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(Published in Instep Today on January 14, 2012)

Nurjehan Bilgrami’s Koel within the Fashion Pakistan Lounge

A purple towel lay sprawled outside the front door of PFDC’s newly opened Boulevard on Lahore’s Main Boulevard Avenue, at Mall One to be exact. The purple towel served the vital purpose of a doormat. To be fair, it had been drizzling that day (Friday, January 6 to be exact) and the towel made sure wet shoes didn’t step into the swanky new store. At least it was a fashionable shade of purple, not candy pink or God forbid muddy mustard. Other than that wet towel, the PFDC Boulevard’s facade looked very grand.

If charged with spying on boutiques in my free time, I would have to plead guilty. Only it’s not exactly spying; I put it down as vital research for my stories. And therefore it’s work, not ‘free time’ at all. Come to think of it, I miss the good old times at Instep where I’d get fuel allotment for these kinds of excursions!

Anyway, one rainy morning in Lahore (where I have been freezing all of December) I decided to brave the cold and explore four major multi brand boutiques in the city: PFDC Boulevard (which has shifted from 10Q), Labels, Ensemble (now open within the 10Q enclave) and the Fashion Pakistan Lounge. I admit there are more multi-label boutiques in Lahore, but somehow they haven’t been able to hook my interest yet.

1. My first stop, the PFDC Boulevard, was quite grand (despite the purple towel) with several mannequins dressed in heavily embellished bridal armor gracing the front window display. The store itself was well endowed, with a plethora of labels from the established to new, on ready display. I was quite impressed to see Zonia, Hammad and Mohsin amongst the young and upcoming PIFD graduates already stocking their fashion week collections there. Then there was a wide range of Body Focus, inclusive of the latest denim casuals simultaneously available at the Body Focus Museum in Karachi. The collections were a little jumbled and cramped but better in abundance than scarcity.

Kamiar Rokni’s truly minimal collection

Talking of inadequate, Kamiar Rokni’s rack displaying the Fall/Winter Minimalist collection was under-stocked, either due to slow supply or speedy sales, resulting in an almost bare shelf. Is the designer taking the word ‘minimalist’ to another level? This applied to many more designers too.

In a nutshell…

PFDC Boulevard’s top attractions were: Body Focus, Kamiar Rokni, Karma, Sublime, Elan, Muse, HSY and Libas. Sublime and Elan racks, like Kamiar Rokni, were quite bare.

Store ambience: Smart and clean despite still being under renovation. I’m sure that with time the store will have music, a little warmth and a well-groomed staff.

Recommended to: Everyone looking for fashion; I felt the store had diverse labels that would attract young girls as well as older women and those on a budget.

This unfashionable concoction at the entrance of Fashion Pakistan Lounge

2. Stop two, the biggest disappointment of this fashion trek was my visit to Fashion Pakistan Lounge, which I have always visited and enjoyed for the essence of Karachi it brings to Lahore. Not this time.

With Shafaq Muzammil, Saira Rizwan, Teena, Lubna Naveed, Adnan Khan, Muzna Hameed, Medley, Simky and more unheard labels, FP Lounge seemed like fashion road kill more than anything else. Had these new names looked exciting I would have been thrilled by the volume of new talent FP Lounge is unearthing. But all this clothing (consciously avoiding having to call it fashion) was uninspiring to say the least. Bano Bazar at best and Chandni Chowk at worst.

The one great thing about FP Lounge was the new Koel store within store, stocking Nurjehan Bilgrami’s fabulous khaadi fabric as well a range of ready to wear kurtas, choghaaz, etc. Quite a brilliant find that was!

In a nutshell:

FP Lounge’s top attractions would be: Koel, Deepak Perwani, Maheen Khan and Ather Sabeen (inclusive of the gotta patti jewellery and pouches that are available). That said, there should have been more of Deepak Perwani’s new collection and the Shamaeel rack should not have been empty.

Store ambience: Unkempt, inadequately ventilated changing rooms (body odour) attended by an unimpressive staff.

Recommended to: women looking specifically for Deepak Perwani, Maheen Khan and Koel by Nurjehan Bilgrami in Lahore.

The savvy Ensemble Lahore

3. Down the same road and nestled in a portion of the space the PFDC Boulevard once occupied came Ensemble, which made up for the shock FPL had delivered to the system. I felt as if I was stepping back into fashion wonderland at Ensemble, the store that boasted so much style with collections from Nomi Ansari, Sania Maskatiya, Nida Azwer, Muse, Ammar Belal, Rizwan Beyg and Umar Batul as well as Indian labels Ritu Kumar, Tarun Tahiliani and Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

To be honest, there could have been more garments on the racks, for example Nida Azwer, Maheen Karim, Slate and Sadaf Malaterre were just teasers of what these designers should have had on display. Fahad Hussayn’s shelf displayed a collection of summery cottons! The Sana Safinaz rack (probably in honour of their sell-out exhibitions) featured Mohsin Ali. But despite this, the store’s panache more than made up for designers’ back-end inadequacies. One got a whiff of how impressive it would be if designers ever got their act together.

In a nutshell:

Ensemble’s top attractions would be: Ritu Kumar (ready to wear and unstitiched), Sania Maskatiya, Nomi Ansari, Umar Batul as well as bags by Mahin Hussein and Krizmah.

Store ambience: Stylish, cheerful and organized.

Recommended to: women looking for a wide range of fashion, especially high-end formal wear.

Zahra Saeed is a promising name at Labels Lahore

4. Last but not least, I turned back for Labels at Vogue Towers on M.M. Alam Road. Unlike Labels Karachi, which is always busy and buzzing with energy, the branch in Lahore seemed a bit dismal. The space, for starters, was unwelcoming with neither the displays nor style that one is used to in Karachi. Then the overflow of mediocre labels: Ayesha Khurram, Hina Butt, Aamna Aqeel, Saira Rizwan, Zainab Salman, Neelma Naveed etc overshadowed the few good labels that the store had to offer. “Milli Madiha sells very well,” I was informed by the staff but then what sells is never top criteria for what can be evaluated as impressive.

I do wish there had been more of Elan, Sanam Chaudhri, Sania Maskatiya, three of the most sought after labels these days. Even Nasreen Sheikh (an established label that has now branched into ready to wear) and younger names like Nadia Ellahi and Zahra Saeed had interesting designs that one would have liked to see more of. The space did them no justice.

In a nutshell:

Labels’ top attractions would be: Sanam Chaudhri, Elan and Sania Maskatiya while I would recommend looking into Zahra Saeed, Nasreen Sheikh and Nadia Ellahi.

Ambience: The water-logged walls were an unfortunate distraction and though the sales staff was pleasant, they didn’t look very professional while sorting out a new consignment at the front desk.

Recommended to: women looking for affordable fashion, irrespective of the label.

Post Script: I must say that in a way stores are like fashion shows. They need to have the excitement and bait to pull in crowds and leave a lasting impression. Fashion activity and ambience both contribute to their level of excitement. At the end of the day, though, it’s the quality (and in these cases the quantity too) of fashion brands that will determine the success of the store. Retailers must scrutinize their selection criteria and be a bit discerning in opening their doors to everyone who wants and claims to be a designer. We’d like to see ‘fashion stores’ not ‘fashion general stores’.


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