I’m looking for a way to tell the story of Generation, a Pakistani ready-to-wear women’s clothing brand, that turns 35 years old this year, to you, a reader across the border in India who may never have heard of the company. How do you tell the story of a brand that is one of a handful to have survived for more than three decades here, its presence so indelible in the Pakistani retail landscape that scores of women know it by a misnomer – “Generations”, plural – that has been around for too long to correct now?
Left to Right: Maham Ali, Rabia Dasti, Zainab Zahid (Nai Rang SS'18 - Gulab, Kanwal aur Chambeli)
Perhaps the story starts in Lahore in 1983, when Generation was founded by Nosheen and Saad Rahman to cater to the needs of the urban Pakistani working woman. In February of that year, in the same city, an estimated 400 of these women gathered to protest against a series of laws passed since martial law was declared in the country, laws that said the testimony of two women would be equal to that of one man in court, and that required women who had been raped or sexually assaulted to provide four male witnesses to the crime or they could face prosecution for fornication or adultery. At the protest, the women set their dupattas alight. They were lathi-charged and teargased. And the poet Habib Jalib reportedly recited a verse composed on the spot: “We are not helpless or powerless anymore/We are not naïve and innocent anymore/We can shape our own destiny/We are no longer grateful for the writing on the wall dictating our fates.” That day was, as human rights activist and lawyer Hina Jilani noted, “really the start of the women’s movement in Pakistan.”
But Generation has been around for my whole life – I was born two years after the brand created the first concept of sizing in the country, churning out small, medium and large RTW cotton clothes in a market awash with polyester – and so I wonder if these histories, running parallel to and shaping the brand’s ideas on how a modern Pakistani woman should dress, are more important than my own encounters. Then I would start the story from the 1990s, when I snuck an ironed Generation dupatta, neatly folded into the smallest square possible, to a meeting with my friends. Pakistan now had its first female prime minister in Benazir Bhutto, martial law was over, and it had been years since institutions like the Council of Islamic Ideology had floated the idea that women should not be allowed to be heads of state or contest elections until the age of 50 (even then, only do so with their husband’s permission), years since female civil servants in the foreign service were recalled from all postings and female government employees were directed to cover themselves with the veil. I was too young to know that just a few years ago, there were stories of women slapped on the street by strange men for not having covered themselves appropriately. I only knew that many of my friends had suddenly begun to wear dupattas and that seemed to me the first badge of adulthood. But my mother did not care to prescribe dupattas or certain clothes for her daughters, especially if they only wore them to fit in.
Irha Parishei (#Greaterthanfear, A/W'18)
I could start this story in 2005, when Khadija Rahman, the daughter of the company’s founders, returned from her university education in London and took over, keen to infuse the brand with the democratic, thoughtful nature of fashion that she had encountered there – designs that took their cues from street style rather than what trickled down from the catwalk. If I told you only one Generation story, it would perhaps be about a kameez I bought some time after Khadija took over. I needed something to wear to meet a man I had admired from afar for some time, and the clean lines of that shirt, not reliant on bright colours or embellishment, concealed everything that I did not believe I was, and only showed what I wanted to be: without fuss, straightforward, sure. It was not common then to chronicle the #ootd, and while my memories of that meeting have faded, I remember what I wore and think of it even now when the need to present that version of myself arises.
But how can a brand draw new customers in a market where they are spoiled for choice? How can it stay relevant to a generation of young women taking their style cues not just from local designers but from what is popping up in their newsfeed from across the world? How can it avoid the “auntie” label, relegated to being the place your mother shops at? Can it? So perhaps the story I need to tell you about Generation starts in 2016, when a fashion journalist writing for one of Pakistan’s most widely circulated newspapers announced, “Going to Generation has once again become cool.” How did that happen? This is the story of how a fashion brand stopped trying to sell women clothes.
