British brand Debenhams will be making its way to Karachi this July and with it will disembark a sense of high street fashion, shoes, accessories, cosmetics, lifestyle and a fraction of almost everything that the brand houses in any of its 20-something stores worldwide.
Spread over 2700 square feet in the swanky new Dolmen Mall (that has one of the most splendid views overlooking the effervescent Arabian sea shore), the two storey store is expected to change the way retail, especially high street fashion retail, is being chartered in Pakistan.
I was asked to survey the unfinished retail space in Karachi before being flown out to London for a preview of what Debenhams would be bringing into it later this year. The autumn/winter 2012 collection, displayed at the Victoria Square Basement (which also serves as a London Fashion Week venue), had lots to offer including giant hounds tooth print jackets, sequined shifts, fur collar coats, brocade tunics and even lace leggings similar to what many designers recently showed at fashion weeks in Pakistan.
I have to say the similarities could be drawn even deeper. The Press Meet, a simple and elegant affair, wasn't unlike what we experience in Pakistan. Champagne flowed instead of our usual mint lemonade and women in high heels were genuinely blond (as opposed to the peroxide variety) but I could relate almost every character in London to a body-double in Pakistan. It did create a sense of familiarity, which I think is one reason UK and Pakistan will be able to bridge fashion so effortlessly. We have a lot in common.
From elaborate red carpet gowns to wardrobe essentials, autumn/winter 2012 at Debenhams looked promising. And I was reassured that all jugular, latest lines would be available in Pakistan too.
Truthfully, the basics excited more than the luxury lines because while Pakistani designers are busy making multi-million rupee bridals, not many of them are investing their time and research to develop essentials as simple as a basic pair of black trousers. A white work shirt, a decent pair of shoes, lingerie, wardrobe basics such as trousers and tops and most of all, clothing for kids and teenagers is extremely sparse if you're looking for anything superior to Zainab Market quality. While luxury prêt in Pakistan is burgeoning, fashion staples remain most neglected. And even in established labels, business growth is hard to find.
“Creativity and business sense seldom go hand in hand,” Yasin Paracha, CEO Team A Ventures shared when I met him at Dolmen Mall for a tour of his expanding empire of franchises that now include Mothercare, Early Learning Centre, Accessorize, Next, Crocs, Monsoon, Timberland and now Debenhams (which is expected to open before Ramazan). Despite being the man of the moment, Paracha came across as a humble person who'd rather be in the background instead of the limelight. He refused to take a bow when Next and Monsoon debuted at Fashion Pakistan Week 3 and it was a task to convince him to pose for this portrait.
What one found compelling - beyond Paracha's modesty - was his ability to find hope in the future of Pakistan and actually put his money where his mouth is, proverbially and actually. Also, for someone with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, he seemed to have just as easily absorbed an understanding of fashion from his years spent in London. A sense of style along with a head for numbers is what one needs to put the fashion industry in perspective.
While fashion weeks have been changing the look of fashion in Pakistan, it would be fair to say that Yasin Paracha and his stores will change the business of fashion in Pakistan. The retail experience for Pakistan's middle class is evolving as we speak.
Offering professional insight into the shortcomings of the local fashion industry he said, “There has to be a combination of creativity and business sense for a brand to be successful. Designing a product and converting it to being buyable is essential. The right branding and marketing is essential. If you look at the examples in fashion that have worked, Khaadi is the obvious. I think Deepak Perwani and Nomi Ansari have good heads for business. Maheen undersells herself. She has so much business sense. These people have created niches for themselves but their brands should be everywhere, all over the place.”
Now that he has invested in bringing so many international brands to Pakistan, would he also consider investing in taking Pakistani fashion brands ahead, I asked him.
“Would I invest in a Pakistani brand? Yes, if it makes commercial sense,” he responded with a smile. “I won't tell you which brands I would like to invest in but I'll tell you which brands I think have potential to grow with investment. Gulabo, for starters, is a fantastic brand. It speaks the local language and has the potential to be on the same wavelength as Ed Hardy. All of Bareeze's brands can come up another level. Expansion can happen with investment wherever there is a vision for it.”
Yasin Paracha seems to be the man of the moment, a man with that vision. Equipped with a background in business, toy-making to be exact, he related how his experience in retail was non-existent when he brought Early Learning Centre to Pakistan back in 2002.
“In 2002 I was not into retail of this sort at all,” he shared his journey. “I was running a toy factory and we were having our first child. My wife wanted to shop at a place like ELC and she encouraged me to write to them. That's how it began. We put in a request and signed up with Mothercare. The rest was a domino effect; brands accepted our requests because of the ones that had already agreed to send a franchise to Pakistan. Next replied within half an hour of our writing to them because of Mothercare. Before us they were getting and rejecting requests from Pakistan on a daily basis.”
