Maham Uzair explores how the slow-churning evolution of style over fashion trends can help us play our part in the global fight for the environment – and make us happier
My recent foray to Dolmen Mall was yet another exercise in futility.
With chockablock traffic at Zamzama and E-Street, Dolmen is effectively our high street. But every time I walk in and see a nightmarish labyrinth of mass-produced ready-to-wear, I feel the end of days is upon us. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to find anything these days that’s not hopelessly generic and completely devoid of personality.
Like Netflix scripts engineered through crafty algorithms, clothes choking up the high street appear to follow some winning formula that appeals to the sensibilities of a broad church of Pakistani women. Each brand is so similar to the other, you couldn’t tell kurtas apart in a lineup. And let’s face it: most outfits are bound to elicit a ‘meh’ after the third wear.
As I was perusing racks of clothing at the mall, for example, I came across a printed purple kurta with paisleys made on it. The previous shop I’d walked into had a similar deep purple in a quatrefoil print.
“Or were those paisleys too?” I muttered to myself.
As I continued to rack my brain in vain to compare two very similar kurtas from different brands, a lady with a completely different frame and aesthetic sense from mine also reached for my generic, purple paisley kurta and I promptly moved on.
I then came across a toile print that looked half-decent on a top with an asymmetric hem, but reclined in horror at a fleeting thought: could this Toile de Jouy print have been plagiarised from somewhere else? What if I’m walking around wearing a print taken – or should we say inspired – from Chloe, or worse, a bed linen collection?
A few rows down, I had to extricate myself from an assortment of kurtas printed with flowers: tropical flowers, citrus flowers, magnolias, begonias, marigolds. I’m a fan of florals, but even the thought of picking up one of these kurtas now felt like gluttony.
I ruminated only briefly on whether I could live without these pieces. The inner monologue ended with a resounding yes and so did my shopping excursion.
What’s equally disheartening as finding nothing inspiring to wear is when a new brand on the block succumbs to the desperation of this winning fast-fashion formula. A certain high street name comes to mind that produced lovely pastel kurtas with a single hand-stitched flower brooch near the shoulder and collarbone region: very feminine and Carrie Bradshaw-esque (See 1.). At that point, I was in university, saving up for a brand new Macbook and this brand in question was charging really high prices (and rightly so, given the creativity involved and the quality of materials, detailing and stitching). A couple of years later, when I returned triumphantly after payday, a wad of cash in hand, the brand had already surrendered to the mass appeal of tassels, pearls and lace. I was begging for the said brand to take all my money, but unfortunately, its creative spark had vanished into the ether.
Clothing and seasonal Prêt should narrate a story, but these garbled pieces lining our wardrobes don’t. Some of my favourite high street powerhouses from Paris and London, such as Claudie Pierlot or COS, produce an entire season of clothes that work seamlessly well with one another. They’re remarkably different from each other, of course: COS is functional and modern while Claudie Pierlot strikes very obvious, effortlessly chic, Parisian tones – think Breton stripes and peter pan collars. Even so, you can take five or six pieces from the entire collection and – bam! – you have a new wardrobe sorted for years because there is a certain ‘self-sustenance’ to the collection and its components: they work together to tell a story.
What’s the point, I say, of slapping on embellished roses on top of a print of sunflowers or lilies? Is this mass-produced fast-fashion piece trying to narrate a story – the tale of a spring awakening, perhaps – or is it the product of mindless flippancy, of some designer somewhere thinking women like pretty things? And was a pair of trousers with florals at the hem actually meant for the afore mentioned kurta or were they just thrown together in an ill-thought-out mishmash of colours, patterns and textures?
Fashion Editor at Women’s Own, Haiya Bokhari, weighs in. “The major brands that sell across the country can’t afford to be bold, because we have a conservative base.” As an example, she refers to an unsaid moratorium on the depiction of animals, faces on ready-to-wear: they just won’t have mass appeal. By the time a trend trickles down from the runways of Paris and Milan, there’s little for designers to work with that will pass the ironclad tests of acceptability.
On top of that, an unbending patriarchal system means weddings and dressing up for wedding season seem to be the only excursions many women aspire to, sadly, which according to Bokhari, explain the ‘plethora of florals, embroidery, unnecessarily overworked lawn’, and the idea that maximalism is always better.
This unoriginality, it seems, is also symptomatic of the prevalent fast-fashion madness worldwide. If people weren’t treating fashion as a disposable commodity, would they truly want to buy these generic pieces? Whatever happened to cultivating a personal style and curating a wardrobe? Would we be buying so much if we didn’t know the seasonal cull of clothing would rid us of these unimaginative pieces six months down the line?
How do we shop, so we buy less but better is the big question in the age of sustainability. What should we ask ourselves before reaching for our wallets?
The answer, it seems, is to cultivate a unique style that’s not swayed by mad fashion trends and even if it is, you should ask yourself whether that trending piece in question will look flattering on you three or four years down the line after the general madness quells. For example, would the seventies pussy blouse or kurta look like a complete anachronism two years down, or does it slide so effortlessly into your personal style pinboard that you’ll be able to pull it off anyway, critics be damned?
According to Bokhari, “Sustainability and durability stem from using your clothes a little bit longer, wearing them for more than just a season, and curating a style that isn’t just based on changing trends. A wardrobe that’s chic and timeless cannot stem from trends.”
And what of trends anyway? Bokhari thinks real fashion and individual style have taken a nosedive in the world of Instagram. “There’s the Instagram look or the street style look – everyone’s just following the same trends and colour palettes. It’s the antithesis to what fashion and style are supposed to be. Style and sustainability come to your wardrobe when you figure out what makes you comfortable, happy.”
