The first Lahore Fashion Week showed the city at its liveliest, belying every Pakistan cliché. The clothes, the collections, the pounding music had a rhythm like no other.
The e-mail says, ‘Please do not disclose the venue. Please carry your pass at all times’ – not for front row, for security. And days after arrival, troopers in black commando fatigues smile benevolently and follow us to and from the venue.
I am in Lahore. And this is the first Lahore fashion week. In a gated, high walled club, the tents – yes – there are tents in every part of the world, almost at every fashion week, have come up. There are swathes of black cloth, not so anorexic models and lots of wispy, and not so wispy, Dunhill smoke.
Everyone looks good, talks smooth, smells nice. One or two, to start with, look apprehensive. This is fashion of courage.
Attending a fashion week in Pakistan brings out the schizophrenic best in me. Should I ask if people are afraid? Should I applaud the resilience? Should I burst the bubble?
This is the unseen Pakistan. This is the Pakistan to break every Pakistan cliché. I am here to see the city of the restless night and in Lahore, Noor Rahman, with her kohl and cocky comeback, educationist and sushi and meethi pan connoisseur, opens doors to parties that last till 10.00 a.m., and says she wants to come to Delhi.
I ask, everyone, do you party to forget? Is the runway your escape route? There is no one answer to that.
Sadaf Malaterre, she of inescapable gentility and Sweeney Todd hair, makes dresses that slip by like Amelie in Wonderland. Her mischief dyes and delectable cut and fall elicit gasps, even applause, from that editor from hell, my acerbic dearest friend, Xpoze editor Andleeb Rana.
Sadaf tells me she is not sure how to react with the “Pakistan fashion defies Taliban” headlines. “This is my life. I wake up everyday. I go to work. I work hard. I come home. I try to have a nice life. I do not wake up every morning and think I am defying terrorists. I don't think anybody does.” And so they do.
The fashion week is at a venue guarded, like so many other things, like a mini fort. There are no signs on the streets or even outside the venue, nothing to suggest that anything like a fashion week is happening.
Inside, every idea of the fashion is played out to perfection. There is a jaded choreographer, the single name, tight-jeaned designer, the darting-eyed, dazzling-smiled PR woman, the eyebrow-arched, desultory editor, the giggly intern, people I know well. But there is no déjà vu in Lahore. No. This is very different. But the story is not what you (do I mean ‘I'?) would assume?
This is not the tale of frightened people hiding their sport behind closed doors. This is about people like Kamiar Rokni and Hassan Shehryar Yasin, Lahore's Versace and Armani; only they don't seem to loathe each other, keeping it, as they would say in fashion, real.
The story of Pakistan fashion - as divided as that in India - operating, as we often do, in fits and starts, in the subcontinent to say that they, we, define our own story far away from the headlines of the world and the soundbytes of others.
This is the Pakistan that is not a story. Not a headline. This is the Pakistan of ordinary heroes.
What did I see at the fashion week? What did I see in Lahore? This is the first of a three-part series I am writing on every question I asked and every answer I received in Lahore: In the clothes, in the collections, in the pounding, sometimes abruptly stopping, music, I found a rhythm like no other.
Here was Lahore at its liveliest. Lahore fearing; Lahore cheering. Every line has its stars, every collection a startling bit of standing ovation from some part of the audience. There is somebody to love everybody. Because this is Pakistan, there is no drunken melee. Because this is Pakistan, everybody merrily stomps on the runway. On the last day, tired and homesick, I, shamelessly, do too.
As in India, 10 years ago, the designers are torn between making clothes for the rich hip (namely their friends) and exquisite bridals that will make millionaires of them. As in India, even today, the vitriol and volte face go hand in hand with effortless vim and vigour.
Bubble of courage
I pause, every now and then and sniff to see if it is a bubble. Maybe it is but this is a bubble of courage. This is a can-do bubble, a bubble of beat-me-if-you-can.
I ask Kamiar Rokhni what a fashion week really means in Pakistan?
“Jobs,” he says, “organisation in an industry. A form of coming together, building something.”
Is he afraid? “Everything, as you can see, has been peaceful,” he smiles. “We are not letting a small bunch of people take over our lives. We are not them. They are not us.” He gives me a hug. “We are just like you.”
Hani Taha Salim, resplendently Lahore blow-dried and Lahore red-lipped, tells me the best jokes on front row. She tells me of designers who blew return kisses at her from the runway and why she loves Bhopal. She says she will come to India. She says she likes Bollywood but prefers Pakistani music. She tells me that the song breaking my heart on the runway is called Paimona sung by the duo Zeb and Haniya from their album “Chup”.
The song is like Lahore. I do not understand a word. It is, I think, in Pashto. But because this is Pakistan, my heart breaks at the languor of the music.
For everyone who feared protests. For everyone who feared bombs and brick bats, the fashion week goes by almost too smoothly. Apart from the poor runway, nothing and no one is abused.
If you have anything to say about Pakistan, do tell me on firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me tell you that you can always return from Pakistan with a promise. Remember Noor Rahman told me she will sweep by Delhi.
Hindol Sengupta is Associate Editor, Bloomberg UTV