The fashion landscape of Pakistan is rapidly changing. The tide of tailors and custom-made clothing is slowly receding, with swanky new high street stores replacing them instead. New brands are popping up regularly, offering pret and ready-to-wear, all aimed at being affordable for the huge, untapped mass market. It is a fashion revolution, spurred originally by brands like Generation, followed by the game changer Khaadi, with younger designer led labels like Sana Safinaz and Sapphire taking up the baton some years later. It is great news for the consumer who can now eschew all the hassle that’s involved in getting clothes tailored and simply pick out a new, reasonably priced one by hitting several high street stores in a row, all located next to each other. But what does it mean for the business of fashion and how viable are these models long term? Instep investigates.
Pakistanis have a strange penchant for herd mentality – if a new business turns out a be a break-out success, rest assured that within months several variants of the original will open shop and offer a similar set of services. When the CNG boom hit Pakistan, entrepreneurs and aspirants all jumped on the bandwagon until there were gas pumps every 100 meters and the market was over saturated. A recent tea craze hit Karachi and made its way to Lahore; there are now countless dhaba inspired installations offering flavoured tea and naan in commercial markets across both cities. Khaadi stores proved that a well-planned ready-to-wear outlet can draw huge crowds; we saw Coco by Zara Shahjahan and countless others follow suit by entering the affordable pret market.
Sana Safinaz and Sapphire, on the other hand, turned even Khaadi’s business model on its head by bringing in fast-fashion. With price points that put their clothes within the reach of Pakistan’s considerable middle class income bracket and offering a wide array of stitched and unstitched options, these brands made retailers sit up and take note. Since their inception, almost two years ago, several industry giants have tried to harness a similar strategy. In Lahore alone three new stores have thrown open their doors, all offering extremely affordable ready to wear: So Kamal, Warda and Crescent. With so much competition in the market how do retailers maintain a loyal customer base and what other than a price war can they offer consumers?
We spoke to Khadija Shah, creative director of Sapphire to find out whether the influx of competition affected their business and whether a strategic shift is on the cards? Shah isn’t worried at all, “The new stores haven’t made a dent to our sales. Despite the increase in competition Sapphire has continued to break all records, internally and within the industry as well. With the introduction of our first store, other business owners sat up and took note and they were inspired to join in the arena but there is a certain edge we retain over them. One, the customer is very savvy and can always spot an original from something that is inspired, especially with the rise of social media. They know that a variant of what they get at our store is available at others so why not stick to the original? In fact, our business model has been so inspirational that the new stores launched are even set up in a similar manner, right down to interiors and have tried offering the same kind of product break down that we do. Secondly, Sapphire can afford to keep its prices low because everything for our store has been produced in-house, right down to the thread. We can sustain a price war; they’ll just drive themselves out of business. It’s clearly not a feasible way to run a commercial venture.” Despite this, Shah states that they’re always striving to evolve and offer something innovative to their customers. “Competition is always healthy. It keeps everyone on their toes and ensures that complacency doesn’t set in,” she claims.
Zara Shahjahan, another couturier with a high-street label approaches fast-fashion commerce with a different strategy. “Let me begin by saying that Coco is a brand under the Zara Shahjahan umbrella. It isn’t a line in collaboration with any textile mill so the aesthetic and brand development comes through me. Coco is actually priced a little higher than your usual high-street brands; it is for women who are designer savvy and want something a little more exclusive that what’s available in the market, even if it means paying that extra bit. Because we charge more and everything is in-house, the quality of our product is higher than the average. Our fabric is more luxe and there is greater attention to detail for each design. We also work in terms of collections, unlike other brands that simply send in new designs. Each collection has five pieces, a cohesive running theme and will not be repeated. Coco sends out about 30-40 collections per summer season,” she elaborates.
Generation, a true industry pioneer and scion has also recently reinvented itself after years in a slump. But unlike other brands that chose to forego their identity to follow a competitor’s business model, the store retains its ethnic identity and has a unique product with a loyal clientele. Khadija Rehman, Generation’s creative head attributes the slump and its consequent spike to expansion and a revamp. “We were building our team and adding more lines, and now that the overhaul is complete the result is evident. Generation has always been a store that’s offered more than ready-to-wear, we have a semi-formal and formal line as well, with a very distinct, ethnic aesthetic that we’ve worked on to ensure remains fresh and relevant. That’s probably our unique selling point. We also try introducing variations in fabric – something that not a lot of other brands look into, which is also why a Generation outfit will never look like something you can get at another store,” Rehman opines.
Faraz Manan, creative director of the newly opened Crescent store, when asked about the reasoning and rationality behind his latest venture, answered that the Crescent store is actually an organic step that stems from the success of their lawn. “Our aim is to reach out to more people and market a strong product that is quality driven, affordable, accessible and aesthetically pleasing. Plus, through this project we’ve been able to positively contribute to the community by creating countless new jobs in the private sector,” Manan states, explaining why he and his partner, Shoaib Shafi chose to open the Crescent store. As to what sets their product apart, Manan claims that it is his signature aesthetic and Crescent’s commitment to quality and integrity that will stand out about their latest undertaking. “The quality or the business doesn’t suffer if you’ve done your homework,” Manan states. “It’s all about experience, structure and planning, which is our forte since Crescent is one of the oldest and largest textile companies of Pakistan.” Lastly, Manan elaborates on the Crescent aesthetic which he claims is an extension of his own. “It is a product of my experience and inspiration, which I draw from my travels, different cultures, art and people from across the globe. My style is understated yet glamourous and timeless. As a fashion veteran my strength lies in clever detailing of threadwork, delicate embellishment, layering, cut, colour and fusion tailoring.”
At this point in time we see the market for high street clothing on a boom but if there’s one thing we’ve learned over time, it is that the hype around any venture eventually dies down unless the quality and brand identity is sustained and retained over time. We already see minor (and some not so trivial) issues plague the high street boom: inferior fabric, bleeding colours, low quality hardware (hooks, zips and buttons etc), poor tailoring and above all, plagiarized prints are all issues that need to be addressed. Sizing needs to be standardized. So it will be interesting to see how these stores fare and operate five years down the line when the consumer is satiated with high-street and looking for the next best thing to satiate its appetite.