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Fashion week in Islamabad shows rarely seen side of Pakistani life

By Charlet Duboc, VICE.COM
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Pakistan fashion week bucks conceptions
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • VICE goes to Pakistan for a behind-the-scenes look at fashion week in Islamabad
  • Visit offers perspective of Pakistani life rarely seen in the media
  • Reporter finds the country to be an "acutely divided country of extremes"
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Editor's note: The staff at CNN.com has been intrigued by the journalism of VICE, an independent media company and Web site based in Brooklyn, New York. The reports, which are produced solely by VICE, reflect a very transparent approach to journalism, where viewers are taken along on every step of the reporting process. We believe this unique reporting approach is worthy of sharing with our CNN.com readers.

Brooklyn, New York (VICE) -- When people talk about fashion week, they are usually referring to London, Paris, New York and Milan. When I discovered that Islamabad was having its first ever fashion week, I was especially intrigued. In a country where the majority of women cover up and similar events in the past have been threatened with fundamentalist attacks, this had to be about promoting Pakistan's textile industry in a strangled economy. The majority of Pakistan's population wears traditional Shalwar Kameez or Burkha, are vehemently religious, poor and enjoy about a 50% illiteracy rate. I quickly learned that there are pockets of Pakistani society that have Western sensibilities, which warrants the fashion industry to grow and justifies the need for a fashion week.

The British High Commission advises against all but essential travel to Pakistan. After pondering how essential fashion journalism is, against the wishes of my family I flew out to Islamabad in January with the director William Fairman to document an event so incongruous with the Pakistan we see on the news, people thought we'd made it up. This fashion week represented an exclusive elite of Western-centric Pakistanis.

I managed with relative ease to secure carte blanche to film fly-on-the-wall at the event, with the exception of filming people boozing or blaspheming on camera.

For example, before we left I was warned I'd better cover up and wear long dresses, which is evident in the film. As soon as I arrived I realized that I needn't have worried, that most of the girls at the fashion week dressed like Western girls. It was just one example of how Pakistan is misunderstood in the West.

See the rest of Pakistan Fashion Week at VICE.COM

For a week I watched relatively scantily-clad models on a runway in a blast-proof basement of a 7-star hotel just a short drive from the Islamic militant hubs in the troubled northwest. There was a latent atmosphere of volatility: fundamentalists don't have to try hard to work out that these hotels are crawling with Westerners and Pakistani liberals 365 days a year. As a result, the seats at the fashion shows were often half-empty. Social events such as these are few and far between in Pakistan. A young Pakistani rapper we met while out there told us how he struggles to perform live, as live events are often shut down for risk of militant attacks. More than serving as a platform for the textile industry and an attempt at improving Pakistan's world image, the Fashion Week was predominantly just something for people to do, a distraction from the adversity of daily life there.

I spent a week in the care of Pakistan's affluent elite, and my time with them taught me that Pakistan is an acutely divided country of extremes. There is a great deal of resentment towards this outmoded elite from the rest of the country. There is no middle class as we know it. This privileged community lives in compounds with armed guards at their gates. They employ a live-in staff and a chauffeur. They inhabit a bubble of ersatz Western life. One woman told me she thought that fashion, not drones, was the answer to Pakistan's problems. Whether this is the case, or not, remains to be seen.

 
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