What convinced them to send their stores across thousands of miles, given Pakistan's volatile reputation?
“They need you to have enough money to put into the business but the deciding factor is who they can trust and work with. They look at passion, which I had,” Paracha simplified.
Alun Hughes, one of Debenhams' international business managers (Alun has visited Pakistan to work on Next as well) agreed when I met him at the press meet in London. Well-acquainted with the challenges of the region, his unaffected optimism and confidence in Pakistan as a potential market for growth was encouraging.
“There are a number of deciding factors, to be honest,” he explained his reasons for agreeing to a Debenhams franchise in Pakistan. “Ideally, we're looking for somebody who has a proven track record. We are trusting somebody to look after our brand, thousands and thousands of miles away and we have to be able to trust him. We had that trust in Yasin after having worked with him at Mothercare. Even something (negative) that might happen in Pakistan can get back to the UK and have a ripple effect. Financial backing is important too. And of course, the economy of the region needs to be good.”
Do you feel Pakistan has that strength of economy, I asked.
“We've done our due diligence and we think we're okay there. We've got stores that are trading in Iran and we've got sanctions there. We don't have those issues in Pakistan. You never know what's around the corner but we've done our market research and it looks good. We wouldn't be going to Pakistan if it weren't an economically viable market. It's good internally but it's also good externally that Debenhams has shown confidence in Pakistan.”
The British High Commission in Pakistan is showing that confidence in Pakistan too and is hoping to take investment from £1.9bn to £2.5bn by 2015. British Deputy High Commissioner, Karachi and the Director, Trade and Investment for Pakistan, Mr Francis Campbell has been aggressive in favouring business expansion between UK and Pakistan.
And by hosting a Fashion Pakistan Week reception at the Acton House earlier this year, he expressed an interest in the fashion industry as an investment-worthy fraction. There is reason to believe that other initiatives, linking foreign investors for Pakistani fashion via Britain, are also being made. What we see is a promising beginning.
“There is endless opportunity in Pakistan,” Paracha reverberated. “As far as region is concerned this may be the only region that is untapped. Not all brands may be willing to come in right now but they will, eventually. They are very concerned about the security situation. Many of them refuse, saying they cannot do business with a country that they are unable to travel to or visit. But truly global brands are working in places like Columbia and Nigeria and Pakistan doesn't seem so distant in comparison.”
But how, in a country facing existential crises after crises, does the grand entry of a British departmental store make business sense, one repeatedly wondered?
“What we look at is the urban population,” Paracha replied. “And we take ten per cent of that. We're looking at five to six million people with spending power. It's a phenomenal market. The 'desire to shop' index is incredibly high in Pakistan and it goes beyond people with apparent buying power. Let me share that a nurse who we hired to help us with our children was working at a fixed salary but she spent 22,000 rupees at Mothercare when she was shopping for her own kids.”
Paracha calls the Dolmen Mall the game changer but from one can see he's the one who's braving the change. Looking at the obvious, every new store that opens generates thousands of opportunities in the job market and it provides endless options for shoppers to spend and invest in their own economy as opposed to taking it to Dubai or Singapore.
Secondly, with foreign stores coming in, local brands will fall in competition and they will be compelled to position themselves better in business structure, product development, marketing and pricing, especially. Public Relations will surely get a stronger shot of professionalism too as the Press Meet in London was held exclusively for the media, with nothing to deter them from evaluating the product.
An array of smartly dressed mannequins exhibiting the collections was put out with pricing and detailing. Accessories were displayed separately and journalists were encouraged to mingle and absorb as much as possible. British designers Matthew Williamson and Julien MacDonald (whose Debenhams line, STAR will be available in Pakistan too) were available for comments. A professional event that began and ended at a decent time was organized and refreshingly focused, two things we need to introduce more of in Pakistan where fashion still moonlights as entertainment.
Back at the event, Alun Hughes also shared that Debenhams would be offering 'third party brands' to Pakistan, which means that local designers may be asked to design products specifically for the store to make it region specific. This is already happening in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Retail expansion is about options and choices, not about social equality so it's a given that not everyone will be able to afford the Debenhams experience in Pakistan. But then not everyone can afford Jafferjees, Khaadi, Bareeze or any of the local brands that are doing so well whilst remaining integral to business development here. Debenhams prices in Pakistan, we are assured, will be more affordable than Dubai, and the same options will be available without the additional travel expenses. It's a retail win-win situation.
The only people, who should be worried, from where I see it, are designers who have been charging top dollar, couture prices for products that may not even be at par with Debenhams basics. Monsoon and Next have already made debuts at a fashion week in Karachi; can we expect to see a Julien MacDonald sequined gown on the red carpet soon?
–Yasin Paracha profilephoto by Haseeb Siddiqui
– Debenhams photos by Shoaib Malik