Meet the artisans and designers who want to change where you think “luxury” comes from.
Forty years ago, in a small workshop in Sabzazar, Lahore, a young boy watched colors come to life in the form of peacocks, traditional Islamic patterns, and various depictions of his favorite Mughal stories, and fell in love with cotton printing. It was a process Aslam Mirza could watch for hours: the workers extracting natural dyes, sometimes even from vegetables; placing the stencils down for block printing; painstakingly stamping out each design; and creating rows and rows of unique patterns. He was fascinated by the way the machines and artisans came together to turn curtains, table runners, and more into usable art. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
For Mirza, this art was also a connection to his ancestors: Under the name of Punjab Calico Printing, his family had been bringing beautiful tapestries and Mughal artwork to customers since 1868, helping to keep these delicate art forms alive. From a young age, Mirza knew that he wanted to carry on his family’s legacy, and today, he is the fourth generation in a business that has won multiple awards and accolades for their talent. But despite this rich family legacy, when he first expressed an interest in joining the family business, his father discouraged it; and by the time he was old enough to work, the once popular, 40-worker strong printing house had been left with almost nothing. “Pakistani handicrafts have long been left behind,” Mirza says. “When I attend small scale exhibitions I see that the younger generation wants nothing to do with [it] anymore.”
Despite his father’s wishes, Mirza took over Punjab Calico Printing in 1982, and with a small team of workers, he continued to create the designs that had always awed him. He also made contact with brokers and middlemen who could get his work to larger cities where he thought more people might be interested. Still, despite their best efforts to stay on top of trends and keep prices low to attract more customers, it became pretty clear to Mirza and his fellow artisans that individual efforts could only go so far. State corruption, which Mirza describes as the mismanagement and at times pocketing of funds attributed to his sector, and a lack of attention given to artisans and their needs, meant there were no areas for growth and almost no platforms for artisans to feature their work and connect with customers, or even each other. It was only when Mirza was approached by Zain Ahmad some two and a half years ago that things started to change.
Ahmed had then just started Rastah—a luxury urban wear brand fusing streetwear and traditional Pakistani crafts—and was looking to bring Mirza’s skill with Mughal art to his designs. For Ahmad, the main goal was to elevate a timeless talent to an international trend, and doing that meant challenging a lot of norms. Amidst local fashion trends having moved away from traditional crafts and a lack of access to international platforms, perhaps the biggest hurdle Rastah faced was challenging the decades old notion that anything made in Pakistan was automatically subpar. “Countries where artisanship can thrive have a very negative connotation with the tag ‘Made In Pakistan,’ which is controversial because if you look at luxury heritage brands globally, many are inspired by South Asian crafts but they won’t acknowledge it,” Ahmad says. “You’ll see block prints, hand woven fabrics, and more, but they’re white washed to fit the narrative that sells abroad.”
Challenging these perceptions on a global scale was difficult enough on its own, but according to Ahmad, it has been just as difficult locally. Last year, the brand was embroiled in online controversy when customers accused them of exploitation due to their high prices compared to other Pakistani brands. It was only after Rastah made it into the wardrobes of high profile names like Hollywood’s Riz Ahmed and Bollywood’s Karan Johar that the criticism stopped. “We live in a Pakistan where people still live in a colonial hangover, and it shows us consumer psychology,” he says. “We need outsiders to validate things for us.”
As Ahmad explains it, the high price point is meant to be a counter to the norm of middlemen exploiting artisans by buying their products for low prices, then upselling them and pocketing the profits. It’s a practice experts and activists in the industry have long been looking to end, but hasn’t proven easy—and not just for Rastah. Sara Ejaz, the head of business developments and partnerships at Vceela, an online marketplace promoting Pakistani handicrafts, says that despite wanting to make the selling process as direct as possible, the organization has faced multiple hurdles. For one, the lack of financial inclusion for women in Pakistan has been a major barrier for women artisans who want to take their skills (and profits) further. “We’re trying to get rid of the middleman process and when we get an order on Vceela, it directly notifies the artisan who is registered as a seller,” she explains. “But we ran into an issue where many of the women artisans who were registered would put up their brother’s, father’s, or husband’s account to receive payments because they didn’t have their own.”
Still, it’s a start. Platforms and brands like Rastah, Vceela, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, and Khudkaar are all examples of how Pakistani crafts can be amplified and made more desirable with the right structures in place, and in their own way, each of them is challenging social perceptions and inequality in order to champion the “Made in Pakistan” tag. Through these online marketplaces, artisans can access both local and international consumers directly, which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible for them.
Thus far, most of the “Made in Pakistan” movement has been about perception and innovation. But while “artisan,” “heritage,” and “sustainability” have all become buzzwords across Pakistan’s newly “woke” fashion landscape, a sustainable movement needs to go beyond greenwashing and putting certain words on their labels, and instead focus on investing in the people behind the products. As founder of sustainability focused organization Zuka and long time PR head at Kaarvan, Mehr Husain explains that the ultimate goal is for artisans like Mirza to be able to retain customers on their own and achieve financial independence. “Just because one engages with artisans does not mean it is sustainable,” she says. “You need to train them so they are able to earn independently and you need to go beyond just creation of fashion products. This means you raise awareness and be advocates of highlighting what is wrong with the current models of fashion and work to protect local heritage, be it fabrics, skills, or craft. Sustainable support ultimately means upward social mobility for artisans.” So far, it seems to be working: Rabia, an artisan in Layyah—a small town in South Punjab, Pakistan—who works at Khudkaar, says the organization’s online marketplace and marketing has been crucial in empowering artisans to believe that they, too, can create international level products with the right training and access.
For Rastah, having their artisans have a direct stake in the products they create has played a major role in doing this, too. Building off of the hype from their initial collaboration, Ahmad decided to move past just fashion, and stock unique handmade products like Mirza’s tapestries directly onto his website. “When it comes to the products they create themselves, all the money earned on those goes to the artisan directly,” Ahmad says. “We keep no part of it, we simply act as a connector between them and consumers.” Before his collaboration with Rastah, Mirza’s tapestries would often sell for PKR 4000 to 5000, or $20 to $25 USD. “When I first told Aslam Saab [a term of respect used for elders] that I would stock his tapestry and price it at $300, he told me I was making a huge mistake and that no one would buy it, but it sold out.”
As the impact of these individual efforts comes together, benefiting from the accessibility that digital bridges provide, a somewhat unintentional movement is slowly starting to uplift those who have struggled in poverty for generations at the behest of their craft. Rastah—and Vceela, and many others—are proof of what artisans like Mirza have always known: that these crafts and traditions are undoubtedly unique, they just need other people to see it, too. But it can only happen working from the inside out, and it needs to be a collaborative effort. “Pakistani artisans are no less than anyone, they are just restricted because of their poverty,” Mirza says. “When people visit from abroad, they love our things but we don’t like them ourselves. We need to start changing that.” Championing a “Made in Pakistan” label, and marketing it with pride, might just be step one in getting there.