A costume show without the costumes

Even a slight whiff of fashion can be exciting in these dark, dreary times. The pandemic came along and Pakistan’s fashion industry struggled to remain afloat and the market for luxury wear contracted. Fashion weeks promptly came to an end. Solo fashion shows only surfaced sporadically. Catwalks gathered cobwebs. Even while the risks of the coronavirus may have now subsided, the local fashion industry is only rearing its head very, very slowly. The focus is on profit — fashion shows are few; shoots, new collections and celebrities as brand ambassadors are more common and out-of-the-box designs have been replaced by wearable, pretty clothes that sell quickly.

When an invite for the PoliNations Pakistan Costume Show came along, one hoped to see the creativity that has been missing in the fashion landscape. The event claimed to showcase “an exciting collaboration between Pakistani and the UK based fashion designers as they take us through the journey of tea along the Silk Road”. With Pakistan’s Yousuf Bashir Qureshi (YBQ) and Riffat Aliani, and Joey Frenette from the UK on board, the collaboration between the British Council, Yousuf Bashir Qureshi Studios and creative team Trigger UK could perhaps shake things up just a bit.

Except that it didn’t. One wonders why the event could even be called a ‘costume show’ considering that all it had to offer was a handful of desi silhouettes; the kurta-shalwar, the dupatta and a flowing angarkha.

YBQ’s Commune Artist Colony is always a delightful space to wander through and on the night of the show, it was lit up dramatically with installations set up in the main hall. Sketches of leaves and designs were lit up in glass showcases along the walls. The designs were the main focal point, encased in thread stretched out in geometric patterns, forming a ‘cage’ of sorts. Kurtas with minimal embroidery were spread-eagled, hanging mid-air. There were cotton two-piece sets. A pretty angarkha was worked with block print, a tassel hanging down its side. The inspiration from tea came in the slight design details — a silk dupatta was dyed light golden with the aid of tea leaves. The tassel was created with cardamom and cloves. The indigenous soosi, khaddi cotton and silk was all dyed organically.

A ‘costume show’, however, needs to be much more than a basic display of garments that are very common to a particular region. One has recently appreciated some great statement-wear created by YBQ — dhotis, kurtas and skirts created from homegrown fabric, often spotted on the red carpet when worn by a celebrity. His involvement in the collaboration raised expectations: perhaps there would be some funky twists to desi wear, an avant-garde silhouette or two and some spurts of creativity given the allusion to costumery. There wasn’t.

The collection was also very limited, consisting of only a few designs. The quantity may have had been dictated to the designers by the organisation. Nevertheless, one was reminded of times when designers would come up with 40 odd clothes for a collection. They would sift through it, filter out the less appealing ones and showcase a final, edited lineup on a catwalk or in a display. It’s sad that now a small smattering of designs can be passed off as a ‘show’.

The highlight of the evening was possibly the sitar playing by Rakae Jamil of Mughal-e-Funk fame, who had been commissioned to create two new compositions inspired by tea and tulips. In retrospect, perhaps this particular costume show was not much to talk about because it is only a part of the ongoing celebrations chalked out the by the British Council to celebrate Pakistan’s 75th anniversary. The costumes that were showcased, according to the event’s press release, will now be transported to Birmingham where they will be on display at a fashion show this September in recognition of the Pakistan-UK New Perspectives Season meant to display the cultural wealth and contemporary creativity of both countries.

But Pakistani fashion has so much to offer in terms of creativity and originality. Many of our designers are ingenious, merging embroidery with texture, pattern and silhouette. In fact, YBQ, when given the scope to do so, has a flair for creating drama with his designs and presentations. A show touted as ‘exciting’ should have had more to offer.

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