Since 2016, the Generation team has been keeping its ear to the ground, tuning in to conversations taking place among young Pakistanis. It has not been hard to do: with stylists, brand strategists, designers, photographers and marketing managers mostly in their 20s and 30s, many of these conversations are already taking place at the office. Inspired by Girls At Dhabas, a small but thoughtful feminist advocacy group that started on social media in 2015 and encouraged women to occupy and enjoy male-dominated public spaces, Generation launched the ‘Step Outside’ campaign in March 2016 for over 1.2 million of its followers on Facebook and Instagram. At a time when most major brands were shooting their new collections in exotic beach locations or in studios, Generation sent its model out in Lahore to loiter in markets and at communal pool tables in small neighbourhoods, linger on pedestrian bridges and traverse the city on public transport. “We wanted to encourage women to explore their cities and to be more visible on the streets,” says 26-year-old Haris Masood, a junior brand strategist and stylist. “We began to consider all the dilemmas that women face when they step outside of their homes, and that then turned inward and grew into a conversation about how women with different insecurities are made to feel less capable, less beautiful within their own homes.”
Left to Right: Gul Afshan, Sahar Qumbri, Kami Sid, Naveed Anjum, Irha Parishei (#Greaterthanfear, A/W'18)
Every marketing campaign since has woven these threads together, slowly abandoning studio sets and models for “real women”. In October 2017, ‘Greater than Fear’ showcased Generation’s autumn/winter collection with 20 women ranging in age from 20 to 72. Twenty-year-old Irha Parishei had responded to an open call for the campaign on social media, but had not expected to be picked for it. A student and transgender rights activist, Irha dreams of being a Victoria’s Secret model. For years, she tried to quell her femininity, even enrolling at an all-boys boarding school to “kill” it. “My mother would scold me for being effeminate or call me a ‘khusra’ in front of other children,” Irha recalls. In the years since she has transitioned and has a new name – ‘Irha’ means God-gifted, and ‘Parishei’ means ‘fairy’ – she has become a pariah for her family. “When they saw the photos from the Generation shoot, they were angered and asked me why I was telling people who I was, why I was being photographed in a dress and with long hair,” Irha says. “They thought it brought shame to them.”
When 54-year-old Anjum Naveed took part in the same campaign, she was asked what she feared most. “At this age, I worry that I will become stagnant,” she explains. “I was dreading the irrelevance that old age can bring with it.” This sparked the idea for Generation’s annual wedding collection. In ‘Shehnaz ki Shadi’, Anjum starred as a woman who was getting married for the second time. A psychology professor and therapist-in-training, she was nervous about how the idea would be received. “When I’ve spoken about second marriages with widows, I’ve seen how it is a stigma for them,” she explains. “Their greatest concern is, ‘What will people say?’” When the photographs, featuring Anjum’s own children and husband of 30 years, were posted online, no one at Generation could have predicted the response. “We received so many queries from older women who wanted to be in our next campaign,” says 27-year-old marketing coordinator Naima Gilani. The brand received orders and requests from India as well, and many of their followers on social media began to tag older members of their family in the photos.
Naveed Anjum (#Greaterthanfear, A/W'18)
“It's clear now that telling a consumer to just buy your product won’t seal the deal,” explains 30-year-old Huma Mobin, who has worked in advertising in Pakistan for the last eight years. “There has to be some social angle, and whether people love or hate it, the important thing is that it starts a dialogue.” But Huma has worked with enough brands to know that there’s one angle that they shy away from: pregnancy. “It's so common here for women to be told to cover up their bellies, to hide them with dupattas or wear baggy clothes,” she says. While women and infants are featured in ads for formula milk or diapers, its difficult to think of a single brand that has featured a pregnant woman in a campaign. So when Generation, having taken notice of Huma when photographs of her going on her honeymoon without her husband – he was denied a visa – went viral, reached out to her to be part of ‘Greater than Fear’, she was hesitant to tell them the good news: she was five months pregnant. “They were even more excited after that!” she remembers. “They started planning outfits and asking me what I was comfortable wearing.”
