‘Sasti’ lawn and ‘designer’ lawn — somewhere down the line, the phenomenon of branding lawn has exacerbated social divides
With the coming of spring, the annual madness known as ‘lawn season’ returns to Pakistan. The ethnic feel of Mausummery, the psychedelic prints of Junaid Jamshed and the glamorous colours of Asim Jofa reign among billboards from Defence to Nazimabad, from the high-end streets of MM Alam Road to the bustling markets of Anarkali and from the swanky F-11 Markaz to the bargain counters of Rajah Bazaar.
I confess that I’m a lawn fan and a frequent visitor to lawn exhibitions — after all, what’s not to love about this soft, comfy, breezy fabric? But I still haven’t gotten over the atrocity I witnessed last year at one of the biggest and most anticipated lawn exhibitions. So there I was, a helpless victim of the lawn spell, looking at the memo on which I had carefully marked the clothes I wanted, standing patiently in line to collect my suits. After five miserable hours, I was finally approaching the collection counter when a woman literally hurled onto me! “Yeh mera suit hai! Tu ne haath kaise lagaya isse!” (This is my suit! How dare you lay a hand on it!) screamed another very furious woman, who had pushed the first lady onto me. This was followed with a slap on the face, and a tug of war of dupattas. Honestly though, as hilarious as the catfight was, it was also disheartening to the core: does a branded 3 piece lawn suit, that more than 500 women will be seen wearing on the streets, mean more than your own self-respect?
The other thing that stands out at these exhibitions is the huge disparity in the amount of money spent on these suits. While there are the women on a restricted budget who back off right after setting eyes on those price tags, there are also some extreme spenders who buy suits worth Rs2 to 3 lakhs! You have seen them, haven’t you? Often these women set up deals with the salesmen behind the counter and pre-book their orders. This is also the reason why you and I never got that favourite print of ours — by the time we reached the counter, it was sold out, thanks to the aunty who had booked suits!
The lawn shopping experience today is drastically different from what it was just a few years ago. It was not long ago when my mother would pick me up from school and we would go to the small retail shops at Qurtaba market to check out the new lawn prints. While I would rummage through only the shirt pieces, my mom would cast a critical eye on ‘thaans’ and ‘thaans’ of lawn fabric. Back then, Gul Ahmed, Mohammad Farooq, Al-Karam and Lala Classic (a major brand at the time) drove the lawn market. Yet there was a huge variety of cloth to choose from and, more importantly, it came at a very reasonable price. There was something for everyone: the budget-bound woman, the student, the socialite who wanted something chic yet comfy, and the shopaholic.
Things have changed since then. While there are more than 100 lawn brands operating now, the choice appears limited and prices have skyrocketed. It may not be immediately evident, but somewhere down the line, the phenomenon of branded lawn has given rise to class divides.
Of course, using socio-economic data to devise marketing tactics is nothing new to the fashion industry. Take Zara and H&M, for example. While Zara targets the high-end, classy working woman (including celebrities), H&M attracts the young, low-budget teenager and the regular woman. On a personal note, I have worn and loved both, though I understand that the price difference is there for a reason. The point is that these brands established themselves with such an image from the very beginning. Lawn, on the other hand, was never meant to be a branded, designer product. It has always been for the masses and while designers claim that their lawn collection are an easy way for the masses to access a high-end label the advertisements and price tags tell a different story altogether.
Just last September, I conducted a research on fashion branding in the lawn industry for my master’s thesis and took around 100 interviews to gauge public opinion. Nearly 90% of women from all walks of life, were not only frustrated with the amount of stress they had to undergo to get a lawn suit, but were also fed up of the social stigmas that these designer brands were creating. The few who really cared about brands already owned well-stocked wardrobes to which a designer lawn suit became merely another addition and another outfit to flaunt at one of those trendy committee parties. However, those who viewed lawn in its practical sense as a daily, casual outfit felt aggravated at lawn trying to take up the high-end, luxury good role and were annoyed over having to spend a handsome amount of money on ‘just’ lawn. The fact that lawn is now either ‘sasti lawn’ or ‘designer lawn’ is a status symbol and social divider. For those who buy designer lawn, the sole purpose of wearing the fabric is to be praised and envied by others rather than for personal comfort and satisfaction. The quality of the material is not so much a concern as the brand’s reputation and the image associated with it.
Does anybody remember the much-hyped controversy over the Sana Safinaz lawn ad that had the glamorous Neha Ahmed sitting amongst a group of coolies with her Louis Vuitton luggage? Although the issue is now done and dusted, it is worth considering how some of the major lawn brands out there only want to associate themselves with luxury products and aim to attract an elite clientele. I say this because I doubt a regular, middle-class housewife can relate to Louis Vuitton luggage. The trend of featuring high-end western designer accessories in their advertisements has not just been adopted by Sana Safinaz, but nearly all major designer lawn brands. A few days back I found out that the model in a recent Jofa advert was carrying an Hermes bag! What message is the designer sending when his suit needs to be accessorised with a bag that would cost me more than 12 months of my salary? And that too a lawn suit whose fabric is barely any different from a mid-range unbranded lawn suit?
Soft, light lawn fabric has always made a splash in the summer because of its cool and airy feel, a significant indicator of fabric quality. For years, textile mills such as Gul Ahmed and Al-Karam, have waged wars against each other to be crowned the best quality lawn-makers. This led to consumers having an excellent variety of fabric to choose from. Even the relatively cheaper brands such as Lala Classic and Five Star offered good quality fabric with a natural finesse. However, with couture designers collaborating with textile newbies and new lawn designers mushrooming every year, the focus has shifted more towards eye-catching prints and delicate embroidery instead of the durability and reliability of the fabric. Although designers claim their lawn products are cheaper compared to their formal line, the embellishments on the fabric and the extras it comes with means that it still falls in the category of luxury wear. With competition so intense and the ascendance of designers in the industry, the old experts are now offering lower quality rip-offs, giving rise to counterfeiting. So it doesn’t really matter if you’re not affluent enough to afford a designer lawn suit, you can just get a low quality copy instead! What has taken a hit, is the quality of the fabric.
Such class-based and discriminatory branding makes me wonder if good quality lawn continues to be targeted at the rich, who will cater to the masses? If designers believe their collections to be an easy way for the regular woman to access high-end labels, why do they create such adverts and why do they charge such a high price? Are low quality alternatives the middle-income, budget-conscious woman’s only option? Do we need to accentuate social divides as tools and make them worse? The aim here is not to criticise our talented designers but instead to point a flaw in their branding and marketing techniques that has polarised customers. No doubt the amount of economic growth this industry brings to Pakistan is worth applauding but designers and mills need to focus on quality and work towards creating a global appeal for a fabric that is a product of Pakistan. I don’t know about the rest of you but I would surely like lawn to remain a mass product as it was meant to be and see it progress in global markets.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 3rd, 2013.
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