Lawn has always been a commercially viable product in Pakistan and attaching a designer name to it has increased its profile from an everyday fabric to a coveted fashion item
Come february and billboards showcasing smiling models draped in gossamer summer fabric start appearing across town. So, what if you’re still huddling inside your woolies to escape the winter chill -- lawn season officially begins well before the advent of spring and keeps the female half of the country’s population firmly in its throes for the better part of the year.
Lawn is lucrative business in a country where the summer season stretches on for almost nine months. Traditionally, it was big players in the textile sector that ruled the fabric retail market, including companies, such as Gul Ahmed, Al-Karam, Lala Textiles, Sapphire and Lakhany. Over the last five years, however, the phenomenon that has taken the market by storm is that of ‘designer lawn’.
While the summer fabric always had a ready and eager market and has been a commercially viable product, it was one that was pedestrian at best. It implied comfort and practicality, not glamour. That notion changed quickly as textile mills introduced a new concept -- hiring a well-known fashion designer to lend their design expertise to the fabric. Suddenly, lawn was a coveted fashion item. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a Sana Safinaz or Rizwan Beyg branded jora for a fraction of the price of what their actual designs cost?
As a marketing strategy, collaborations between fashion designers and textile mills were gold. CEO of Al-Karam Studio, Abid Umer, explains the motivation behind such partnerships. "Our collaborations with designers are meant to fill a gap in the market. They complete the upper part of our product pyramid, and provide a niche item that is positioned differently from our basic lines." In doing so, explains Umer, they have not only improved the company’s profile and visibility but also given the consumer the opportunity to access high quality designs at a reasonable cost.
Umair Tabani, Head of Business Development at Sania Maskatiya, who is currently partnering with Al-Karam for its lawn collection, agrees with Umer about designer lawn increasing the accessibility of high-end luxury brands which would normally cost anywhere between PKR 10,000 to a half a million (with some labels even crossing the million rupee mark with their ornate bridals). "Not everyone can afford a Sania Maskatiya outfit," says Tabani, "but almost everyone can afford to buy Sania Maskatiya lawn at PKR 6000 per outfit."
Designers who partner with established textile companies are well taken care of. The majority of them are hired on a lump sum contract based on the number of prints, which means they get to pocket the fee regardless of how well (or not) the lawn does commercially.
"The textile company will take care of everything from the branding and marketing to the retail venue, which is a big plus. Despite the benefits, however, the designer is still under pressure because if the collection doesn’t turn out the way he or she envisioned, it’s their name on the line. Plus, if you don’t do well commercially, no one will hire you the next time around," says Tabani.
Lawn may have a huge market, but it’s a tough one, with the potential to make or break careers. Fashion industry veterans Sana Safinaz were amongst the first to break away from collaborative ventures with mills and offer their own lawn under the umbrella of their reputed label. "It is a big challenge to take out an independent collection," asserts Safinaz Muneer of Sana Safinaz. "Since you’re putting your own money on the line, the risks are huge. It really comes down to one bad collection -- if you bomb one year, you won’t have the finances to come back the next. But with all the money going into your own pocket, the returns obviously are also much higher."
For younger labels who have yet to achieve the kind of credibility and aspirational value that Sana Safinaz hold, the risks of going independent are even greater. One such designer is Zara Shahjehan who lent her design expertise to Kamal Textiles for two years before deciding to go her own way this season.
"Going independent means that we have to look for a multitude of vendors ourselves," says Saif Rehman, CEO, Fast Apparel Pvt. Limited, which owns the Zara Shahjehan brand. "These include not just cloth vendors, but also embroidery units, separation artists, printing units, etc. We also have to take care of the marketing and branding ourselves and with so much focus on lawn, our other product ranges take a backseat for a while. All this without the cushion of a parent textile company to absorb the loss, in case of one, is a big step."
Yet, many designers are choosing to forgo the partnership route and venture solo, despite the potential for huge losses. The reason for that boils down to simple economics. "If a designer, for example, charges a mill a flat rate of a hundred rupees for his design input, he stands to earn ten times more when he cuts the mill out of the process," says Rehman.
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For all the hype and frenzy surrounding these designer lawns, the volume of the individual collections is surprisingly limited. According to Tabani, for example, Al-Karam is taking out a total of 50,000 Sania Maskatiya suits, including the stitched items that will be retailed at the Al-Karam Studio outlets. The numbers are much smaller for independent labels, ranging from 15,000 to 35,000 depending on how established the brand is.
The controlled numbers in no way reflect a similarly limited demand -- one has only to take a peak inside a lawn exhibition with its throng of shoppers to realise that the market has an insatiable appetite for the fabric. What the supply does indicate is a smart marketing ploy -- the sooner your collection sells out, the more successful your brand is deemed to be. It also helps to maintain a certain degree of exclusivity that sets a ‘designer’ lawn label apart from the unbranded ones that are readily available yards upon yards.
Another difference between designer lawn and its unbranded counterpart is pricing. While a regular three-piece lawn suit will cost you an average of PKR 2000 to PKR 3000, the price doubles once a designer name is attached to it. At the top end of the product range is Sana Safinaz lawn, with a 3-piece suit easily setting one back PKR 7,000.
According to Safinaz Muneer, the price is justified when you consider the quality on offer. "We provide excellent value for money. In Rs. 7000, we are giving the consumer pure chiffon or silk dupattas, various embroidered and satin add-ons and a unique design aesthetic. If you go about trying to put a similar outfit together on your own, it will cost you much more," she says.
Maintaining quality is a bigger challenge for designers choosing to go independent, explain Umer of Al-Karam, than it is for a textile company. "When you have to deal with the vendor industry, chances are that the product quality will suffer. At a textile mill, where all production processes are under one roof, it is easier to control and check quality. At an export-oriented company like Al-Karam that deals with international companies, such as Ikea and Ralph Lauren, our value perimeters are very high."
At the end of the day, a designer’s input into the creation of an everyday fabric is a boon for the customer. "More than the textile mill or the designer, it is the consumer that emerges as the winner in this equation," clarifies Umer. "They get access to superior design and superior fabric, at an affordable rate."