That the Pakistani fashion industry has come into its own over the last few years is a fact that few can dispute. A burgeoning local market, a boom in retail and growing international exposure has meant that local designers are not only becoming creatively savvy but also developing a sharp business sense. While the market back home will always provide willing customers, an increasingly large crop of designers is fast realizing the benefits that can be reaped from international expansion. India, the Middle East, the UK and the USA remain huge markets given the numbers of South Asians residing in these countries. The list of local designers scrambling to find stockists in these areas is growing by the day.
Which is why when a designer like Faraz Manan ups the ante in the game of regional growth by choosing to branch out in Dubai not via one rack at a multi-label store but an entire boutique, it forces you to sit up and take note. The stand-alone Faraz Manan atelier in Dubai, the first of its kind by a Pakistani designer in the Middle East (there have been others but none this high-end), has a stylish address: the luxurious space has found a home within the trendy residential part of Jumeirah Beach Road, in the vicinity of the classy Four Seasons and the extravagant Burj-al Arab.
“I am not trying to cater to expat Pakistanis living abroad; I want to create an entire new international clientele,” says the designer, explaining the rationale behind the ambitious move. “This is the first step in the brand’s plan of embracing regional expansion and Dubai, as the perfect melting pot of cultures and nationalities, was the ideal place to start.”
Known for his fusion of eastern craft and modern silhouettes, Faraz Manan’s signature style has found a ready market amongst the Middle Eastern elite as well as South Asians. “We are even getting walk-in clients who are Chinese, as well as lots of Qataris and Saudis. They come expecting a typical desi brand offering ‘exotic’ stuff such as lehnga cholis; and they leave completely surprised at how well our designs are suited to the international market.”
The designer’s willingness to embrace a more global approach in his work paid off when he recently participated in the Sparkling Couture exhibition held in Dubai to mark Swarvoski’s 120th anniversary. One of six Pakistani designers chosen to showcase a custom-made creation featuring Swarovski crystal embellishment, Manan designed a gold two-piece gown with a bondage-inspired daring, which was picked up by a Saudi client at the venue for an impressive USD 42,000.
“I wanted to do something fun, yet introduce my strength as a designer from Pakistan to the world. That strength is embroidery. A lot of local designers, when they try to do modern, get too heavily inspired by international fashion. But they don’t see that designers abroad focus mainly on garment construction and cut, whereas our starting point should come from the area that’s our forte – our craft. The Swarovski dress was a heavily embellished bridal gown with a sexy and irreverent element to it – hence the best of East and West,” explains Manan.
From the lavish store opening to a fashion show of his A/W collection titled Imperial to the Swarovski event all held in Dubai, the Lahore-based designer has gone from being a consistent yet low-key figure on the local fashion scene to a designer in the international spotlight with amazing speed. The transformation has come to light in the space of the last one year and Manan is quick to admit that his partnership with textile giant Crescent has a big role to play in the way things have panned out.
“I consider myself amongst the senior lot of designers because I have been designing since 2003, back then for by mother’s label Rouge. Joining hands with Crescent last year meant the advantage of a huge and well laid out infrastructure, and a team that worked as a unit on all lines, whether it was lawn or couture. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve began to market the brand aggressively,” states Manan.
Yet, the designer insists that there is a fine line to be drawn between intelligent marketing and incessant advertising. “Maybe I’m old-school but I just feel that the fashion scene has become too commercial now. All you need to do is hire a PR company, dress some celebs at the red carpet and suddenly you’re the talk of the town. The whole process seems to be a little deceptive, if you ask me,” he muses.
For someone who has Kareena Kapoor on board as their brand ambassador, perhaps it’s easy for Manan to stay removed from the rat race of dressing the ‘IT’ celeb of the moment. He credits his ongoing professional relationship with Bebo for giving him great international exposure.
“Kareena embodies the Faraz Manan woman – she is stylish, modern and her appeal transcends boundaries. We’ve formed a close bond since she, and Karishma before her, started doing our lawn campaigns. Their Peshawar connection and a shared fondness for food has strengthened the friendship. And of course, their endorsement of the brand has meant growing interest in India.”
Manan’s aesthetic of ethereal bridals, worked in pastel shades, silver and gold embroidery and bling-heavy crystals, does well across the border and in other countries because it’s a departure from the riot of colours and vibrant motifs sub-continental designers are known for. Back home, however, his work has received criticism for appearing too similar to that of newer labels such as Elan.
The designer says the comparisons are played up in the media because it makes for good copy. “Elan and I are consistently pitched against each other but like I said before, I’ve been designing since 2003 with the same aesthetic. And anyway, it’s not like I have copyright over the use of pastels or silver embroidery. Elan is, in fact, my favourite brand from Lahore other than my own. And despite what people say, I can assure you that one can tell a Faraz Manan outfit from an Elan outfit quite easily.”
As for the allegation that his signature hasn’t evolved in the last decade, Manan says his steady stream of clientele that spans generations within the same family prove his clothes appeal as much to the older lot of aunties as to the hipper and more globally aware younger lot; hence the claim that he hasn’t grown with time is as baseless as it’s untrue.
“I firmly believe in sticking to my signature and putting out collections with a commercial appeal, yet each new season brings with it experimentation and innovation inspired by my travels around the world.” His upcoming collection at the Fashion Pakistan Winter/Festive showcase in Karachi, for instance, will see the designer playing with hints of colour in the form of a deep wine shade as well as with gold embellishment.
As the conversation moves towards fashion week preps, the inevitable issue of Manan’s much-publicised rift with the Lahore-based PFDC comes up. “It’s all in the past now,” he waves away the question dismissively. “Whatever happened certainly doesn’t undermine the respect I have for Mrs Saigol and her council in helping the industry move forward and disciplining it.”
As for Manan showing at the PFDC platform again, he says it remains a dim possibility. “I feel the brand has grown enough for me to continue having solo shows like I did last year in Lahore. I believe couture deserves to be a shown a certain way and a stand-alone show allows you complete control over the process. Plus a fashion week is all about business and with no international, or even local buyers present, it’s not a very feasible exercise. FPW is a different ball game right now, because Karachi is a new market for me and I don’t have the base there just yet that is needed to put up a separate show.”
Once FPW is over, the designer will have his hands full with next year’s lawn collections as well as a new flagship store in Lahore that will launch his pret line. “Pret is a very exciting prospect for me given its mass appeal and phenomenal reach. People often ask me how I will translate my luxury aesthetic into an affordable line; my answer is that I find even a plain white kurta to be luxurious. It’s about staying true to your aesthetic.”