All that glitters is not couture

March 8, 2015

The PFDC and Swarovski collaboration, Crystal Couturiers, promised a dose of high-end fashion but failed to live up to expectations

All that glitters is not couture

Whether it was Versace’s body hugging dresses featuring sexy swirl cut-outs, Karl Lagerfeld’s reimagining of the Garden of Eden with 3-D floral applique on dresses for Chanel or Dior’s playful and eclectic ode to the 60s, the designs sent down the runway during Paris Couture Week earlier this year were conversation starters. As fashionstas, editors and bloggers took in the high fashion that was seen during Paris Couture Week, there was chatter about the bold and inventive statements that came out of the ateliers of Paris, some even calling it a reflection of the protests seen on the streets of the fashion capital post-terrorist attacks.

That, in essence, is what couture is. It isn’t just about luxurious ensembles that cost a small fortune; couture is a designer’s unfettered vision of the world around him or her. It is innovative, it is experimental and since it is usually devoid of the constraints of commercial viability (the market for gowns that cost as much as an apartment in Milan is minuscule), it allows the designer to let his or her imagination run wild in order to create pieces that will evoke a strong reaction - whether it’s shock, awe, delight or disgust.

The recently held Crystal Couturiers showcase in Lahore - a collaboration between the country’s most prominent fashion council, the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) and international crystal manufacturer, Swarovski - held the promise of high fashion and exciting couture. Eight designers were provided Swarovski elements in separate colour palettes to create unique collections that would showcase the diversity of modern Pakistani couture.

Halfway into the evening, it became clear that the only emotion the collections were evoking in the audience was one of boredom. One fashion week regular was heard moaning, "There’s a rehash, then there’s a rehash of a rehash, and then there’s this! If I wanted to see things I’ve seen a hundred times before, I would just have gone through my own closet."

That succinctly sums up all that was wrong with the collections seen on the ramp that evening; in their lack of creativity and originality, they fell short of the definition of couture by a long shot. The show had all the right ingredients - a lavish décor, an exclusive A-list guest list, the chance to show off the same Swarovski crystals that bedeck the extravagant collections of so many international couturiers – yet those who sat through the four-hour (and extremely late) show failed to be moved or inspired in any way.

Sublime, Karma, HSY, Libas, Nomi Ansari, Fahad Hussayn, Elan and Saira Shakira were the featured designers and with the exception of the latter two, they mostly stuck to their comfort zones and put out fashion that left us with a strong feeling of déjà vu. With the PFDC holding two regular fashion weeks annually, we’ve seen very similar collections by most of these designers either at the pret or the bridal editions of the fashion week.

In a country where couture translates mainly into wedding wear, the challenge for couturiers is to create collections that are fashion forward yet traditional and also have market appeal. Funnily enough, they do a much better job of that at PLBW than they did at the Swarovski showcase where commercial appeal wasn’t even a consideration. Case in point: HSY’s Divine Decadence at last year’s PLBW was a much stronger couture collection than what he showed last weekend. A mish-mash of wedding wear featuring lehngas, cholis and the odd gown, the ensembles smacked of repetitive craftsmanship, a confused colour palette and very little innovation in terms of silhouette and cut. While HSY remains everyone’s favourite showman, one wonders if the designer has his finger in too many pies lately to be able to do justice to his original love - designing.

Elan’s was one of the better collections of the evening and a demonstration of how wedding wear can be luxurious and beautiful enough to deserve the title of couture. While far from groundbreaking, the collection did at least put the Swarovski crystals front and center of the design theme and managed to create ensembles that were essentially wedding wear yet aesthetically pleasing.

Nomi Ansari’s tangerine collection featuring dramatic headgear managed to up the expected drama whereas Khadija Shah (Elan) chose the classic route to restrained elegance.
Nomi Ansari’s tangerine collection featuring dramatic headgear managed to up the expected drama whereas Khadija Shah (Elan) chose the classic route to restrained elegance.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was young designer duo Saira Shakira, who has consistently impressed with their fashion week outings since their debut two years ago. The only label that dared to think out-of-the-box that night, theirs was a collection that left one thinking ‘this is what I came here to see.’ Experimental in terms of silhouette and encompassing a theme as vast as "fashion through the ages", it was their attempt to be bold and innovative that hit the right notes. Fringed skirts, gowns with lace underlays and cropped jackets formed the mainstays of the collection - a welcome departure from the bridal-heavy collections that preceded it.

Nomi Ansari’s extravagant orange headpieces and Fahad Hussayn’s exquisite craftsmanship on some of his pieces were the other redeeming features of an evening that fell woefully short of expectations. It appeared that one outfit out of every capsule - the one sent to Swarovski for approval as a collection sample - was strong and the rest of the clothes were just rehashes.

And that led one to wonder the all-important question: were these designers really representative of the best of Pakistani couture?

That mantle is unquestionably held by Nilofer Shahid, the only Pakistani couturier to have shown repeatedly at Paris Couture Week along with the likes of Balenciaga and who, last year, was awarded the prestigious Grade de Chavalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government for her innovative reimaging of Pakistani craftsmanship. Or by the original king of couture, Rizwan Beyg, whose exquisite detailing and embroideries have wowed fashion critics here and abroad. Or by Faiza Samee, whose ornate couture pieces have been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum while they continue to find an international market given their innovative yet quintessentially Pakistani aesthetic. Or even Kamiar Rokni, who wowed us with The Orientalist two years ago and is the one true couturier of the younger generation.

While Swarovski’s collaboration with the fashion industry is a big step in internationalizing local fashion and putting it out on a platform where designers like Karl Lagerfeld have held forth previously, one would have expected a global giant to do their homework more thoroughly. They could have picked out designers such as Faiza Samee, Rizwan Beyg, Kamiar Rokni or Nilofer Shahid, or even the elusive Bunto Kazmi, for a collaboration that could have been all the more meaningful and exclusive by highlighting the work of some of the country’s biggest names in couture. It’s like asking Calvin Klein to do Alexander McQueen’s job - you will obviously lose out on the drama and extravagance of high fashion in the bargain.

Back in the day when fashion weeks were an occurrence the fashion fraternity could only dream of, there was Carnival de Couture. In its essence it was very similar to what the PFDC had hoped to achieve with Crystal Couturiers - a charity event built around the exclusivity afforded by couture. While PFDC’s event raised funds for a CARE school for under-privileged children, Carnival de Couture did it for the Teacher’s Resource Centre.

But where the two differed was in their interpretation of couture and it was the latter that got it right. From Indian couturiers Rohit Bahl and Tarun Tahiliani to their Pakistani counterparts including Sana Safinaz, Rizwan Beyg and Faiza Samee, the Carnival de Couture was a study in exquisite couture from around the subcontinent. Of course, the fact that it came with a dose of Bollywood masala, featuring the likes of Arjun Rampal, Urmila and Shilpa Shetty on the ramp, only helped matters.

PFDC has promised that this is the first of what is set to become an annual tradition and while the addition of another fashion showcase on the yearly calendar is a mark of progress for the fashion fraternity, one does hope that the council learns from its debut show. Next year, we’d like to see what we missed this time around - a dose of high-end couture.

Photography: Faisal Farooqui @ Dragonfly
Hair and Makeup: Nabila

All that glitters is not couture