Looking at designer lawn

June 21, 2020

Examining the exclusively Pakistani phenomenon of designer lawn in this moment of commercial lull.

Shahjahan stays true to her nostalgia aesthetic and has been selling online since June.

A sub-continental summer staple, lawn is a light-weight fabric weaved from cotton that actually derives its name from the French city of Laon, famous for producing linen lawn. Over time with the colonization of the sub-continent and recognition of its quality cotton, lawn began to be weaved from it and quickly became a summer mainstay as a breathable fabric.

Lawn has remained a Pakistani favourite. For a majority of the female population, till perhaps a decade and a half ago, memories of summer would feature several vignettes charting the pain-staking, loving labour of getting new lawn stitched for the in-coming months of insufferably heat.

If you grew up in Lahore, there is no way that the beginning of March didn’t feature a trip to Auriga Centre in Gulberg, walking around in a cacophony of heated bargaining conversations and vendors sing-song selling their wares, searching for pale colours and pretty, floral prints with mothers, sisters and cousins in-tow. However, since the last fifteen years or so, this humble summer fabric has enjoyed bespoke success through a phenomenon known as designer lawn.

When the fashion industry re-emerged post war-on-terror and commanded a formidable stake in the economy, textile mill owners took notice. From producing export garments (a dwindling demand with Bangladesh and Indonesia pulling ahead) the mills changed gears and collaborated with a new breed of hip local designers to create an entirely new genre in fashion. It took off big time with videos of stampedes and claims of sold-out prints sparking yearly frenzy.

Winter would hardly give way to spring before hoardings and signage across the country would feature svelte models draped in brightly printed, embroidered, appliqued or otherwise embellished lawns. Cities where the sky-line would barely be visible behind larger than life billboards, jostling for viewing space, each image trying to sell not an unpretentious fabric but rather a pretense at a “better”, alternate lifestyle.

Sana-Safinaz, Elan, Zara Shahjahan and Farah Talib Aziz have remained consumer favourites with many other designers throwing their hat in the ring every year. In the last few years we’ve witnessed just about every designer, with any status and following, trying their hand at designing prints for the public, with more misses coming out each progressive year as space and creativity saturated.

This year would’ve been no different had Covid-19 not way-laid the world. But since it has, lawn mania this year has been a rather subdued affair. Many designers and stitching units have shifted focus to making PPEs as their demand sky-rocketed, locally and globally. The launch of the season itself was delayed since the onset of the pandemic pushed the country into lock-down mid-March and hasn’t quite recovered since.

Major retailers like Gul Ahmed, Nishat, Khaadi and Al-Karam launched their lawn for summer 2020 without much fan-fare on social media while designers like Khadijah Shah and Zara Shahjahan released images of their campaigns (Elan was unnecessarily embroiled in controversy when some images were wrongfully called out for being racist; they simply featured a good-looking African model Gabriel Oduor) but had delayed the actual sale.

Elan’s summer 2020 collection launched this week and pre-bookings are looking strong for the brand. Shahjahan’s Instagram page also features updates regarding certain prints being restocked which insinuate that the articles had sold out, despite the lock-down and the beginnings of a global recession.

This pandemic has given the fast fashion industry a moment to pause and reflect regarding its future direction. Similarly, we have a moment in time to stop and examine this yearly phenomenon, its demand and dynamics. Almost over-night, lawn transformed from a simple fabric to a marker of your wealth, status, style and even social clique.

Millions of women across the country have been faithfully buying new lawn each season for years because being caught in last year’s print would be anathema to the newly social media obsessed population. The rush to get the lawn stitched and be the first to wear it and flaunt it was very real.

Circumstances this year have pushed the public into a completely different zone from the obsessive consumption of the last decade or so. The conversation online (local Twitter and Instagram feeds) has moved from showcasing latest purchases to reimaging existing wardrobes in multiple ways. The excessiveness of our life just last year stands in stark contrast to the current state of affairs.

Shot on the African Island of Lamu, Elan's 2020 collection went on sale this week.

For some, the thought of spending Rs. 10,000 upwards on a single outfit to last one season seems a little grotesque, especially given that just going out to get it stitched is hazardous, let alone getting a chance to wear it. For other (more privileged) women who continue commenting on images of wares by their favorite retailers asking for price and availability, the summer goes on with business as usual.

While designer lawn has done well since its inception in Pakistan, it can be argued though that the reign of the deluxe designer version might have peaked and is now headed for an inevitable decline if the global crisis continues. A small segment of the society with the means to buy the bespoke fabric were already beginning to tire of the over-the-top aesthetic and its kitschy, garish prints even before the current ennui set in. With the pandemic still raging across the world, wreaking havoc with economies, it is hard to fathom that consumer consumption will jump back to its voracious appetite next year.

Maybe in a few years from now, lawn will again revert to its simple, unassuming origins and simply be a summer fabric rather than a fashion and financial statement.

Looking at designer lawn