A ferocious confrontation between India and its archrival, Pakistan, is under way – although not of the kind you perhaps expect.
This one pits a host of Pakistani fashion designers, armed with heaps of wafer-thin cotton and lace, against the grimly determined middle-class shoppers of the Indian capital.
Early signs are that while Pakistan has the moral victory, the Indian shoppers have succeeded in driving the designers back, behind chairs, tables and signboards to seek refuge from seething crowds demanding ... outfits. Oh, and shoes.
Delhi is hosting a first-ever exhibit of Pakistani fashion, furnishings and other design items. The Lifestyle Pakistan show is intended to connect Pakistani exporters with Indian importers – part of an effort to boost the paltry levels of trade between the two countries and further normalize relations. The commerce ministers of both nations kicked off the event, organized by the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan and its Indian counterpart, and a huge delegation of Pakistani businesspeople made the trip.
Almost as an afterthought, organizers added a chance for the public to come and shop. And oh, how they are shopping.
"We're just crazy about Pakistani suits: the cut, the design, the fabric," said Sarita Khera, catching her breath with a bulging bag of shalwar kameez (also know as kurta pyjamas, Punjabi suits or just "suits" – the tunic-over-trousers outfits favoured by women across South Asia) at her feet. Ms. Khera runs a watch manufacturing company; she likes colourful clothes for the office. "The Pakistani ones are just much better than anything you can get in India."
India and Pakistan should be natural trading partners, since they share languages and cultures in addition to a long border, but commercial relations have been held hostage by fraught politics. The Mumbai attacks in November, 2008, closed the borders and set the economic relationship under a deep chill. Last year, India had the same amount of trade with next-door Pakistan as it did with Mexico, which was less than half of what was traded with Nigeria. (India is Pakistan's ninth-largest trade partner.)
But late last year, Pakistan finally gave India most favoured nation status, 15 years after it first pledged to do so, and the countries are now negotiating a preferential trade agreement. Lifestyle Pakistan, set up by the business communities on both sides of the border, is intended to boost that process.
More open borders was a hot topic of conversation when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari came to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last weekend. Trade now stands at $2.6-billion a year; the trade pact should push that to $10-billion. This first-ever collaboration between the two countries' trade organizations is a sign of a substantial thaw.
"A lot of movement has happened in the last one year, the [trade]normalization is going very fast," Pakistani Commerce Secretary Zafar Mahmood told reporters at the opening of the show.
There was an air of barely controlled frenzy in the hall on Friday as shoppers and curious onlookers poured through the doors. The crowds were seven people deep around the more popular stands, and there was a heaving throng trying to get into something called the Designers' Lounge. Your correspondent is unable to tell you what goes on there; the skills acquired in a dozen war zones could not get her through the door.
Talha Javed, chief designer for House of Ittehad, a textile company in Faisalabad, tried in vain to maintain order in his spacious exhibition stand. When a shopper lunged over the counter and snatched a length of fine cotton out of his hands, he gave up and squeezed behind a rack. "We were not expecting to have so much response, and we are not prepared," he said, his voice faint.
Only a handful of the highest-end Pakistani fashion houses currently have their designs distributed in India, and Mr. Javed had high hopes of finding an importer through this show – except that in another hour or two, he was going to have nothing left to display.
Mr. Javed had only one complaint. "People are really bargaining, but our prices are already low, so it's really a problem. They do so much bargaining, these people."
It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated that Pakistani clothing can spur this sort of frenzy. But those with a comparative knowledge of South Asian fashion trends will attest that it is by far the most stylish country in the region. On a suit made in Karachi or Lahore, bodices are more fitted. Cuts are more slimming and less boxy. Details are sexier. And fabrics and colours – they're all just better.
"I don't wear 'Indian clothes,'" said Natasha Arora, who designs children's rooms. Clad in skinny jeans and a knit top, she was holding up an ankle-length, pale yellow, fine cotton kameez, slit to the knees and decorated with blue hand-embroidery. "But this I'll wear. Over baggy pants, like those Pakistani girls do – they're really stylish." She was pleasantly surprised that the kameez was just $40.
"People here crave Pakistani stuff," said Yasir Orawala, manager of a Karachi clothing and shoe company called Needle Impressions. It would be fantastic for his business to get access to this market, he said, but the current 40-per-cent duties on garments will have to be eliminated first.
And he will have to make some changes to his company's suits if it is going to export to India.
"We'll need larger sizes," he said. Does this mean the ladies who lunch in Delhi are – more buxom, shall we say, than those of Karachi? "That's what I'm seeing," he said firmly.