Pakistani fashion a hit in India

Sania Ashraf and Yash Shukla

Amongst many things that tie women of India and Pakistan together, their love for Pakistani suits features on top of the list. India is no stranger to producing high quality ethnic Salwaar-Suits; but the ones that Pakistan offers are simply too outstanding to ignore. “Pakistani suits are fresh and stylish and putting them on makes you stand out,” says Asmita, a 27-year-old PhD scholar and a fashion enthusiast.

Vogue for Pakistani suits started a decade back. It got a further impetus when Pakistani serials started getting aired on Indian television. “Through television, commonalities between the two countries were brought to fore. Pakistani styles are different from the ones prevalent here, hence the craze,” says Nayanika Thakur, Fashion coordinator at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi.

Indian customers certainly have a soft spot for light, sober and yet striking Pakistani suits. “If you wear them once, you will definitely want to wear them again,” says Shabana, owner of Meher Creations- a store in Batla House market in south Delhi, which sells imported Pakistani suits.

So, what is it that makes the Pakistani suits so special? The only answer we get is ‘Lawn’, a cotton exclusive to Pakistan. The fabric is feather-light, soft to touch, and has a grand look. It makes up for most of the charm of Pakistani suits. “Lawn is God-given to Pakistan. Some lands produce exceptional wheat, some exceptional rice and Pakistan produces Lawn,” says Shabana. Lawn suits are ideal for Indian summers. The cloth remains cool, flowing and effectively beats the heat.

Efforts on the part of Indian manufacturers to replicate lawn seem to have come to a dead end. “Replicas are manufactured mostly in Surat, Gujarat but the difference in quality is fairly evident,” says Zeeshan, owner of Ali Colors. Indian markets are flooded with original Pakistani designs and their cheap replicas; the former range from INR 800 to INR 18,000 while the latter range from INR 500- 2,500. Gul Ahmed, Sana Safinaz, Maria B and Khaadi are some of the expensive brands that have managed to find a steady customer base in India. Apart from Lawn, India also imports other fabrics like georgettes, chiffons and denims from Pakistan which find many takers in the months of summer; in winters these are replaced by chambray, silk and velvets.

The craft of suit-making is shared by both India and Pakistan owing to their cultural similarities. Yet Pakistanis experiment a lot more when it comes to patterns and designs. “The ankle-length Kameez,which is now donned by Indian women, was a trend that started there around 6-7 years back. Now in Pakistan those long ones have been replaced by knee length Kameezwith narrower pants. It will take some years for that trend to seep in India,” says Thakur.

The imported suits are largely unstitched accompanied with separate embellishments. “Looking at the catalogues they can be stitched in different varieties. Customers are at liberty to pick whichever they find best and get them customized.” says Danish Saeed, another importer of Pakistani suits.

Pakistani suits quintessentially have wide duppatas,fast printsand full-length sleeves. “Pakistani suits do not have figures printed on them. The prints are fast which do not get washed with time. Since they are sober and graceful these suits are ideal for married and office going women. They are also very convenient for daily wear,” says Zeeshan.

Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk and Meena Baazar markets are the hubs where wholesalers get their Pakistani imports and distribute them pan-India. Largely confined to women’s wear, traders also seasonally import ethnic Kurtas for men. “On festivals like Id and Diwali, we also order men’s Kurtas,” says Athar Khan, a store manager at Ibaas, Pakistani fashion wholesaler and retailer.

Tapping into the advancement in technology the market is witnessing a shift from traditional spaces gravitating towards the virtual world, where Whatsapp and Facebook groups become the ‘store’. Even giants like Flipkart and Amazon cater to the demands for Pakistani suits.  “Customers see prints online and book them even before the launch of the design. Also online shopping is cheaper,” says Shabana. Acknowledging the role of technology in the growing business Athar said, “We supply clothes to e-commerce sites also. In addition to it, we have our own Facebook page and Whatsapp stores.”