But let’s be honest: we’d mastered the idea of disposability long before Instagram. Before ‘Shop it, Wear it, Gram it’ consumed aspiring fashionistas, we had women handing down hardly worn wardrobe pieces to their nannies or cleaners because, heaven forbid, the posh mama sees you wearing the same outfit again during a school run. Couple that with a globalised frenzy of Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and ‘doing it for the gram’, consumers appear to have lost the plot and are buying upwards of 64 items a year in some parts of the world, according to research. More often than not, a fast fashion piece is worn a grand total of seven times before making its way to a charity shop. These patterns are in complete contradiction to the first piece of advice stylists provide in cultivating style: buy what will suit you and give you joy for an extended period of time.
It’s easy though, for an industry veteran like Bokhari to pick a piece she knows will work with her wardrobe for an extended period – or disrupt it in the best of ways – but to take the pulse of everyday consumers, I decided to speak to select friends about lasting pieces in their wardrobe that bring them joy.
And as friends shared their favourite Prêt pieces over the years, I learned of the attachment one feels when one finally gets a staple piece right: a gentler euphoric sustained rush in comparison to the dopamine high of a mad shopping dash.
Komal Fareed, an auditor for Chevron, has travelled the world over recent years and grown her fashion clout from sojourns to a host of countries – Nigeria, Russia, France, and the Netherlands, to name a few. She can be seen at the Louvre, wearing a Shalwar Kameez with a belt to cinch the kameez at the waist. She’s worn tulle skirts in zero degree weather, layered underneath her Burberry trench coat and paired with sneakers. Her fashion choices are uniquely her own and she’s often able to spot trends way before the maestros.
Two of the oldest pieces in her closet, funnily enough, are denim shirts from Khaadi. She has two – a peplum style top with embroidery and a plain button-down. “You can pair boxy denim kurtas with denim jeans,” she says. “The material isn’t as thick as that used for denim jeans, so they’re quite wearable, even in Karachi weather.
“Also, they’re quite durable, so even when you keep washing them and they fade, it’ll look like they have more character. You can pair them with sneakers, and at lunch, you can take a silk scarf or a stole with your denim tunic.”
She’s been wearing denim on denim – a denim top on denim jeans – way before it hit the runways and suggests a white trouser alternative for those shying away from current fads (See 2.).
The art of pairing works well with the know-how and vision to buy good separates. Another friend, Nauveera Khan, is a former London-based analyst for JP Morgan. Having attended the Balenciaga exhibit at the V&A, we talked on end about the value of one great designer piece over lots of fast-fashions scraps, so, naturally, I snapped up a comment from her on the question of style and sustainability. She came back with an outpouring of love for two of the oldest pieces in her wardrobe.
“I have a piece from Sonya Battla which is a straight cut, chocolate-brown kurta and has a linen feel to it. It has beautiful cream embroidery around a sophisticated men’s collar.”
The kurta, in question, doesn’t have a defined waist, ‘but the material is very flattering’. One would imagine such a straight kurta with a men’s collar to appear boxy, but the texture lends it a flowy silhouette. She wears it during the day and in the evenings.
“The high slit on the side gives it a modern contemporary look,” She adds. “That piece reminds me of something I’d buy from Isabel Marant and even now I feel a lot of Sonya Battla’s pieces are inspired by Marant’s work. They’re understated, have earthy tones, great fabric, but amazing contemporary cuts (See 3.).”
She also owns a timeless pair of trousers from Menahel and Mehreen that she pairs with silk shirts in the evenings and cotton kurtas in the morning. “It’s easily been nine years since I’ve had them. They’re traditional izhars in crisp white.” While the polished white lends the pants a formal air, the cotton is extremely soft and wearable; in fact, they’ve become softer with multiple washes, according to Khan, and so are able to transition effortlessly from daytime to eveningwear.
They’re also beautifully layered with cascading lace at the hem. “The cotton fabric has lace panels, so if you can imagine, the fabric has vertical lace panels and then horizontally at the hem there are four to five different kinds of laces layered one on top of the other. I feel so happy when I wear these pants, because it’s such a beautiful pair (See 4.).”
To pull words out of Marie Kondo’s lexicon, I found Khan’s choices in Prêt bringing me joy as well. The thoughtfulness and love with which both Fareed and Khan revisited beloved pieces brought new inspiration and made me think long and hard about pieces in my wardrobe that have survived the annual spring clean.
A champagne kurta from Elan comes to mind. It’s my ideal length in a kurta: nearly six to seven inches above the knee. The kurta has a boxy fit; slitless; and what lend a truly contemporary feel to it are the drop-shoulder sleeves, divided from the body of the kurta by narrow strips of lace on either side. I instantly feel beautiful when I wear it (See 5.). I’ve fallen so deeply in love with drop-shoulder kurtas that I recently bought cloth from Koel to have a block-printed piece stitched for playgroup runs.
And then there’s finally, the holy grail of building a sustainable wardrobe: buying natural, quality materials. “Cotton and silks are better for the environment and, better for your style,” says Bokhari. “Polyester, nylon and spandex are not sustainable, durable or eco-friendly.”
There’s always a caveat to fashion choices: “While they [natural fabrics] take a lot out of the eco-system – cotton uses gallons of water and leather comes with an ethical debate – these are natural fabrics and when you take care of them, they last longer.”
Bokari weighs in on her fashion choices as well: “I’m obsessed with buttons all the way down a kurta. I love wearing them to work and paring them with ghararas and shalwars (See 6.).”
So, there you have it: a winning trifecta to style entails buying separates, selectively picking out fashion trends that will last longer in your wardrobe and investing in natural fabrics. A movement of consumers championing timeless style and durability can reverberate loud enough to resonate with influencers, thought leaders in style and at some point, one can only hope it’s reflected in eclectic, tasteful and durable wear on the high street: style and sustainability are kindred spirits, after all.