Fashion in the year that was…not too fashionable

December 15, 2019

Landmarks and landslides that marked the fashion calendar in 2019.

Italian designer Stella Jean, who had been working with artisans in Chitral for over a year, showcased her Laboratory of Nations collection at Milan Fashion Week and then at Fashion Pakistan Week Festive 2019.

Scenario 1: Ending the year on a hopeful note


Many of you bright eyed optimists would agree with me when I say that no matter how disappointing the past year has been, it’s important to welcome the new year on a high note. It’s not just a new year, it’s a new decade, after all. High notes and hope are helpful words to hang on to, even when things are hanging by a thread, and so here are those threads of hope that we hung on to, convincing ourselves that fashion could and would be revived irrespective of the complete lack of creativity witnessed on most catwalks and campaigns through the year. Repeat after me: things will get better!

Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton’s wardrobe choices on her five-day visit to Pakistan were more casual chic than fashion forward but certainly caught the international eye for their expression of how contemporary Pakistani women dress.

To be fair, there were several sparks that kept the flames burning and creative juices flowing in 2019.

Working backwards, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Andrew and Kate Middleton’s Royal Visit to Pakistan was a moment of victory for Pakistani designers. Kate Middleton selected several Pakistani labels to wear, often mixing them with British brands, and her wardrobe was termed as the biggest diplomatic password ever witnessed. Her choices were more casual chic than fashion forward but certainly caught the international eye for how contemporary Pakistani women dress. We saw and appreciated Maheen Khan’s elegant periwinkle outfit Kate wore on her visit to Margalla Hills; the Duchess also wore Maheen Khan on her visit to the Badshahi Mosque. Her selection also included a white outfit from Gul Ahmed, a black and white kurta from Elan and a Bonanza Satrangi dupatta, all worn on various occasions throughout her five-day visit. Prince William played his part and wore a turquoise sequined sherwani from menswear designer Nauman Arfeen to the gala dinner hosted at the Pakistan Monument in Islamabad.

Everything they wore was observed, documented and appreciated world over as smart, everyday wear, dispelling the usual stereotypes associated with the way women dress in Pakistan.

Mahira Khan made Pakistan proud at Paris Fashion Week, where she represented L’Oreal as one of the brand’s ambassadors.

Prior to the Royal Visit, Italian designer Stella Jean, who had been working with artisans in Chitral for over a year, brought her collection to Fashion Pakistan Week Festive 2019. Stella’s collection — Laboratory of Nations — incorporated design elements and embroidery styles native to the women of the mountainous regions of Pakistan and was a prime example of how fashion could serve as an integral tool for sustainable development and economic empowerment of a community. The collection was earlier showcased at the Milan Fashion Week, also making it a prime example of using fashion for cultural exchange and turning it into an effective tool for diplomacy. The bigger coup, of course, was exposing these handcrafted clothes to the world at Milan Fashion Week. The collection got great reviews, immediately sold out online and opened doors to more collaborations between the Italian designer and Pakistan; the designer said in an interview with Instep that she was already planning to work on a new collection with rural women in Sindh.

The meteoric rise of Mushk Kaleem has to be earmarked as one of the landmarks of 2019; Mushk emerged as the breakthrough fashion star of the year and brought the original oomph associated with fashion models back to the catwalk. She opened the show for Stella Jean at Milan Fashion Week and the designer had wonderful things to say about Mushk’s professionalism, reinforcing why the model had picked up a Lux Style Award for Emerging Talent in Pakistan earlier in the year.

Not only did the IBA graduate raise the bar for models in Pakistan throughout the year – she had poise and the perfect attitude needed for runway impact – but she also helped bring down the gora complex for being dusky and downright fabulous.

In another eye-catching, fashionable instance, Mahira Khan made Pakistan proud at Paris Fashion Week, where she represented L’Oreal as one of the brand’s ambassadors. She participated in a catwalk for Karl Lagerfeld under the Eiffel Tower, hung out with Camilla Cabello, danced with Helen Mirren, partied with Eva Longoria and ultimately flaunted the kind of rock-chic style that we wished we would see more of back home.

Haircare label Toni & Guy celebrated 10 years in Pakistan, a landmark celebrated with an extremely fashion-forward show held in Lahore. Not only were the trends edgy and experimental but the show raised the bar on how fashion and trend shows should be.

With celebrities restricted firmly to the front rows, style was allowed its well-deserved space in the spotlight.

Scenario 2: Ending the year with a reality check


The meteoric rise of Mushk Kaleem has to be earmarked as one of the landmarks of 2019.

Those of you who see the glass as half empty, not half full, will agree that there’s no obligation to end the year on a high note, especially when the high note is nothing but eyewash, a delusional speck of hope on an otherwise non-descript and forgettable canvas of print and pattern. This was, you’ll have to agree, not such a good year for fashion; many of you who follow fashion passionately will agree that 2019 was a borderline disaster.

It’s the year when prints engulfed the landscape like Triffids – John Wyndham’s fictional, highly venomous plants that come alive to threaten the existence of humankind. Clothing was threatened by plants of the same order and while print on print did make a comeback in Paris, it was nowhere as cohesive or organic here in Pakistan. It desperately needed to be weeded out.

Pattern died a slow death with the only style made available to womankind was the non-descript cotton kurta, suffocated by embroidery, embellishment or print over drive. Even in 2019, it was impossible to buy a clean, well-tailored and stylish white shirt in a city as big as Karachi. Women picked up more originality on their trips to Zara, as ironic as that may sound. The national obsession with wedding clothes was mostly limited to ghagra cholis, with designers struggling to introduce novelty value in an otherwise done-to-death silhouette. The variation between one choli and another came with the level of midriff exposure and choli length moving up or down according to cultural limitations and/or liberal allowances. The higher you moved in society, the higher the choli shifted on the waistline. The definition was flaunted as #choligoals.

We saw, in fact bore the burden of sitting through not one, or two, but four fashion weeks that offered not one, or two, rather zero memorable collections this year. Khaadi’s Chapter 2 debut at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week platform was perhaps the most memorable runway moment, which doesn’t account for much as Chapter 2 had already made it big as a breakthrough label and was creating more or less the same kind of clothes through 2019. While there were several ‘nice’ collections, there were no unforgettable standout stars that would push a new silhouette, for example, into mass consumption. Fashion Pakistan Week suffered the same complacency. Fashion at fashion weeks was sadly missing, overwritten by a made for mass-consumption, commercial narrative.

Any space for improvement was infiltrated by celebrities, a breed of rising TV and film stars that would appear as ‘showstoppers’ for designers and completely overshadow any semblance of style that existed, if at all it existed in the first place.

The fact that style rarely made it to the limelight then made these celebrities the essential gimmickry needed to attract attention. The worse a collection got, the bigger the number of stars you’d expect to see in its showcase. Unfortunately it’s largely the unqualified tier of designers that has the resources to get big stars onboard; solid labels like The House of Kamiar Rokni, for example, rarely depend on a celebrity appearance for applause.

Stars were made available to the highest bidder, with no sense or sensibility of personal style or loyalty. The stars attracted attention, but to themselves and rarely to the clothes they wore, which wasn’t an altogether tragedy considering the low standards of clothing being showcased.

One can only hope and pray that this changes in 2020. Allow celebrities their rightful place on television or in cinemas, at award shows and in front rows for friends and favourites. But keep them off the catwalk. They are a distraction. Not an attraction for fashion week, which should be about fashion forward style and not entertainment. Hope is an important word to hang on to in 2020.

2019: Fashion in the year that was…not too fashionable