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The Smart Office
Pakistani fashion is so bridal centric that even those of us who cheer it on sometimes feel neck-deep in gota and zardozi around this time of the year. The pre-wedding season is replete with bridal fashion weeks and celebrities clad in opulent show-stoppers: everyone seems ready to walk down the aisle come December.
But once you’re done eye-rolling at the extravagant display of desi Christmas trees on the national catwalks let’s talk about something that occupies our daily lives and isn’t just a seasonal obsession – office-wear.
Pakistani women are joining the workforce in droves, and while office-wear choices are rather more simple for men (suit it or not) for women the range of appropriate work clothes is far more complex. Mainly because we don’t really have the option of the Western skirt and jacket, and most pant suits don’t work too well in our sultry climate. So how do we dress up for work? How can we look stylish without looking like we are trying too hard? And what is the thin line between smart and overdressed, feminine and frilly, business-like power-dressing and eighties shoulder pad overdose?
I suppose part of it depends on whether your office has a working dress code. If you’re a banker or marketing executive constantly dealing with clients you usually have to look smart and professional. If you are a graphic artist working in a hip digital workplace chances are you can get away with jeans and an ethnic kurta. I work at the BBC’s London office where what you wear is pretty much left to you. Most of us wear clothes we can work comfortably in, making a little more effort on days where we have meetings with business partners or maybe doing a crucial presentation. But if it’s a day-long edit with a tight deadline, many people could just as easily turn up in shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. I’m not sure that would go down as well in a Pakistani office, however liberal and laid back the atmosphere might be. So back to the drawing board.
These days few working women in a middle to upper income bracket have the spare hours or the inclination to coax tailors to deliver on time an outfit that helps them look the part. Sometimes choosing the traditional route can even end up being more expensive, especially if you’ve picked up a lawn or cotton three-piece from a recognizable brand. But are Pakistani designers rising to the occasion for all us women who work so hard for the money and need to dress to impress? I mean it’s a huge market out there all for the taking. But who’s responding and who’s just not delivering?
Shehrnaz has come up with a special 9 to 5 collection this month especially for working women which has some single-colour long shirts you could wear with culottes or shalwar for an official look or jeans for more casual work environments. There is also the monochrome striped top featured on our cover. I would also highly recommend Ego and Lulusaar both of whom have some striking, colour-popping outfits that would hit the mark for both comfort and smart style at the office. Misha Lakhani has great kurtis and triangular men-style kurtas that you really can’t go wrong with. Sana Safinaz also do some nice tunics at affordable prices. For shoes, I would suggest loafers from Chapter 13.
But hey, it’s not all about what I like. So I thought I’d reach out to a few working women, some connected with fashion and some not, to find out what they wear to work and which designers are their go-to brands for the workplace.
Aamna Haider Isani, Editor, Instep and Something Haute
My work-wear is very simple. It needs to be something that’s practical, which means it shouldn’t cling to the body or be transparent or I will be constantly engrossed in covering up. And it has to be organic material as I cannot wear polyester. Going to a première from work is very easy because I will wear plain colours to work and this adapts well. There can be a lot of individuality added to solid fabrics too. You can always work on the outfit with stand-out accessories and make the look your own. I won’t wear a gharara to an awards night, gala or fashion show either because it’s more work than play for me. I’m a journalist so I don’t want to look like a Barbie doll.
A major part of getting dressed up for me is having my hair done. I’m always hair-ready. I haven’t washed my own hair in years; I get it washed and blow dried in the salon twice a week. In terms of clothes high streets brands have really made it easy for the modern working woman. Since last year I’ve worn Chapter Two most of the time. I also have Sania Maskatiya custom make things for me. Sonya Battla is another go-to designer. She’s a little expensive so I wear her more for evening events I attend for work. Maheen Khan is fantastic with professional silhouettes – she knows how to give you that streamlined look.
