Where art thou, sleeveless?

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By Maliha Rehman

Designer Deepak Perwani tells me that he hasn’t created a sleeveless design in a while. This is the same Deepak Perwani who was once known as fashion’s wild child. His were the ebullient little dresses which whirled down the runway at Milan Fashion Week, the effervescent prints on dresses, tunics and gowns dedicated to Frida Kahlo, the risqué gowns creating noise – and a bit of scandal – on the red carpet.

Now, he’s talking sleeves. He’s also waxing lyrical about the magic spun by dabka, zari and resham on a bridal gharara or sharara. Or rather, Deepak Perwani, once wild child, is talking commerce.

Proudly stocked within his flagship store in Zamzama Karachi and his e-store is an array of desi formal-wear, aimed for weddings, dholkis and dinners, in a range of colors – and with sleeves, please. “The customer has become more inclined towards conventional design,” Deepak observes, “and we want to create clothes that sell. At a fashion week, potential customers see clothes in a different light; worn by a model, styled a certain way with the crowd’s reaction adding to the excitement. Now, with no fashion shows taking place, designer-wear gets viewed on the small screen of a cellphone and somehow, the customer’s mindset has gotten smaller too!” he laughs.

“The online market is a big one and we have a pretty good idea for what will sell well,” says Deepak.

And what sells well are conventional silhouettes with sleeves rather than avant-garde sleeveless little numbers.

“The dresses never sell well,” points out couturier Rizwan Beyg, “unless you’re catering to an exclusive minority. When I am creating designs for retail, I wouldn’t want to cut a French gown or a blazer or skirt. I am not French – nor is my customer! Off the runway, customers want to buy clothes that are beautiful, have a designer signature and that are modest. That’s just the mindset of the Pakistani customer. I could create backless designs, sleeveless shirts and bustiers, customizing them for clients. But they wouldn’t sell off a retail rack. I have to keep that in mind when I am creating ready-to-wear designs.”

Even in the case of formal-wear that can be customized on order, there are brands that are opting for a modest aesthetic that is more likely to click with a mass audience. Fahad Hussayn says that, as a designer, he has always had a penchant for full sleeves and staid necklines on a heavy bridal design. “I just think that the design looks more beautiful that way,” he says. “Also, the customer is more likely to be able to envision herself wearing the design if it isn’t too risqué.”

For his Print Museum ready-to-wear, fashioned from lawn in psychedelic artistic prints, Fahad sticks to a safe silhouette. “I want customers to buy the clothes, as is, without asking me to customize. I also don’t want them to leave the design, deterred by the notion of waiting for the outfit to be altered.”

At Sania Maskatiya, CEO Umair Tabani simply feels that it is easier to alter an outfit for a customer by taking out the sleeves rather than adding them. The sleeveless designs may feature frequently in shoots but on the racks, it tends to be sleeves all the way. “There are times when an outfit will look better on the rack when it is a sleeveless,” he says. “However, we cater to a very diverse clientele and it just makes more sense, business-wise, to create most of our ready-to-wear with sleeves.”

Designer Shamaeel Ansari observes that sleeves are required by the majority of her Pakistani clientele for day-wear. “The Shamaeel brand has always incorporated sleeves in our designs, taking inspiration from history while also taking into account Pakistan’s cultural values at present,” she says.

The relatively new, but very popular, MNR label by Mohsin Naveed Ranjha has hardly ever delved towards sleeveless. “Skin show isn’t really equated with modernity by today’s woman,” says the designer. “We have noticed, especially in the case of international orders for bridals, that girls want fully worked sleeves and a heavy neckline.”


With the absence of fashion shows, it’s only inevitable that designers have to focus entirely on putting out images that entice customers into buying sprees. Beyond a small fraction, the desi clientele has always opted for traditional, conventional clothes. The sleeveless is unlikely to be a popular option – and the slinky dresses, even less so.

But sleeves or no sleeves – and there are still plenty of ateliers that eliminate sleeves rampantly – the race for retail doesn’t have to be equated with the death of design. Where are the crazy, vivacious prints that push boundaries and introduce new trends, the edgy cuts, the pleating and draping and crimping and creasing that took fashion beyond pretty floral embroideries? Distinctive design has become rare. Where’s the verve, the energy, the chutzpah that once took Pakistani fashion forward?

Maybe it won’t sell as well as the typically pretty designs but could designers, while creating large proportions of retail-friendly clothes, start creating at least tiny capsule lines that introduce new ideas? The clothes can be with the sleeves on, if they like.

The cover image shows a design by Shamaeel Ansari

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“Dr Haadi had no soul … I added nuances to him.” – Shahzad Sheikh
Where art thou, sleeveless?