Instep Today

Bring it to the runway

Instep Today
By Shahjehan Saleem
Sun, 03, 23

Is there any merit in replacing the traditional fashion show with a 'happening' or 'experience’, or are the latter simply allowing for subpar couture to pass for inventive, confusing the audience with too many details?

Sana Safinaz let the ensembles do the talking as they brought Iqbal’s Payam-e-Mashriq to the FPW stage in 2019.
Sana Safinaz let the ensembles do the talking as they brought Iqbal’s Payam-e-Mashriq to the FPW stage in 2019.

Fashion, in its purest form, demands experimentation. The experimentation holds an important place in the larger scheme of how design and couture is diffused to connoisseurs of style, and therefore has remained an integral part of the system. More often than not, it has also emerged from necessity, as designers shed old skin and bring in the new, with either their ensembles, the production value, or themselves going through a metamorphosis.

However, where do we draw the line?

Well, in Pakistan’s case, it seems that we have to at the runway.

Ever since the world stopped being the way it used to be, courtesy of a certain city in the Far East, and the ensuing pandemic it unleashed on the globe, the microcosm of fashion in the country saw changes of a gargantuan order. Gone were the days of 3-day long fashion experiences, a multitude of designers dotting the line-up, and a grand runway demarcating it all.

Instead, a number of designers and couturiers (you may attempt at guessing whom) gravitated towards what had rather been a display of monetary wealth earlier – the solo show. And for some, it worked – enough to get their three years in the industry recognized as a feat to be celebrated. For others, it was a failure to launch, which despite all the paid-press attention failed to really make any mark on the favorite buzz-phrase of the industry – ‘the business of fashion.’

But it wasn’t just the failure to make some moolah that made the shows an incubator for hackneyed experiments and confused approaches. It was also the lack of streamlining the runway – which in many cases didn’t even exist.

Over the last three years since things took a turn for the worse, I can count on my fingertips, the ‘dazzling’ experimentations I have been invited to or have witnessed. There have been secret gardens which turned out to be the backyards of nondescript houses, desi MET Galas which were a joke at best, museum installations that had everything but guests, beach excursions where personal moments outshined innovation in fashion, Mughal fiestas where the uninvited onlookers caused stampedes, and perhaps a trip to the moon (I wish the last one was true and not just a figment of my imagination.)

But, they were all pomp and no circumstance. Don’t get me wrong. There was perhaps more to look at here than all fashion weeks combined – everything but the collections, themselves. The sensory overload was enough to get any fashion critic knocked out of trying to look for what the clothes had to offer, instead being fascinated by the complementing nuances.

The Ottomans, a few centuries ago, were ardent fans of creating ornamented visuals and art that later were referred to as Horror Vacui. The term, in the discourse of art was understood as the filling of the entire surface of a space or an artwork with so much detail, that the viewer suffers from visual overload, instead remaining entangled in the whole space, without really being able to go into the intricacies of design. That for me, is what Pakistani runway experiences have turned into today.

Inherently, fashion loves doing this. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with it too – provided that the experience doesn’t feel like a particularly bad episode of America’s Next Top Model or Project Runway.

Just about every designer across the globe has made an attempt at doing away with the quintessential runway and creating an immersive experience. I don’t think anybody has forgotten Karl Lagerfeld turning the Grand Palais in Paris into a casino, Fendi using the Great Wall of China with the sun setting in the milieu or Marc Jacobs quite literally making escalators the heart of his show. But they weren’t run-of-the-mill ideas which were proclaimed as amazing ones just because the production team had to change venues a night before and had to now create a PR-façade about the new space.

Teams sit down for months at an end to ensure these experiences still continue to have fashion at the heart of it all. None of these experimental shows have ever forgotten that they are there to showcase spectacular fashion through their ensembles. Everything else is secondary, as it should be. One can’t even imagine Balenciaga or even a Jean Paul Gaultier show without them taking things way out of the comfort zone. Yet, their pieces are etched in the brains of fashion critics for what they made. It wasn’t just the show that did the talking.

Behind many closed doors, chatter-filled cafés and in innumerous design studios that I have visited in the years since fashion changed its ways, I have had conversations about this with almost every big designer in the country right now. Just about everybody misses the day when the visuality of the fashion show meant two opposing rows with the long white runway in the middle. The million flashes a minute coming from the photographers at the end of the runway and the flailing hands full of action of the runway choreographer on the top of the podium are all moments every journalist, designer, council member, and every person sitting in the audience remembers.

What do we take home today?

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t take home experiences. Instead, we have photos which go up on Instagram, make buzz for a day, and are then forgotten for years to come.

Many may think it is too easy of a correlation to create between the loss of fashion innovation and the disappearance of the runway, but it all simmers down to it. Think of the last show you attended – do you remember one that was set at a random marina, or do you remember the one where you entered a space that had your name on a seat, with a runway outlining your horizon when you sat down? I would like to think it was the latter.

I don’t want to make a case for any council by writing this. I don’t want to say all of this to look down on the designers thinking about a solo show where they want to experiment to the nines. I want to pen all of this down only to question the lack of the centrality of fashion in all of this.

I want to open the space for people to ask why couture is going through its worse phase in the country right now. I want designers to see that there is perhaps, something good about coming together for fashion weeks and creating an atmosphere that brings the crowds together.

Lastly, I want this to serve as a reminder that there is an audience for fashion that wants to see it for what it is – instead of everything being for the ’gram.