Bisma Askari, Architect
I believe that clothes need to reflect your personality. Being an architect this means that I like to express my design aesthetics and sensibility through what I wear as well. You need to look professional at work, you can’t dress up like you’re going to a social do. I mainly wear cigarette or straights pants in cotton and materials that crush less and look presentable throughout the day with unfussy straight-cut shirts. And this look has to work from office to meetings to site. I regularly visit project sites and need to interact with extended work teams including construction workers so I make it a point to wear clothes that aren’t see-through and cover up well. I also need to be safe on work sites so flowings dupatta or voluminious styles that could be caught on nails or structures for instance are a hazardous no-no. I don’t have time and energy to waste so I don’t go to tailors, I always buy ready to wear. I opt for a variety of brands – Sapphire, Sana Safinaz and Khaadi’s Chapter Two are regulars. I pick up designs from Generation too. Whatever clothes I wear the shoes have to be flat because architects always need to be on the go. Society heels are a definite no-no!
Zana Aslam Khan, Development Programme Lead
I am from London but currently based in Pakistan as lead for a UK Development programme. We sit in a Pakistani government office rather than in the British High Commission so the office dress code is very much shalwar kameez. I find shalwars look too informal so I tend to stick with straight trousers topped with a knee-length shirt. I will almost always wear a dupatta as I just feel more comfortable with it. I didn't find it difficult to adapt to the dress code as such as it wasn't as though I had never worn shalwar kameez in the UK. To be honest, I find it quite graceful as an outfit and perhaps even more comfortable than a skirt and blouse or a shirt and trousers. And I'm used to it now. However, it would be nice to see more of a transition to women wearing western clothes too in the government offices in Islamabad as men commonly wear a western suit not shalwar kameez.
I tend to wear separates I combine myself rather than three-piece shalwar kameez suits. Mainly a mixture of what I picked up at high street stores like Generation, Sapphire, Khaadi, Beechtree and Ethnic. But I also wear a lot of shirts from the NGO Behbud and one-off pieces from India such as Lucknowi kurtas in the summer. I like the brands mentioned above as many times I will find shirts with pockets or the shirts which are both smart and practical. Generation can be quite traditional in some of their designs so I try to source the more classic pieces in block colours. I shy away from busy prints, bright colours or too many embellishments. A little bit of embroidery goes a long way!
Zahra Hidayatullah, Journalist
As a working mother, I don’t find time to hunt for designs in magazines, buy fabrics then go to tailors. It’s really difficult between picking and dropping my son to school and going out in the evening which is often tied to my work as Executive Editor of Destinations magazine. Expectations and are high in my line of work, people are always well turned out. I never feel I make a fashion faux-pas because I play it safe; I go for a plain and muted look but I accessorise it. I add and subtract jewellery or a scarf. Above all, the fabric has to be very nice and fall well. I always wear matte-finish fabric. Anything shiny just doesn’t suit my skin tone.
I tend to opt for monochromes and never wear prints to work. Sometimes we go from office to evening events so plain is more flexible. And you can’t ever go wrong with black. My go-to designer is mainly Waseem Khan who I wear 90% of the time. When I’m looking for whites I go to Generation; they do some lovely designs in ivory tones. Unfortunately Mehreen and Minahil don’t have a shop in Lahore, but I picked up some amazing day-wear items from their Boski collection when I was in Karachi. I wish you had them on Studio by TCS (Note from Ed: We are on it Zahra!).
Saira Awan Malik, Founding Director, Studio by TCS/Vice-chairperson, TCS.
I love block colours for work because prints just get too fussy. I don’t like wearing dupattas as they can get in the way when one is running from one meeting to the other. But in my line of work I am interacting with men constantly so I do like to finish the outfit with a scarf. Plus it brightens up a plain outfit instantly. I have to say I struggle to find suitable scarves though Amishi on the Studio website has some nice options. I know in high summer one wears lawn a lot but somehow I feel it isn’t right for the office. It can be tricky if you are in the boardroom and there is natural light coming in because lawn is always a bit diaphanous. I live between London and Karachi for work so I literally have two wardrobes now. I’ve gotten a few outfits from Ego and Lulusar and they have become my staple work look in Pakistan. But if anyone knows where to get good scarves please let me know – we’ll put them on Studio! (Note from Ed: Seems someone was listening Saira – Khas stores now has a smart new range of scarves and shawls you can wear as scarves!)