Mention the Taliban to Pakistan fashion designer Kamiar Rokni and his irritation is clear.
“One of the things we feel diminishes our work is whenever our story is linked to Talibanization and whether we are doing this to fight extremism,” he told reporters in Paris. “We’re not. We’re doing this for the business of fashion!”
Tired of the country’s “bombs and burqas” image, Rokni is far from alone in his desire to see fashion for fashion’s sake.
However, certain precautions are unavoidable and the locations of fashion shows are never disclosed in advance.
“It’s the one thing we do to protect ourselves,” said Rokni, who runs his House of Kamiar Rokni label with two cousins.
Fellow designer Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, founder of the HSY label, is equally keen to distance himself from any political motive.
Extremism aside, the designers — who recently held a catwalk show in Paris — say Pakistani fashion is finally starting to establish itself.
From an industry made up of just a handful of designers and models in the early 1990s, fashion shows — attracting foreign buyers — are now held regularly in Lahore and Karachi.
Its leading figures are gossip column and glossy magazine staples and not afraid to court controversy.
One designer, Safinaz Muneer, sparked outrage last year when she told Hello! magazine that Pakistani employees could spend 1,500 hours on embroidery that “will cost you nothing.”
The row failed to dent sales and the designer denounced critics demanding to know what they had contributed to the industry.
Rokni and Yasin, both graduates of the couture-focused Pakistan School of Fashion Design in Lahore, are evangelical about what the country has to offer, citing the Zardozi embroidery technique which uses gold thread, beads and seed pearls to embellish fabric.
“The world gets their embellishment done from India, but when you see the clothes that are hand embellished in Pakistan it’s arguably some of the best in the world,” Rokni said.
The Lahore school, now known as the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design, was established in 1994 with the aim of giving Pakistani textiles a competitive edge in a global market. Textiles contributed 7.4 percent to GDP in 2011 accounting for more than half of all exports, worth about US$11 billion.
“Our fashion school was primarily to develop us into making value added products for the textiles industry, but our fashion industry also started to develop and flourish,” Rokni said.
Yasin describes his clothes as “uber-masculine with a touch of contemporary,” summing up his signature style as “rock, royal, gent.”
“That’s ‘rock,’ for rock star, ‘royal,’ all the embellishments, and ‘gent’ meaning very classic so the blazer is 100 percent wool cashmere,” he said.
And he dismissed as out of date the image of Pakistan as a place where men only ever dressed in the traditional salwar kameez, or long shirt worn over loose trousers.
In fact, well-off Pakistani men in the 25-to-35 age group are increasingly interested in fashion, he said, irrespective of whether they opted for Western or traditional South Asian styles.
“Our clone culture — where we used to seem like clones in white salwar kameez — has started to fade away very rapidly,” Yasin said.
Few would deny that Pakistani fashion still has a long way to go to reach even the majority of the middle class, let alone poorer sections of society.
The socially conservative, mainly Muslim South Asian country is among the world’s poorest.
However, an appreciation of fashion can sometimes be found in unlikely quarters, added Mohsin Ali, a member of the targeted minority Hazara community, from Quetta in southern Pakistan.
Ali set his sights on a career in fashion after learning about the Lahore school from a TV program.
However, his father, a Muslim preacher, was horrified at the prospect of his son dressing women in revealing clothes and having physical contact during fittings.
However, there was such a positive reaction from Hazaras after media coverage of his designs — described by fellow designers as “ethnicity on speed” — that Ali’s father dropped his opposition.
“Hazaras are really not given any importance in Pakistan, so it was a proud moment for me to represent them because the designs are inspired by the culture,” he said.