The tyranny of the majority

Zahra Hidayatullah despairs of the growing sea of sameness. But wait…

The tyranny of the majority
I am a witness to the age of synonymy. The loss of a unique cultural and personal identity. When daring to be different is considered dubious at best. But, dear friend, fear not, for amid this gloom and doom, there is always space for genius defined by those who break the mould. Just a handful of people, to be sure, but they are the trailblazers.

Like any other country, Pakistan has its share of brilliant persons who lead the way. For all those women with manes streaked with golden highlights, there is always a Nabila making a sleek statement with a single-colour short crop. For all those fashion designers churning out ubiquitous three-piece lawn suits and heavily embellished dresses, there is always a Wasim Khan, tucked away quietly in a corner, producing sharp cuts and stunning silhouettes. When everyone wants to wear the same shade of MAC lipstick or flaunt a Coach, put up similar photographs on Instagram or choose a career that is currently “in”, only true virtuosos cut through the noise… and raise the bar.

“Barring a bold few, these days, everyone just wants to fit in and be accepted. It is easier to prettily walk the tried, tested and ‘approved’ fashion path rather than jog out on a limb, experiment and see what complements your body type and complexion: be it a haircut, a lip colour or an outfit,” notes supermodel Zainab Qayoom, popularly known as ZQ. An industry leader known as much for her eclectic sense of style as for her fearless transformations in fashion projects, ZQ is forever adding zing to the status quo.

In these dangerous times, people find it easier to blend in and be accepted. Mind you, there was a time when no one wanted something of which there was too much. People took pride in making personal style statements, in standing out. Not any more, it seems.
Fashion is now used by the 'gorgeous majority' as a crutch

“Everyone wants to carry the same Celine bag, wear the same lawn suit, sport the same Hermes sandals. For them, doing so signifies class belonging. Society has set these strict new standards of style and beauty. Those who do not conform stick out like sore thumbs. Some even feel embarrassed about not being part of the ‘circle’,” observes ace social blogger, Nuzhat Siddiqui.

Wasim Khan, the Pakistan fashion industry’s best-kept secret, is a man of many talents. Not only does he create outfits that are heirlooms by virtue of their timeless designs, he is also a painter, a sculptor, an interior designer and an artist in the complete sense of the word. The maestro has snob appeal. He does not advertise through fashion-spreads nor does he take part in any seasonal fashion weeks. When asked if he ever plans to join the lawn wars, he refuses vehemently: “What you see today is madness in the bazaar. These lawn prints have started a rat-race and given birth to the current psyche that says: everyone must look the same to be accepted into the fold. It’s a cut-throat situation where women are ready to overlook budget constraints and shop senselessly for lawn prints, designer shoes, bags, clutches, shades, everything.”

This syndrome seems to have affected the local fashion scene too, which is now suffering from the malady of “sameness”. Most new designers that have entered the market in the last few years have done so without really having developed a signature style. Until ten years ago, it was easy to spot a Faiza Samee or instantly recognize a Nilofer Shahid. While the original gurus continue to weave their stylized magic – with a handful of exceptions – most new entrants are hard to tell apart on the basis of look and design.

“I feel it is all about demand and supply,” explains ZQ. “Fashion designers have to cater to clients’ demands to run their businesses profitably. The brave ones execute their dreams on the runway and stand out. Then, everyone else starts copying them and the cycle resumes.”

Nuzhat agrees: “Designers now simply copy each other. They are all in the lawn business, for instance, which is fair enough, given our weather and the demand for it, but the sad part is they are merely creating similar designs. Even their colour palettes are so close to one another’s.”

Luckily, there are also those few who mark their own trajectory. “What makes me different is that I am not interested in working with lawn, designing the fabric, or stitching it. I work with solid colours and my clothes are not dictated by current trends. I work to please my creative instinct, which is why even the few prints I work with lean more towards formal or semi-formal fabrics – they are not lawn-based at all. My clothes reflect my individuality. I rarely repeat ensembles because all the outfits are cut and designed based on the texture of the different fabrics,” explains Wasim.

There are not many who think like him. The World Wide Web may have transcended boundaries, but it has also perpetuated a global identity and sense of style. And Pakistan’s local fashion scene seems to have kept up.

“I don’t Google international trends in fashion. Instead, I try to introduce new fashion. I am not really in it for the business of fashion, but rather for the love of it. This is why I can appreciate all those who are removed from the regular. Whether it is Noorjehan Bilgrami or Imaan of Body Focus – women with a personal sense of style always stand out,” declares Wasim.

“As far as Western outfits go, that may be true, but it is interesting to note how, in India, where shalwar suits are not uncommon, women are free from the tyranny of lawn,” responds Nuzhat.

But ZQ points to another aspect of the situation. “Fashion is now used by the ‘gorgeous majority’ as a crutch, a disguise. Women no longer discuss their interests, their passions, their opinions or their beliefs, their likes or their dislikes. They would rather discuss their accessories, which they wear either as armour or as a diversion because they don’t want to rock their perfect social boats with any disagreeable discussions.” She goes on to explain that it “is not global identity but a lack of personal identity that makes girls look like cars on an assembly line.”

As the embellishments become louder, the logos bigger and the sameness ubiquitous, subtlety seems to have taken a back seat. “In the neon age of bold statements and the ‘notice me! look at me!’ phenomenon, people’s personality quotient has decreased dramatically. So it could be that ‘loud’ has become the new ‘subtle’,” expounds ZQ.

Nuzhat’s point of view is no different. “This culture of putting up pictures in magazines identifying each branded item a particular person is wearing makes other women forego regular items they might have liked, only to be replaced with known products.” Evidently, it is a regional problem. Says Nuzhat, “According to an international study, French designers conceal their logos on goods they stock in France and other sophisticated European markets. Items bearing bigger logos are shipped mostly to Asia because that is what the public here demands.”

Wasim disagrees. “Subtlety is certainly not dead. It can never die. It just has a different pace, proof of which is the fact that I have a growing customer base, some of whom have even progressed to the third generation now.”

It is heartening to know there are still some strong women out there who have not caved in to mounting social pressure. They still value their personal sense of style, their self-defined exclusivity… and that is what makes them the true style icons.