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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 May, 2005, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
Pakistan's remote fashion centre
By Chiade O'Shea
Chitral, northern Pakistan

The style known as Usmania's stitch
The style known as Usmania's stitch
During a long and stubborn winter in the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan, eight figures rose on the horizon of the Lowari Pass.

Seven porters, 20 suitcases and an Australian fashion designer.

They crunched over the snowy track at 3,000 metres laden with an improbable cargo of spring and summer clothing.

"Winter is tough and you just have to work around that," says Cathy Braid, who launched the Caravana couture label with friend and business manager Kirsten Ainsworth in 2003 from Pakistan's northern town of Chitral.

'Logistical nightmare'

When snow and rain blocked the road across the glacier until May and flights were grounded for almost a month, she had no choice but to start the trip to the catwalks of Sydney on foot, over the mountains.

The Qissa Khwani Story skirt
The Qissa Khwani Story skirt was 'too saucy' originally
"It is logistically a nightmare to work here, but at the same time, summer is gorgeous and the people are amazing," says Ms Braid, the team's designer.

When they first arrived in Chitral, they had two backpacks, a plan to live abroad and an ambition to make luxurious, indulgent textiles.

Two years later, their lines are stocked in 10 boutiques across Australia, outlets in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and most recently Liberty's in London.

Next season, they are looking to move into the Middle Eastern market, although they say building an empire is not their main priority.

The embroiderers and crochet workers they employ are women who otherwise would have little chance of employment in this conservative area of Pakistan.

As a result, 400 women in Chitral and the surrounding rural areas now earn similar salaries to teachers, often more in the busy periods before shows.

"I am the only wage-earner," says Gul Nisa, a widow who works as an embroiderer for Caravana. "I have four children and if I didn't have this work, we would be dependent on my brother who already has 11 people in his house."

"We use the money for essentials," says Zulfia. "It goes towards food shopping or books and tuition for my eight children's schooling."

Cottage industry

In return, the designs benefit from handicraft traditions which play a much richer role in everyday life here than in the West.

"People spend hours and hours doing something to give as a gift for a wedding," says Ms Braid. "It's great for us to be able to embellish works with that kind of love."

Far from longing for the reliability and scale of mass production, the two Australians say they appreciate the individuality of garments made in their cottage industry.

"It's just a lot more enjoyable with their interpretation of a particular piece," says Ms Braid, giving the example of a technique inadvertently invented by one of her embroiderers.

"We've got a style now that's called Usmania's stitch because she was filling a flower and on the back side of that flower, she had created a kind of stripe.

"I said: 'that looks great, let's try that' and the stitch is used a lot now in our work."

In fact the motif appears throughout her Spring/Summer 2005 collection.

When she first came to Pakistan, the use of contemporary influences on tribal rugs, such as helicopters or tanks, impressed her enough to use the technique in her own work.

Much of their latest collection featured elements of their everyday lives.

Mutually beneficial

Ms Braid says her favourite piece this season was a skirt called Qissa Khwani Story, which showed scenes from the famous Storyteller's Bazaar in the city of Peshawar which now houses the cloth market where they shop for materials.

Fashion designer Cathy Braid
Cathy Braid works on the Usmania stitch design
"We just took things that were around us and put them into the work - from the goat with the purdah wall and the pear trees to the Qissa Khwani Bazaar with the donkey with peaches on his back, telegraph poles and birds circling on the hot wind," she says.

They hope their relationship with the people of their adopted home is mutually beneficial. But they admit it can be a delicate balance, as they found while putting the finishing touches to the Qissa Khwani Story skirt.

"The tailors felt a bit funny about the piece and at first I couldn't understand why," she says.

Investigating further, she discovered they were uncomfortable that a design representing a mosque had been placed on the lower half of the body.

"Because it was on a skirt it was a bit too saucy," she says, "so I just turned it into a Mogul style building and they really appreciated it."

Rather than seeing a challenge in living so far from home, in a very new culture and sometimes inhospitable environment, it seems Ms Braid has relished this part of her work since she arrived.

"I remember just feeling that every day was so different and it was very exciting to be here and it was amazing, amazing," she says.


SEE ALSO:
Pakistan models battle it out
15 Jul 04 |  South Asia
Agencies halt Pakistan operations
06 Jun 04 |  South Asia
Full steam ahead for the Khyber train
27 Feb 99 |  South Asia


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