Not enough tourists to appreciate fashion in Pakistan

New Delhi: Pakistan has its fashion weeks, stores and studios but its fashion retail sector is not growing because there are not enough tourists to appreciate their offering, says Zahir Rahimtoola, pioneer of the country`s fashion retail chain Labels.

"Fashion retail is still in its infancy. The dynamics of fashion retail are very different in Pakistan as compared to its neighbours. Unlike other countries, Pakistan does not enjoy the advantage of a transient population," Rahimtoola, chief executive officer of Labels, told reporters in an e-mail interview from Karachi.

"While there is some local transient population in Lahore and Islamabad, there is hardly any transient population in Karachi. This is detrimental for retail sales. This is the reason why designers cannot come out with specific seasonal collections and they have to innovate to keep the same customer buying repeatedly at frequent intervals," he added.

Though known for its traditional ways and culture, connoisseurs of fashion in the country thronged the style and glamour sector in the mid-1990s with designers like Rizwan Beyg, Shamaeel, Sana Safinz, Faiza Samee and Maheen Khan culling out high-end couture designs to cater to the upper strata of society, which boosted the growth in upmarket retail.

And like a true businessman, Rahimtoola, who hails from a business family, decided to make the best of the trend by taking a plunge in the retail sector and opened his first store in Karachi in 1996.

"Our sense of timing was right because TV satellite transmission had just started opening the rest of the world to Pakistan and Pizza Hut, the first Western fast food chain, had recently been opened; hence there was a sense of Western influence permeating," he said.

However, starting a fashion retail store was not easy because it was a new concept and there were no examples to take inspiration from.

"In Pakistan, there was no track record or historical trend to follow; hence we learnt and adapted to changes as per the requirements of our customers who have played a large role in defining our brand," said Rahimtoola.

On the contrary, the fashion retail sector in India is booming with international fashion chains like Forever 21 and Zara opening up their stores there. Rahimtoola gives credit for this to the growing style conscious middle-class and tourist footfalls.

"The retail sector in India is very vibrant. Apart from the local population, tourists fuel retail in a big way... we in Pakistan do not enjoy this advantage," he said.

Having said that, Labels is flourishing despite limitations. One can get as many as 50 designers` creations at its stores in Karachi, Lahore and a shop-in-shop arrangement with STUDIO 8 in Dubai.

Another drawback is that locals still prefer going to darzees (traditional tailors) instead of buying ready-to-wear. But this hasn`t stopped people from entering the fashion retail business in Pakistan and in the last few years, a number of multi-designer stores have mushroomed in the country.

With new players crowding the space, Rahimtoola is thinking of out-of-box solutions to maintain his exclusivity.

"In the sub-continent, we have a `flock of sheep` mentality. If one is successful, others want to emulate and join the bandwagon. A lot of `knock off` operations are set up without thought or a business plan; hence at `start up` everyone starts off with a bang but soon die out with a whimper," he said.

However, he adds: "We have learnt to adapt very quickly to customer demands. We are now moving on to becoming a lifestyle store; in addition to retailing fashion clothing, accessories and precious jewellery, we will be adding furniture, bed linen and home accessories."


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