Amina Qureshi (#Greaterthanfear, A/W'18)
“People have asked me why we’re doing such concepts and making such statements,” explained 37-year-old Khadija Rahman, Generation’s Director, when I met her in Karachi in August. “But if you do a shoot with a pretty model wearing your clothes, that’s also a political statement. It's just a question of choosing which statement to make.” In February this year, the brand featured a curvy woman, but not as a model for plus size clothing – 30-year-old publicist and blogger Hadiyya Aazer is one of thousands of women who turn to Generation’s clothes in a market where many brands do not offer XL sizes. It wasn’t the first time a “real” woman, hips, belly, arms and all, had modelled for the brand. In March, the brand’s spring/summer collection made a statement about beauty in diversity, using women who had dark skin, vitiligo and albinism. In May, it celebrated motherhood once more, using women at various stages of their pregnancies wearing bump-friendly tunics and tops. Most of these women have been featured on Generation’s social media multiple times, and to see them represented consistently – I cannot remember the last time I saw a professional model in one of the brand’s campaigns or social media posts – is to render their appearance “normal”. They are not there as props for a marketing gimmick, but as themselves: real women who wear Generation’s clothes, just like you and me.
So how has this been received? Judging from the comments, likes and shares on social media alone, the response has been largely positive. But more importantly, Generation’s marketing team has not had to moderate, delete or block any comments – their customers have taken up the task of responding to any hateful feedback. “Why is that auntie getting married in this age?” asked one user when photos of ‘Shahnaz ki Shadi’ were posted. “I’m not agree with the matter of getting married in an old age,” wrote another. “This is following Hindu culture… Islamic values are spoiling on the name of liberty for woman.” What followed was a conversation between multiple commenters, an attempt to reason with that logic.
Left to Right: Rabia Dasti, Zainab Zahid, Maham Ali (Nai Rang SS'18- Gulab, Kanwal aur Chambeli)
Even as the two collections inspired by ‘Step Outside’ sold out, Khadija Rahman says that is a bonus – not the goal. “The clothes for us are secondary,” she explains. “Usually people will only comment ‘price please’ under photos of clothes or products on social media, but I remember on one of our campaigns, only one photograph out of 20 got a ‘price please’.” The streams of conversations under each image are precious to her, and even if an idea is rejected or criticized – on Valentine’s Day, the image of a man and woman holding each other was deemed “vulgarity” – she is still glad Generation put it out there. “It may not be the best for the brand or for sales, but the comments are what is important to me,” she says. “It's just more fulfilling to wonder what people will make of a certain idea rather than how many units we will sell. For a lot of brands, social media strategy is tied to sales. We keep telling ourselves we’re going to be more sales-oriented. But that’s just not personally satisfying. So we’re stupid like this.”
I asked Khadija what she would like Generation’s customers – present and future – to keep in mind about the brand. “That we’re crafting a bigger space for women to exist within,” she said. “A more tolerant space, a more intelligent space. That’s the story I want us to be discussing.”
Credits for Nai Rang SS'18- Gulab, Kanwal aur Chambeli
Photographs: Abdullah Haris
Hair and make-up: Saima Rashid Bargfrede
Models: Maham Ali, Rabia Dasti, Alina Tauseef and Zainab Zahid Ali
Credits for #Greaterthanfear A/W'18
Photographs: Umar Riaz
Hair and make-up: Natasha Salon
Faces of generation: Zaib-un-Nissa Syed, Natasha Saigol, Zara Peerzada, Shehzil Malik, Saba Sharjeel, Abbir Gul, Huma Mobin, Asima Siddiqui, Unum Babar, Alia Ghafur, Sawaira Warris, Sahar Qumbri, Kami Choudhry, Irha Parishei, Gul Afshan, Naveed Anjum, Amina Qureshi, Nashmia Farhan, Jannat Sohail, Tasneem Mir