Pakistan's Fashion Week bares country's frothy side

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 4, 2009 

KARACHI, Pakistan — With paramilitary Rangers deployed to prevent terrorist attacks on the host hotel, Pakistani designers and models challenged firebrand mullahs and Taliban insurgents Wednesday by staging the country's first "Fashion Week" in Karachi.

Models pranced down the catwalk in couture fashion that was elegant, racy and indelibly Pakistani, a riot of colorful style and a show of women's flesh that's considered scandalous in this conservative Muslim country,

In a country where the all-enveloping burqa is common for women and a hijab to hide the hair or full face is growing in popularity, daring amounts of female skin were on display. Exposed midriffs, bare shoulders, plunging backs, modest cleavage and legs to just above the knee were visible. One designer, Fahad Hussayn, sent out his models with their faces covered by veils but their shoulders bare.

"It's defiance, sheer defiance," said Rizwan Beyg, one of Pakistan's leading designers, who once dressed Britain's Princess Diana. "This is about saying they're not going to threaten our lifestyle. We want to show the world that we're survivors.

"There's so much more to Pakistan; it's not just suicide jackets and al Qaida."

The four-day show at the luxury Marriott hotel — whose sister hotel in Islamabad was devastated by a truck bombing last year — is an attempt to project a different image of Pakistan to the outside world. International fashionistas who were slated to attend, including Beth Sobol of Miami Fashion Week, canceled at the last minute at the request of the organizers, who feared that militants might strike.

The Karachi hostelry has taken on the appearance of a fortress over the last two years as al Qaida, which is based in northern Pakistan, the Taliban and other militant groups have staged violent attacks. The fashion event originally was set for last month, but it was postponed after extremists attacked Pakistan's military headquarters.

Western evening dresses fused with Eastern design, rich embroidery, silk tunics, feathery hats and lacy tops, along with radical interpretations of the traditional "shalwar kameez" baggy shirt and trousers, floated down the catwalk.

Pakistani fashion, like art and literature, is just emerging on the international stage, with Pakistani designers appearing at the main show in Milan, Italy, this year for the first time. The prize for the best newcomer in Karachi is a free slot at Miami's fashion week. However, Sobol will have to judge that award by uploading the video nightly over the Internet.

"After the last bombing, I decided that it was just too much for an American to come at this time," Sobol told The Miami Herald. "The industry is very new there. They have such great fabrics and embroidery and textiles, and great creative talent."

"We're really sick of our image abroad. If the government hasn't got the vision, then somebody's got to take the initiative to try to change that," said Deepak Perwani, a top Pakistani designer. He plans to include women in hot pants in his slot Saturday.

"It's my country. It's a democracy. I can show whatever I want," Perwani said.

However, Perwani's hot pants will be worn with tights, reflecting the self-set boundaries that designers and models observe in this very conservative society. Due to those constraints, few girls choose modeling careers, according to one leading model. There are perhaps 30 female models in a country of 172 million, and many change their names to protect their families from social stigma.

"The maximum we'll go is midthigh, and even that only 5 percent of girls would do," model Nadia Hussain said in a backstage interview. "Cleavage can be low, but so that you can't actually see anything. Families see the pictures in magazines."

Despite such restraint, some of those who watched the show Wednesday were shocked. Amid the audience of about 400, a handful of women sat in face-covering hijab.

"I feel that it's a bit too exposed," said Rahaifer Samir, whose eyes were the only visible part of her face. "There are certain limits. Women should be draped. We want to wear good clothes, but there should just be more fabric."

Pakistan has a large textile industry, with exports to the U.S. worth $3 billion a year, but almost all of it is bulk items such as socks, underwear and towels. Fashion hardly figures, and the Karachi show is an attempt to change that.

"We're trying to take fashion here from an entertainment business to a serious business," said Ayesha Tammy Haq, the chief executive of the industry group that's behind the Karachi event. "The more jobs you generate, the fewer suicide bombers there are likely to be."

Karachi, a city of around 17 million people, is a melting pot of communities, including a large population of Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan and comprises most of the Taliban. It also has many radical Islamic schools, but Karachi has been spared the worst of the recent terrorist violence. Many think that, paradoxically, this is because of its extremist presence: Hard-liners who are using the bustling southern port to lie low and to receive and transfer money for the militants wouldn't want to provoke trouble and force a crackdown.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Audra Burch of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Miami.)

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