Pakistan Reader# 191, 1 September 2021
The fashion industry in Pakistan has seen a gradual expansion and is brimming with potential; however, it is also subject to challenges from within the countryApoorva Sudhakar
On 7 August, the Pakistan Businesses Forum (PBF) President said that owing to their export potential, the fashion designing and textile industry were key to Pakistan’s trade.The PBF President emphasised on the growth of the textile industry as a boost to the fashion industry, and called for an enhanced export-led growth of the industry.
The fashion industry of Pakistan
Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad hold the top places in the Pakistani fashion industry. The industry is led by collectives like the Karachi-based Fashion Pakistan and Lahore-based Pakistan Fashion Design Council. The industry caters to the summer season, known as the lawn season in industry terms, and the spring season. The lawn season, which remains popular across Pakistan and South Asians in the West, produces lightweight, breezy wear with pure cotton yarn; the products range from salwar kameez to the airy tunic and trouser suits. Lawn season is also known for its fashion wars wherein designers compete as the lawn market is estimated at USD 50 billion. The big names and brands of the fashion industry include Gul Ahmed, Maria Butt, Shamoon Sultan, Zara Shahjahan, Deepak Perwani, Sanam Chaudhri, Khadijah Shah, Hussain Rehar, Zainab Chottan.
Growth of the fashion industry
The fashion industry initially catered to the high-end customer base and the high prices kept most products out of reach of the common people. However, the rise of urban class, working women, and increased disposable income led to the expansion of the fashion industry’s consumer base. Apart from this, by 2017, a dip in textile exports forced the big names to bring the middle class within its fold; this has led to increased competition and production in the lawn season, the products of which much in demand almost throughout the year. Due to this, several textile manufacturers launched their brands in light of the fall in exports in 2017.
On the other hand, fashion brands lately have taken up societal causes in their social media campaigns to widen their reach. The brand, Generation, for example, calls for inclusivity and is known to showcase “real women” which aims to question the stereotypical standards of beauty. Generation also used hashtag campaigns like #StepOutside, to push for a reclamation of public spaces by women. Other brands like Zara Shahjahan called for the recognition of the labour behind the fashion industry, the karigars and the tailors, under the #Imadeyourclothes campaign. On the speculations of the campaign being a publicity stunt, the owner of Zara Shahjahan said most of the labour in Pakistan is highly paid and claimed that tailors are paid PKR one to 1.5 lakh. Such tactics have helped popularise fashion brands among the middle class.
Potential of Pakistan’s fashion industry
The PBF President expressed displeasure that the industry was not exploring the export potential of the textile sector. In April 2021, the export value of the textile and clothing industry stood at USD 1.337 billion, reflecting an increase of 231.17 per cent from USD 403.833 million in the corresponding period the previous year. The growth has been attributed to the Economic Coordination Committee’s approval to import duty-free cotton yarn until the end of June 2021.
The Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20 records that despite a slump of -2.57 per cent in Jul-Mar FY2020, textile exports grew by 4.52 per cent, and stood at USD 10460 million. In July, the Lahore Chamber of Commerce & Industry President said that Pakistani fashion brands like Maria B and Khaadi, have established themselves abroad, in the UK, US and Middle East, thereby paving the way to explore the international fashion market.
Challenges to Pakistan’s fashion industry
Despite a promising picture, the industry faces several challenges from several circles.
First, the concerns regarding workers’ rights. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Pakistan, garment workers’ unions protested against forced layoffs and non-payment of salaries, as fashion brands had to cut down their supplies. The contentions from the workers came a year after the Human Rights Watch, in 2019, called on Pakistan to strengthen labour laws and ensure minimum wages for factory workers. The HRW said that Pakistan had for long not paid the garment workers, and also outlined unsafe working conditions for the workers.
Second, backlash from conservative circles. Several conservative people term the fashion industry a Western import corrupting Pakistan’s values. Recently, the Hum Style Awards garnered criticism from the public for showcasing what was perceived as indecent clothes; celebrities wearing designer wear were trolled and images of female celebrities were photoshopped with clothes covering the whole body, calling it the right way to dress. In a feature by The Guardian, Pakistani designers said that the industry has become a battleground between the vibrant youth and religious right. Regardless, people in the industry, particularly women, see it as an avenue to march forward and change the public’s mindset.
“Brand creation to multiply textile export volume: PBF - Daily Times,” The Daily Times, 7 August 2021
Michele Langevine Leiby, “In Pakistan, fashion weeks thrive beyond the style capitals of the world,” The Washington Post, 25 April 2021
Munnazzah Raza, “6 Pakistani fashion brands that wowed us with winning social media campaigns,” Dawn Images, 8 November 2016
“Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20,” Finance Division Government of Pakistan, June 2020
Mubarak Zeb Khan, “Textile, clothing exports post impressive growth in April,” Dawn, 23 May 2021
“Fashion industry: Pakistan can grab significant share in exports: LCCI president,” Business Recorder, 7 July 2021
“Pakistan: Garment Workers’ Rights at Risk,” Human Rights Watch, 23 January 2019
Alia Waheed, “Power dressing in Pakistan: how fashion became a battleground,” The Guardian, 24 November 2018