It was a celebration of 120 years of the world’s biggest brand of sparkling gems, Swarovski, but for us it was Pakistan that shone brightest
A collective gasp of awe filled the room as heavy black curtains parted to reveal a luminescent, radiant display. It was almost lyrical. The music danced through the atmosphere, delicate lights flirted with the hundreds of thousands of crystals twinkling to the tune and the clothes - over 36 skillfully crafted gowns - stood tall and proud, like belles of the ball frozen in time, waiting to be introduced to high society.
This was Sparkling Couture, a gala held in Dubai to celebrate 120 years of Austrian crystal giant, Swarovski. While similar exhibits will undoubtedly be unveiled all over the world, this one gleaned designers from Asia and the Middle East. Dubai, being the quintessential global melting pot of cultures, played its part as the perfect host. Amidst high profile couturiers from the UAE and Lebanon, accessory designers from Thailand and Malaysia and ‘modest wear’ designers from all over, were six names from Pakistan. Elan by Khadijah Shah, Maira B, Tena Durrani, Faraz Manan, Fahad Hussayn and Saira Shakira brought forth stunning creations that were at par with designs from the world, and stood out as distinctly Pakistani.
Interestingly, Pakistan’s designers dropped their love for colour and were divided between two predominant shades of grey and gold. The gowns stood out for their intricate craftsmanship and love for luxe. The wedding outfit by Elan, incorporating aquamarine crystals from the latest Swarovski collection, weighed 24 kilos and was perhaps the heaviest in the entire display. Faraz Manan modernized his gold gown, adapting it to suit the Arab market. The gala came hot on the heels of his hugely successful flagship store launch earlier that week; the buzz around the dinner table was that the number of Lamborghinis parked outside the The Four Seasons (where Manan was showcasing to celebrate his new boutique) was testament to his popularity.
Maria B and the relatively new Tena Durrani held their own and completely overshadowed the experienced and vibrant Suneet Varma they were displayed next to. Saira Shakira’s gown was positioned amidst the Arab designers and Fahad Hussayn’s dress, in the South Asian arena next to Faran Manan and J.J. Valaya, was perhaps the most talked about piece of clothing. It was the only short, edgy garment in the entire showcase of full-bodied, ostentatious gowns.
"This designer should showcase in Lebanon," a crimson lipped Lebanese journalist told me as she inspected the craftsmanship on display. It was a pity that Fahad Hussayn could not be there to acknowledge the praise.
Those who were present basked in the spotlight. And while the praise and applause was enough to make everyone giddy with delight, it’s the impact this gala will have on Pakistan on an international fashion horizon that will resonate much longer. Beyond the glory of the moment is the potential of what Sparkling Couture has unlocked for Pakistani designers.
"Swarovski has given us great exposure," Khadijah Shah spoke to Instep when she got back to Lahore. "Someone from the Galeries Lafayette connected with us and has shown keen interest in our couture. We already had huge Indian interest in our brand and this event has allowed us to liaise with foreign buyers too." Between the press lunch and the gala evening, Swarovski had arranged for a Ladies’ Hour for women (mostly the veiled, uber rich and royals who preferred not to be seen in public) and that went particularly well for Elan. "Swarovski will continue having these collaborations," Khadijah continued. "Let’s see what kind of mileage rolls out eventually but I’m delighted with the exposure. It’s great to have Swarovski in Pakistan and eventually, opening in Dubai is always on the cards for us. Having a boutique in Dubai would have helped immensely at this time."
That’s something Faraz Manan realizes all too well. Opening his standalone boutique literally days before the gala, Faraz reaped immediate benefits in terms of walk-in clients after the exhibition.
"I’ve never had Arab clients before," Faraz Manan admitted. "But after the showing I had women coming in with images of the dress all week. I already had an Indian clientele, probably because of the Kareena Kapoor connection, but this gown brought in the Saudis and Qataris. They felt it had global appeal. I was so fascinated that one Saudi girl ordered it with a veil while keeping the risqué neckline as is; she said she’d wear it to an all-ladies event."
