Fashion Week Comes to Pakistan Amid Mayhem

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Kate Brooks for TIME

Pakistan's Fashion Week showcased more than 30 designers Nov. 4-7, 2009. Here, a woman models a dress by Adnan Pardesy

The room is at a gentle dim. A willowy model emerges from the darkness and stares intently into the still murky distance. A beat drops, piercing the silence. As the music gathers pace, she sets off, sashaying toward the cameras that await her at the end of the ramp. The lights swiftly brighten to a squinting glare. On either side, necks crane forward to scrutinize every inch of the finery on exhibition. As she pirouettes in front of a flurry of flashes, the crowd emits its approval: some rise to applaud; others roar as they sway to the music. Welcome to Fashion Week in Karachi.

Nearly 3,500 miles away from Milan, this is perhaps the least expected entry in the global couture calendar. The clothes on parade, the models encased within, the talents that crafted them and the fabric they used are all Pakistani. For four days last week, attentions were briefly diverted from nearly daily terrorist attacks to this bustling port city, where 32 designers were showcased at Pakistan's first genuine Fashion Week, revealing a different side to a country too often in the headlines for bad news.

Still, the reality of Pakistan today was never far away. Owing to security concerns, the event had to be postponed twice, and the venue changed. A major sponsor pulled out just days before for unspecified reasons, reducing the organizers to a "shoestring budget," and prospective foreign buyers were asked not to hazard the journey. But cancellation was never an option. "When was the last time something wrong was not happening in this country?" Deepak Perwani, the longtime enfant terrible of Pakistani fashion, says with gruff insouciance. "I mean, really. Life has to go on."

Rather than paralyzing their ambitions, many of the designers drew inspiration from their troubled surroundings. Opening Fashion Week was Sonya Battla's collection, Conflict in Karachi. It was a multilayered tribute to the city's women, using a mixture of bold, in-your-face designs embellished with metalwork. Necks were wreathed in spiked collars, and there was a chastity belt defiantly unzipped.

Once notorious as a center of violence, Karachi has managed to evade the ongoing wave of vicious Taliban bombings. But few are taking chances. The luxury hotel venue was heavily fortified. And on the streets beyond, an uneasy calm prevailed where rioting over power shortages erupted during the summer and targeted killings — related to criminal, political and sectarian feuds — have risen to the highest levels in a decade.

Conflict elsewhere in the country was inflected in other collections. Some of the loudest cheers were raised for both the subtlest and unabashed tributes to the Pakistan army. Few items received as much attention as young designer Feeha Jamshed's dirty-green khaki (the army's favorite color) dress. As the model twirled on the start of the ramp, she swung open the lower half of the dress to reveal a lengthy slit.

Moments later, late folksinger Noor Jehan's 1965 anti-India war song filled the air. Four decades after that song was written, as many Pakistanis now realize, it is the enemy within that poses the real threat. And Ismail Farid's wide-ranging collection of monochrome martial attire paid a somber-colored yet loud homage to those soldiers "who have lost their lives during past operations and the continuous terrorist attacks." Headgear ranged from stiff officers' hats to turbans coiled in razor wire. The makeup was smeared on faces to resemble battlefield camouflage and war wounds.

Maheen Khan's work, presented earlier this year at Milan Fashion Week, was a colorfully elegant tribute to the people of the once-Taliban-ravaged Swat Valley. "It was all about those people who sacrificed their livelihoods for our safety," says Khan. "The embroidery was all Swat-based." The hats were tastefully tweaked versions of those worn in Chitral, in the northwest's mountains.

Khan's collection was also a reminder of the origins of Pakistani high fashion. In 1972, she triggered what she calls a "minor revolution" with a couple of arresting alterations to the national dress. "Back then, the shalwar kameez — baggy trousers and long tunic — was basically a glorified pajama suit," she says, shuddering slightly at the memory. "Women would put it on every morning and then sleep in it. I thought this was gross." Khan replaced the shapeless shalwar with Capri trousers, and changed the dupatta (a large multipurpose scarf) into a Western-style neck scarf. "I've never looked back since."

Such was Khan's success that in 1988 she received a phone call from Benazir Bhutto days after Bhutto's historic election as the Muslim world's first female leader. "She called me up and said, 'I've just had a baby. I need to take oath. I need a green outfit. And I want wide shoulders.' " The shoulder pads got progressively bigger. "She really had a fixation about them." Khan then suggested that she wear a white scarf to crown the ensemble, displaying both colors of the Pakistani flag. In 1996, when Princess Diana visited Pakistan, Rizwan Beyg was commissioned to outfit her. "I actually dressed her in a man's achkar [a long, traditional buttoned jacket]," recalls Beyg.

"Let's be honest," says designer Perwani. "The West can make a better black dress than anyone else. We also believe that if you are going to show something in the international market, it should be international with your own regional flavor. That's what the real buyer is looking for." At Milan, his busy and brightly patterned dresses — culled from the clothes of the Baluch tribes and vivid Pakistani truck art — he says evoked instant cries of "Bellissimo, bellissimo!"

The lingering threat of bombers kept foreign buyers away this time, but Fashion Week still lifted Karachi's spirits. "People have cheered up all over the city, saying how cool and great this is" says Beyg. "I see it as therapy, therapy for a wounded city." And in six months, Fashion Week will be back in Karachi to try do it all over again.