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Pakistan's fashionistas: We aren't revolutionaries

By Kiran Khalid, CNN

  • Lahore is the second Pakistani city to launch a fashion week
  • Western media have portrayed the fashion shows as being revolutionary
  • Lahore is considered the cultural capital of Pakistan

Lahore, Pakistan (CNN) -- Bare backs, plunging necklines and high-cut hems. Western media recently reported that the bold statements made by Pakistan's fashionistas at Lahore Fashion Week demonstrated how designers were rejecting conservative dress in the South Asian nation.

But the country's top designers and models say that last week's four-day fashion extravaganza wasn't about defying extremism.

"I won't go as far as to say that this was defiance of anything," designer Kamiar Rokni told CNN backstage after his collection was shown. "That's what the Western world sees because that's what is news. But we're making fashion news."

Karachi may have stolen Lahore's thunder by launching the country's first fashion week last November but Lahore is considered Pakistan's cultural capital and is home to the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design. It meant that Lahore Fashion Week became a sort of homecoming for many of the country's premier designers who started in the city.

"It's an extremely important, momentous show, not just for myself, but for everybody," said Rokni, "because the Pakistan Fashion Design Council has been at it for five years and we've finally had our first fashion week."

Video: Pakistan's high fashion

Vaneeza Ahmad, who at age 37 is one of Pakistan's oldest and most sought after models, said Pakistan had "trained designers now. Before there were just bored housewives with nothing else to do."

"Fifteen years ago, when I started, it was looked down upon. There was no industry. There were only two magazines, maybe a handful of designers and one television station and I remember, when I started, my entire family wanted to disown me. They said, 'No! No way!' There's no way that a family member could be a model."

Ahmad said those perceptions, like the industry, have evolved. And that is most evident on the catwalk, where svelte models sashay in designs as provocative as any couture collection featured in Western societies.

It all seems far removed from any stereotypes of Pakistan having a conservative culture -- but it's these notions that prompt eye rolls from the country's fashion community.

"You know, we are very liberal -- in our way of thinking, in our way of dressing up. Islam does not preach all that the Taliban are telling. For me at least, that's not being a Muslim. That's being a terrorist," Ahmad said.

Many Pakistanis we spoke with bristled at the Western media's portrayal of the fashion shows as revolutionary. Cafepyala (, a blog that says it offers "ruminations" on everything "but mostly, Pakistan and Pakistani media," quoted The Christian Science Monitor's headline "Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan" as breathless hyperbole that did not match reality.

"Just to put the record straight, do recall that fashion shows... were being sponsored by Benazir's government in the early '90s and even taken abroad as part of her foreign delegations," said the anonymous blogger, referring to the former prime minister who was slain in 2007.

That may be, but security was of such high concern for Lahore Fashion Week that event organizers didn't promote the location of the show. Once the fashion shows started, heavily armed officers and guards flanked each entrance of the Royal Palm Country Club. But even seasoned veterans of Pakistan's budding fashion world noted that this wasn't for everyone.

"I wouldn't say as a whole that Pakistan is becoming Westernized, because it is not," said Nadia Hussain, a model. "This is just a part of a niche industry."

Sehyr Saigol, an organizer of the Fashion Week, noted: "This was our first step into the business world. Now we are ready to step out into the world and coming onto the international circuit."