We can’t really put our finger on it, but seniors in the industry will find the next gen’s work ethic lacking, while sporting unbefitting manners, and the new designers and related service providers will feel unwelcome and pushed aside.
The fashion councils – Fashion Pakistan and Pakistan Fashion Design Council – already had a regional divide. And as any industry ages, and generations accumulate, there will be differences of opinion; but the fashion councils were meant to even the playing field for the youthful and the mature, and across labels and cities. While that worked out really well for about the first few years, with Covid of course throwing its spanner into all works, there doesn’t seem to be a reformation of the fashion week structure anytime soon. While we had heard PFDC’s fashion week returning this fall, and FPW held a showcase early last year, the former never acted on the intention, and the latter has reportedly closed operations.
When we are trying to build an industry, any industry, organization is of the essence. It isn’t just about new vs. old, or big vs. small or record label vs. indie, there needs to be a proper entity, funded by the Pakistani government, but informed by different cogs of the fashion machine who can bring together everyone on a platform with a plan, hierarchies with a well-defined agenda for each level, and clear trajectory.
As the world grows closer together than ever, and all crises have a global impact that is almost always economic, we need to become more cognizant of how the home turf is prepped to brace the shocks, and share the bounties.