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Pakistani designers and models dare to bare

With a riot of colourful style and a show of women's flesh considered scandalous in this conservative Muslim country, models pranced down the catwalk in couture fashion that was elegant, racy and indelibly Pakistani.

In a country of daily terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, Pakistani designers and models are challenging firebrand mullahs and Taliban insurgents by launching the country's first-ever "fashion week" in Karachi.

"There's so much more to Pakistan, it's not just suicide jackets and al-Qaeda," said Rizwan Beyg, a leading designer, who once dressed Diana, the late Princess of Wales. "It's defiance, sheer defiance. This is about saying, 'They're not going to threaten our lifestyle.' We want to show the world that we're survivors."

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The four-day extravaganza kicked off Wednesday at the luxury Marriott hotel - the same hotel chain whose Islamabad branch was devastated by a truck bombing last year. Western evening dresses fused with eastern design, rich embroidery, silk tunics, feathery hats, lacy tops, along with radical interpretations of the traditional shalwar kameez, all floated down the catwalk.

But the international fashionistas who were to attend, including Miami Fashion Week head Beth Sobol, had to be turned away at the last moment, fearful that militants might strike. The event was originally scheduled for last month, but was hurriedly postponed when extremists attacked the military headquarters and the original venue backed out. Paramilitary Rangers were deployed around the new venue, which has taken on fortress-like security during the past two years as Pakistan has seen the number and scale of terrorist attacks grow.

Karachi, a city of around 17 million people, is Pakistan's financial capital and a melting pot of communities, including the largest Pashtun population of any city - the ethnic group that dominates Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan and makes up most of the Taliban. It also has many radical Islamic schools. But so far, the city been spared the worst of the terrorist violence in Pakistan. Paradoxically, many believe this is because of its extremist presence: the place is used by hardliners to lie low and as a conduit for funds, meaning that they wouldn't want to provoke a crackdown by causing trouble.

Pakistan has a sizable textile industry, but almost all of it is basic items such as socks, underwear and towels. Fashion hardly figures in the exports. Like Pakistani art and literature, fashion is just beginning to emerge on the international stage, with designers appearing in Milan this year for the first time. The prize for the best newcomer in Karachi is a free slot at Miami fashion week, but Ms. Sobol will now have to judge that award by watching video of the event online.

There's so much more to Pakistan, it's not just suicide jackets and al-Qaeda Designer Rizwan Beyg

In a country where the all-enveloping burka is not uncommon and a hijab to hide the hair or full face is growing in popularity, daring amounts of female skin were on display. Exposed midriffs, bare shoulders, plunging backlines, even modest cleavage and legs to just above the knee, were visible. One designer, Fahad Hussayn, chose to send his models out wearing face-covering veils, but with bare shoulders.

"We're really sick of our image abroad. If the government hasn't got the vision, then somebody's got to take the initiative to try to change that," said Deepak Perwani, a top Pakistani designer. He plans to include women in hot pants in his show on Saturday.

"It's my country. It's a democracy. I can show whatever I want," Mr. Perwani added.

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Extremists aside, Pakistan is a conservative culture, which means that designers and models work within boundaries So Mr. Perwani's hot pants will be worn over tights.

Backstage, leading model Nadia Hussain explained that those societal constraints mean few make a career of modelling, with perhaps just 30 professional female models in the whole country. Many change their names to protect their families from stigma.

"The maximum we'll go is mid-thigh and even that, only 5 per cent of girls would do," Ms. Hussain said. "Cleavage can be low but so that you can't actually see anything. … Families see the pictures in magazines."

Even the restrictions observed in the Karachi event shocked some. Amid the crowd sat a handful of women in face-covering hijabs.

"I feel that it's a bit too exposed," said Rahaifer Samir, whose eyes were the only part of her face visible. "There are certain limits. Women should be draped. We want to wear good clothes but there should just be more fabric."

Sana Khan, a 29-year-old from Toronto who's visiting Pakistan, pointed out that the hijab-wearers were just a handful in an audience of about 400.

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"Couture fashion is new in Pakistan," Ms. Khan said. "People wouldn't necessarily know what to expect."

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