The strange alchemy of design

Bright eyed and bushy tailed, my fashionista partner in crime, my curious sister in law and I found ourselves seated in the front row of Alchemy Fashion for a documentary by filmmaker William Williamson and a fashion show produced by Doll showcasing Pakistani fashion which is pushing boundaries. The Clore Ballroom at SouthBank was packed with a motley crew of Susie bubble wannabes, desi fashionistas, and some questionable young uns. (these BTW were the loudest supporters of fashion as it walked down the runway)

Alchemy is an annual ritual, showcasing the best of South Asia: Cultural heritage, Street food, the Designers/Makers du jour, newest talent on the block, Sitar and Harmonium orgies and the like. Pakistan the ugly sister to the blossoming beauty India, usually manages to hold its own and this time was no different. Mohsin Ali with his ‘Rallicious’ collection, Indifference, a fairly new but exciting brand, with its take on contemporary silhouettes, Ali Xeeshan with his avant garde bridal wear and unorthodox aesthetics, and finally Wardha with her ethnic meanderings all looked uber chic styled as they were with big black leather booties and other biker accessories.


Later a lively discussion ensued questioning what represented Pakistani fashion and whether designers showcasing at an international platform should be made to stay true to the Pakistani heritage. My opinion on that is clear. Fashion isn’t about culture or heritage entirely. It takes inspiration from it, it stands out because of it, it is stronger because of it, but it absolutely doesn’t have to be confined by it. This is exactly the kind of wasted dialogue that keeps us shackled to pretend cultural values, while holding us back from actually evolving in the important ways. We want to wear dresses at social soirees, Champagne brunches are all the rage, we yearn to be taken seriously as a fashion force internationally, but when it’s about ‘representing’ Pakistan, a long shirt with a modicum of respect if you please, and don’t forget the long plait peeking out of the yards of dupatta.

Last I checked Fashion isnt about preserving a country’s roots. It is, as the word suggests, about popular trends, recording the zeitgeist for forthcoming generations. Fashion does not have to bow down to the stifling rules of society, though it does have to be responsible. Fashion isn’t about skin and exposure, but it is definitely about expression. Judge that through your myopic view, sure, but don’t be two-faced and expect fashion to show you what you think is publicly acceptable. Pakistan’s identity isn’t in danger. It is thriving as you can see if you look around at all the refreshingly brilliant entrepreneurs, change makers, artists, thinkers and opinion leaders. The problem is that people who view us from afar unfortunately don’t get to see this brilliance. What they see is what makes it out to the world. What they think of us is based on what is shown on international platforms, be it fashion, education, craft, design or politics. Fashion allows us to spread our wings but there are those who want to completely restrict us to cultural heritage. Speak ethnic or don’t speak at all, is what they say.

This makes me angry, and not just in the fashion spectrum. Our craft industry suffers from the same malady. Stay true to the craft, not the aesthetic of the craftsmen who though brilliant at their craft, aren’t necessarily design-savvy. They throw a beautiful bowl, but ask them to put 2 colours together on it and chances are they will clash and be as garish as the inside of a tubelight-lit shop selling cheap cloth. There is no dearth of stunning expertise in our country but we still remain a somewhat murky part of South Asia mainly because of a lack of education and an abundance of righteous indignation.

I also had the opportunity to visit the pop up shop ‘Design-Wallah’ with products curated specially from the region in question, apparently chosen from many many able contenders. The result however was a little disappointing. I was expecting clever design, a marriage of craft and trends, a new culmination of culture, heritage and contemporary design; I got metal lunch boxes, truck art style metal trunks (yawn) intricate carved door imagery (double yawn) and poorly visualized pop art. Oh and before I forget, the Kantha quilt. I get it. To be able to charge 50 pounds for a photoframe, it must look authentic, untouched and as true to the south asian heritage as possible. No self-respecting foreigner wants to pay good money for design that could or couldn’t be from South Asia. Who wants to spend time interpreting clever evolution of design? If you are paying for it, you damn well better get your money’s worth. Which in this case is quaint hindi type and childish illustrations framed to perfection with their only claim to fame being the subject matter: trucks.


Before the naysayers jump into attack mode, let me just say I am a firm believer in products that have a strong provenance, but that does not and should not translate into bad design. Moreover it should not be an easy comfort zone for designers to hang out in. Keep doing what’s already been done, sell it for big bucks because it looks ‘ethnic’ (my most hated word) and hallelujah you’ve arrived. The question is: Do we continue to produce things which will sell to a certain segment of the world and therefore continue to allow our country to be (mis) represented? Will we always want our cultural heritage to be paraded in the international arena or will we get a chance to show the world what magnificent potential we have and what brilliance is already being achieved? Use heritage, abuse culture and by all means sell ethnicity, but if you happen to be one of the fortunate designers/makers who went to school, who are exposed to the global design scene, who travel and appreciate design abroad, who understand the importance not just of preserving a dying craft but breathing a new life into it, please for heaven’s sake stop and think before you take make that stitch.


The strange alchemy of design

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