Faraz was delighted and shared that a Saudi buyer bought the displayed gown for $42,000 from his boutique in Dubai the very next day. He had invested 6.5 lakh rupees worth of crystals in creating it.
Tena Durrani shared that her two-piece ensemble incorporated crystals worth 11 lakhs and it was valued at 2.5 million rupees.
"Brand image has no price tag," she shared. "As a designer I have to constantly hold back on creativity and always keep smart solutions in mind. This was an art piece in which I could do something without worrying about selling it. But I got more than a hundred calls from international clients who had seen the garment and they were all praise. Brands are aspirational and just by being there we managed to showcase what we are capable of. It was a beautiful platform and it turned out to be well worth the effort."
It certainly was an initiative well worth all the efforts made. Swarovski has opened two official outlets in Pakistan in the last one year; they currently operate one store each in Karachi and Lahore where the latest variety of crystals can be purchased. And as they come in, they are simultaneously taking Pakistani designers out, towards global and international exposure.
"We see Pakistan as the market for the future," Flemming Nielsen, Vice President Sales, Swarovski Professional, South Asia spoke to Instep at a press preview held before the gala. "Swarovski is a global company that’s been around for 120 years and we’ve worked with a lot of designers, established and new. The key word here is ‘international exposure’ and that’s what we hope to bring to Pakistan as well. The textile business is strong in the Middle East - for modest wear - and since Pakistan’s strength is textiles we see a lot of potential there as well. Our biggest global segment is jewellery followed by textiles."
Maria B, also one of the designers at the gala, is already a buyer for textiles. She uses certified Swarovski crystals on her luxury fabric, most of which is exported to India. And rumour had it that Khaadi was in talks to sign a huge deal with Swarovski too.
"Yes, we are talking to Swarovski for our unstitched premium category and for Khaadi Khaas," Shamoon Sultan shared with us. Khaadi, with 40 local and 11 international stores worldwide, is currently the biggest fashion brand Pakistan can boast of. "It’s a great product. The minute we put Swarovski on a garment it completely changes but people need to be able to understand that. The market is filled with China and people aren’t too aware of the difference. "
Events like the Sparkling Couture exhibition will help in creating that awareness and the need for Pakistani design houses to be at par with international trends, especially when it comes to quality. The amount of networking and exposure that came with it will undoubtedly take the six featured designers a long way if they manage to play their cards right.
"This is definitely the beginning of a collaboration," said Andrew Mojica, MD Swarovski Professional in Dubai. "Swarovski is all about strong partnerships. We’ve done this with Coco Chanel and Christian Dior and I promise you that we intend to have long lasting relationships with those designers who have showcased today but we’ll also have more in the future. The objective of this event was to showcase some of the best designers we have seen across the entire South East Asia. Pakistan has a wealth of designers, established and young, and we’re going to have to find new avenues to showcase their work. We want to bring new and never seen before colours and crystals to Pakistan through Swarovski Professional and we want to show the talent that Pakistan has to the world. Right now the west is looking towards the east for inspiration and this collaboration, I feel has tremendous potential."
Back to the event, it was a bedecked affair. The day preceding the gala began with a press briefing and ended with a high-profile dinner for which Naz and Mian Mansha, who have brought Swarovski jewellery to Pakistan, flew in. The day of the gala began with a press preview of the exhibition and the afternoon flowed into a Ladies’ Hour for Dubai’s royalty – rich and famous buyers – who are never seen in public or photographed. This was another networking opportunity, availed by the designers on ground as well as those invited for the showing, like Faiza Samee. The day ended with the grand gala, which is where everyone let their hair down and simply had a great time. A fantastic playlist reverberated through the lounge and women dressed in a fine mesh of crystals and diamonds (you couldn’t tell where the crystals stopped and diamonds began) clicked away in the highest heels one had ever seen. It was what red carpet dreams are made of and yet there was no red carpet. The focus lay wholly and solely on the clothes and the Swarovski encrusted shoes that would’ve put Dorothy’s magic ruby slippers to shame. And for once, for all of us there was none of the embarrassment that is always associated with Pakistan’s unfortunate politics and current affairs; just an undisputed sense of pride in being Pakistani.