However, looking at online shopping’s limited utility and calling it not a very nice idea, Zeeshan says, “ Only customers who are accustomed to Pakistani fabric and brands can buy online. First time customers frequently end up returning their products as often the lawn is not original.”

A main issue is that  customers have to pay exorbitantly in the wake of higher import duties imposed on Pakistani wears. “The wholesale price here in India is close to the retail price in Pakistan,” says Danish. Finding no rationale in the argument that tariff duty is being imposed on the Pakistani imports so as to protect the Indian manufacturing industry, Upendra Das from Indian Institute of Foreign Trade says, “Lawn is not something which can be produced by Indian industries. Hence, levying more than 40 percent tariff has nothing to do with protecting domestic producers.”Calling Indo-Bangladesh trade relations a classic example of win-win situation, Das added, “Trade issues were sorted out between both the countries to such an extent that today one could see a situation where Bangladeshi manufacturers import Indian fabric, stitch them and export it to other countries. Why can’t this happen with Pakistan?”

In addition to the duties, fear among small shopkeepers to directly import from Pakistan and their reliance on the strongmen in the garment business further escalate the price. “Big fish deal directly with Pakistani exporters rendering small traders like us at their mercy. They distribute imports amongst us and they have their own cuts,” says Shabana.

Laughing in disbelief at the possibility of directly importing from Pakistan, Zeeshan added, “It’s too risky for us to directly trade with Pakistan taking into consideration the frosty relations between the countries. Even now trade gets disrupted at the drop of a hat.” Mohammad Osama who has been selling Pakistani suits and Chadars (scarf) at Chitli-Qabar market in Old Delhi market for more than 20 years adds, “We get our supply from Meena Baazar traders who have setting on the border. Not always, but yes during firing and disturbance at the border, these big traders arbitrarily increase the prices.”

To the proposition that big traders feed on the inability of small shop-keepers to directly import from Pakistan, Athar says, “Unlike small traders, we import in bulk and have to pay in advance to get our consignment. Small traders cannot pay in advance and get things from us on credit. Often we inflate prices at our walk-in showrooms in order to help small sellers. If a customer gets a suit at INR 1000 from our showrooms, then why would she go to a small shop? So we inflate our prices to make customers buy from local sellers. This not only helps small traders but also helps us because major part of our business is wholesale. Walk-in showrooms are only there to establish and make our brand name known.”

From a humble beginning six years back to establishing its monopoly in the business, Ibaas has come a long way. Looking back at the journey so far, Athar added, “Earlier people were dependent on their Pakistan visiting acquaintances to get hold of Pakistani clothes. Apart from Delhi and Mumbai, we also supply wholesale material to many small sellers and traders across India.”

In order to spare themselves from uncertainties of politics, big traders have devised a third country route which is also known as neutral capital route amongst the traders. “Instead of directly importing from across the border, we import from Dubai. This saves us from disruptions and gives us steady supply in order to run our business in a hassle-free manner,” says Athar Khan.

Geographical proximity and ease of doing business credentials of these third countries seem to be working in their favour. “Doing business in Singapore or Dubai is far easier than in India. Apart from politics-fraught Indo-Pak relations, red-tapism and complicated regulations have only made matters worse,” says Das.

However, the process adds to the expense on account of transportation charges. This in turn makes clothes more expensive at customer’s end. Thinking over the subject, Athar adds, “At our expense, countries like Dubai get benefited. From Dubai, we get the consignment in Mumbai and from there onwards we send it to different states. What would have taken a few hours between Lahore and Delhi, now takes several days.”

Seeing the possibility of better relations in the form of cross-border trade, Das says, “Gone are the days when trade would follow the Flag (diplomacy). In the modern age it is the other way round the Flag (diplomacy) follows trade. Once trade relations are established, people of India and Pakistan would never let politics and their governments put their livelihood at stake. Trade is the first casualty of war and people won’t let that happen.”

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