In a troubled country, still time for high society
Karachi, Pakistan: Can celebrity and fashion save Pakistan from its dark image? That's the proposition of Hello! Pakistan, a glossy new magazine that has opened a new window into the lives of the country's gilded elite, and rekindled an old debate about their role in a troubled society.
Hello! Pakistan is the local edition of the British celebrity magazine Hello!, famous for its soft-focus interviews with movie stars and lavish photo spreads of aristocrats and minor royalty. But the Pakistani publishers promise something different: an emphasis on their country's "soft side" that cuts across the relentless Western focus on burqas, bombs and the Taliban.
"We're not out to save the world," said Zahraa Saifullah Khan, 29, the magazine's Pakistan-born, England-educated publisher. "But this is a starting point, to show that we're not all a bunch of terrorists with beards."
Many young Pakistani professionals, tired of their country's portrayal as a caldron of chaos, would applaud that idea. But not all agree that airbrushed images of the moneyed upper-crust is the way to achieve it.
"It's life within the bubble," said Shakir Husain, a software entrepreneur who set up Fashionistas Against the Taliban, a satirical Facebook group that has acquired cult status in Pakistani social media. "And that bubble is filled with self-congratulatory nonsense."
The magazine is the latest assertion of a fizzy celebrity culture that has thrived in Pakistan in the past decade despite political turmoil and extremist violence. Glossy society magazines have sold well, showing well-heeled Pakistanis at lavish parties, weddings and charity balls, usually with their glasses of wine or whiskey discreetly hidden. The most famous is named "Good Times."
The glamour, meanwhile, comes from the fashion industry. Designers anchor the celebrity party scene, while models, who can earn $1,000 a night on the catwalk, showcase sexy clothes and provide daring eye-candy in a country where public displays of flesh are frowned upon.
The models are also a source of tabloid fodder: one, Veena Malik, caused an uproar this year when she appeared mostly naked on the cover of an Indian men's magazine, with the initials I. S. I., for Pakistan's top spy agency, tattooed on one arm.
"Give us a break," said Deepak Perwani, a prominent designer, at Fashion Pakistan Week, which drew Karachi's trendy set over four nights in April. "We're nice people."
But championing the rich and glamorous can be controversial in a country with a dizzying social gulf and a flailing economy; where much wealth stems from inheritance, corruption or contacts; and where the top tier of society is notoriously bad at paying its fair share of taxes or, indeed, any taxes at all.
The debate was embodied by one of the hottest fashion labels, Sana Safinaz, after it ran billboard advertisements in March that showed aging train porters - still known by the colonial term "coolie" - holding Louis Vuitton luggage for a lithe model in flowing dress. "How Uncoolie" read one headline.
Then Hello! Pakistan interviewed the brand's two designers at a luxurious seaside mansion; one, Safinaz Muneer, boasted how employees could spend 1,500 hours embroidering a dress "that will cost you nothing."
To critics, it reflected the tone-deaf sensibilities of an increasingly disconnected elite - two years earlier, another designer told a reporter how she had wept "when my tailors formed a union and I had to fire them all."
But the designers were unrepentant; in a backstage interview at the Karachi fashion show, Ms. Muneer struck back at her critics. "A storm in an elitist teacup," she said, as models draped in her latest designs prepared to step onto the runway. "Tell me, what have these critics contributed?"
And the controversy did no harm to business. Her collection of lawn, a diaphanous cotton used to make traditional summer dresses, now a fashion sensation, sold out within hours. It was a sign, fashion insiders say, that their industry is breaking out of the celebrity straitjacket, and into the middle-class mainstream.
It is crossing borders, too: the lawn craze has spread to India, where a sale in New Delhi over the spring led to frantic scenes of competitive shopping.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's fashion fraternity has split into rival camps, based in Lahore and Karachi - a sign of the country's fractious political culture, certainly, but also of a business with growing financial stakes.
"Fashion shows used to be just about entertainment, but that has changed," said Maheen Khan, a veteran designer who provided embroidery for the set design of the recent Hollywood movie "Snow White and the Huntsman." "The bubble has burst." Yet the cultural merit of the fashion-fueled celebrity boom is contentious, because its prominence stems from the withering of other forms of expression.
While Bollywood dominates Indian pop culture, Pakistan's movie business has been crushed by Islamic nationalists. Traditional South Asian dances, deemed "un-Islamic" by conservatives, have waned. Pakistani writers have excelled abroad, yet struggled to gain widespread recognition at home. The threat of Islamist violence has stymied pop concerts and sports events.
The resulting vacuum, said Faiza Sultan Khan, a literary editor and critic, has pulled Pakistanis in conflicting directions - toward religion or Western-style consumerism.
"Consumerism has become the art form, and fashion is responding to that," she said. "That's what happens when you have a society with no shared culture." So far, Hello! Pakistan has struck a middle course between good works and glamour. The first three issues featured the actor Sean Penn talking about flood relief, fashionistas in slinky dresses discussing Louboutin shoes, and photos of a horse-mounted ISI general galloping up the polo field.
Ms. Sultan Khan, the literary critic, said the magazine should concentrate on what Hello! does best - celebrity tittle-tattle and glowing photography. "The idea that it should be about Pakistan's image irritates me," she said. "It's not as if the scores who die violently every day are perishing from our bad image."
Ms. Khan, the publisher, said the sales figures - a healthy 15,000 copies per issue - spoke for themselves. "It's easy to sit in a drawing room and bitch about everything that has gone wrong with Pakistan. You've got to do your part."
Others expressed a more complex position: uncomfortable with the reality that Hello! portrays but, in a country shadowed by dark forces of intolerance, glad that it simply exists.
"The rich inhabit a parallel reality everywhere, although in Pakistan their opulence seems excessive because the middle class is so stunted," said Moni Mohsin, a writer who specializes in social satire. "But if it was a stark choice between life in the pages of Hello! or as Osama bin Laden would have wanted it, I'd go for Hello! It might drive me mad, but everyone has a right to a party."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service
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