There’s been a commercial fashion drought this year. Fashion weeks cancelled, solo presentations far and few in between with Elan, Hussain Rehar, Craft Stories by Huma Adnan and Fahad Hussayn (all bridal couture), being the few who hazarded attempts, actually featuring limited attendees as opposed to simply being labeled exclusive, many collections delayed and displays diminutive.
This isn’t to say that there’s been no new fashion this year. In fact, the collections and brands that have debuted over the course of 2020 have been more focused on providing consumers with something fresh and unique, usually with a side of social consciousness.
In a sense it’s been an exciting time for boutique and streetwear brands; fast fashion has taken a hit and tailored garments and limited collections are suddenly covetable. It’s also been a year of cool new kids coming up on the block; Colour Coded Crime, Rastah (they debuted last year but the brand made its presence felt in 2020), Raa_ay and Inclusivi-Tee, among others, have captured our attention, offering a distinctive look and ethos.
We’ve also witnessed the rise of pop art sweatshirts and hoodies, again not really all launching this year but gaining traction and clientele over expendable fast fashion. There’s NotDigInk we covered earlier, Beygum Bano’s collaboration with Republic that led her solo drop of sweatshirts and Womanistan ki Dukan, starting out as Anam Mansuri’s (owner of the popular Instagram blog by the same name, Womanistan) brain-child.
There’s also been a profusion of a different kind; hand-made jewellery by local designers has been capturing fashionista fantasies; there’s Takhleeq Jewelery (we’ve covered Zamzam before), MKY, Jewels by Aisha, YDEWY among a slew of new entrants in the world of accessories. Karachi based Haya Lutfullah grew exponentially as a brand as she infiltrated the design ethos of web-series Churails and was seen worn by icons such as Meesha Shafi. Each brand not only uses different materials to produce contemporary adornments, they’re all female-run enterprises that belie strong creative and business acumen.
Each of these brands, apparel or accessories, is presented as more than just a product. They identify their designs with ethos and personal/political ideology; they take sides where commercial ventures and fast fashion brands play it safe (still can’t mass market something that’s controversial, opinionated). They’re also operating on a completely different business model: no physical stores, only the digital marketplace as their playground. They’re functioning on an entirely new set of rules, catering mostly to a millennial audience.
To understand these brands it’s important to not just approach them from aesthetic, popularity or economic viability standpoints but also through the modern understanding of intersectionality, as far as one can use the concept to critique a capitalist pursuit of privileged consumption while still being mindful of the fact that they are for profit.
Fashion’s developed a conscience
From Rastah’s punk meets hipster vibe, Inclusivi-Tee’s winter drop that’s all about gender-neutral clothing to Mirer’s sharply tailored cuts and minimalistic ethos, each brand is making modern Pakistan fashion look… well, unlike its usually safe, overly embellished self. Colour Coded Crime’s winter 2020 collection features a model with vitiligo in their main campaign, Raa_ay also brands itself as a producer of unisex apparel. Womanistan, a digital platform that prides itself on being progressive also hopes that their merchandise represents their online ideology.
Each of these brands aims to rebrand not just Pakistani identity but also the consumer; they represent a shift, a niche in the market, a budding consumer base that looks at clothing as more than just garments but rather markers of their identity.
Take Inclusivi-Tee for example. Not only is the brand gender neutral, they also don’t have traditional small, medium, large sizing, opting instead for short and long variations within each style. For Pakistan, nay, globally, this is a novel concept because body size remains a major point of contention/personal crisis, a demand for which was identified a few weeks prior when we spoke to digital content creator Baemisaal.
Speaking to Rabeeya Latif, co-founder of Inclusivi-Tee and also one of the founders/moderators of the Facebook community, Soul Bitches, reveals that both the brands’ campaigns have promoted an inclusive idea of fashion, one that doesn’t discriminate against wearing colour on the basis of gender or silhouette on the basis of size. The brand isn’t just about selling outfits. Latif really wants the feminist ethos behind the design to speak for itself; their winter collection shoot challenging Pakistan’s rigid gender norms but putting men (Latif’s own finance in fact) in pink sweaters and purple coats.
It’s a bold new look to debut in Pakistan, credit where it is due, it is also limited to a particular audience that has understanding and acceptance for such liberal politics.
With Rastah, a streetwear by Zain Ahmed label that’s making waves with their slick clothes and marketing, having been spotted on the likes of Harshvardhan Kapoor and British-Muslim heart-throb Riz Ahmed, the brand’s design philosophy is niche. They’re not catering to anyone older than millennials (they’re also not easy on the pocket, doubling down the accessibility), their limited collections featuring tie-dye denim in sunset hues and block-printed pants and hoodies aren’t meant for mass consumption; the exclusivity and craft of their garment is what costs.
There’s Lahore based Raa_ay that also posits itself as a gender neutral brand with an over-sized aesthetic. Their winter jackets, oversized with hanging pockets and boxy sides, is meant to introduce a new aesthetic that can be enjoyed by all who like the design.
That said, fashion’s love affair with social causes isn’t exactly new or news. Big brands, locally and globally, have co-opted and been critiqued for jumping on bandwagons that make them seem socially responsible without actually taking on any responsibility or contributing anything tangible to the cause. The argument regarding brands, fashion or otherwise, taking on social causes is complex, nuanced; viewing it as anything less is oversimplifying the issue.
Take the aforementioned digital platform Womanistan – the Instagram page came under critique earlier in the year for sharing a paid post by Gul Ahmed at a time when the first wave of the pandemic was raging and the textile giant had fired nearly a thousand workers; espousing principles that are grounded in accountability and a call for change begins with not aligning with maintainers of the status quo.
Anam Mansuri, founder of the platform and CEO of Limu Studios, a digital agency, admits that the post had been an oversight on the platform’s part. It also led to some changes in content parameter. Why does it matter? The blog has woven its ethos and aesthetics into fashionable sweatshirts and hoodies this winter and has had to take a measured approach in wearing its politics on its sleeve.
These brands, mostly run by progressive individuals (with disposable capital to invest), do tend to engage with the critique they receive. Since they operate through digital platforms and are vocal about their ideologies/ political leanings, it leaves them open to vociferous consumer feedback; it creates a learning curve whereby brands that overstep boundaries are called out.
Where’s my change?
As we mentioned earlier, to look at this conversation in black and white terms would be detrimental to understanding how fashion, economics and world politics are interwoven into the global tapestry (here you thought clothing was frivolous) but there’s pros and cons for fashion that comes with a message of change.
While it is true that more often than not big brands tend to capitalize on social movements while actively contributing to the larger narrative that feeds the problem, however, conversations regarding social issues, especially those espoused by feminism that deal with freedom to choose require space and platforms that allow such discourse.
We’ve seen Fair and Lovely, a colonial reminder of colourism, change to Glow and Lovely, a token change but a change nonetheless. We’ve seen Rihanna’s intimate wear brand, Fenty, change how lingerie is showcased and modeled after decades of being monopolized by skinny white women through the misogynistic aesthetics of Victoria’s Secret; its slow and a lot of it is often just on the surface.
Pakistani fashion, it seems, is finally catching up to the global conversation. Yes, the mass market is still obsessed with wedding wear and placid, pretty women in unrelentingly pretty clothes (depending on who you’re talking to) but there’s an acknowledgement that the supply isn’t meeting all demands and that the younger generation is vying for change.
Interesting times ahead. Interesting year ahead, we hope.