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All photos courtesy of HeF Clothing

In Pakistan, Streetwear Is More Than Just Fashion

Streetwear may have gone mainstream in the West but in Pakistan, it’s an underground venture aimed at building a new cultural identity for the misunderstood nation.
November 27, 2018, 5:30am

This article originally appeared on VICE India

In Karachi, young creatives are working hard to build an underground scene around fashion, music and art in an effort to boost their country’s cultural capital. And HeF Clothing—widely recognised as Pakistan’s first modern streetwear label—plays a central role in that movement. The online brand, which launched in January 2017, seeks to change deep-rooted misconceptions about the South Asian state with casual attire that champions carefree style, liberal ideals and most importantly, local pride. Its loose-fit cotton collections celebrate Pakistani heroes such as Qawwali musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and painter/calligrapher Sadequain. One series is based around a simple design of three swords that represents Karachi’s iconic Teen Talwar monument.


Co-founders Hassaan Khan and Faraz Siddiqui always wanted to do something cool for Pakistan. “The rest of the world often sees us as backward, rigid people or that we're all extremist and want to keep our women locked up at home. We want to break those stereotypes, but we want to do it on our own terms,” Siddiqui explains. HeF—a portmanteau of ‘Hassaan’ and ‘Faraz’— is not a loud brand. The designs are minimalistic, the imagery subtle and the silhouettes relaxed, which is significant in a society where fashion has long been associated with glitz. Thanks to the support of Pakistani celebrities such as Mahira Khan, Sanam Saeed and Riz Ahmed, HeF’s unpretentious aesthetic is now a viable alternative to the usually ultra-stylised look heavily publicised by mainstream media.


The Teen Talwar tee depicts Karachi’s iconic Teen Talwar monument.

HeF, which takes inspiration from Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, aims to channel the region’s unheard voices and inspire the youth to re-think social norms. Murree Brewery, for instance, is one of the oldest industrial enterprises in the Islamic republic and among the first modern beer breweries established in Asia. The brewery still survives in spite of religious stigma around liquor consumption and HeF acknowledges it by featuring it in its first collection.

Street fashion, or street style, in Pakistan has usually been outfits based on personal preferences rather than trends, as seen by leading Pakistani fashion bloggers such as Ania Fawad and Anushae Khan. Streetwear, on the other hand, refers to the sporty, ’90s aesthetic championed by the likes of Supreme and A Bathing Ape. Pakistani rapper Nadir Chen Siddiqui, who spits socially conscious Urdu rhymes under the moniker of Chen-K ventured into streetwear last year with his own clothing line Mizaaj, which makes T-shirts adorned with defiant phrases such as ‘one man army’ and ‘badtameez’. “It’s really hard to find unique clothes in Pakistan,” he notes. “The majority are still very traditional so anything offbeat, like side zippers on shirts, will only be understood by maybe 20-30% of Pakistanis.”


The Ustad Tee pays homage to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The explosion of ready-to-wear fashion has paved the way for alternative options like HeF, according to industry insiders. While a majority of urban men and women rock a combination of Western wear and traditional outfits, those with rupees to spare flock to local high-street brands such as Sassy, ICON, Generation, Sapphire and Chapter 2. Walk into Karachi’s trendy Xanders Cafe and nearly everyone is wearing skinny jeans, graphic tees or printed shirts, notes stylist and make-up artist Samiya Ansari, who recently worked on the film Cake, Pakistan’s official Oscar entry.

One of HeF’s T-shirts champions the Ahmaddiya community—a sect of Islam that faces persecution in Pakistan—through an image of physicist Abdus Salam. The first Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize in science in 1979, Salam rarely receives acclaim due to his association with the Ahmadis. Another T-shirt depicts a hashish or chars cafe in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province — a region that’s long demanded greater regional autonomy from the federal government. A speciality of Quetta, these cafes allow customers to smoke freely while enjoying a cup of tea and snacks. Rainbow motifs are also featured on several tops in clear advocacy for the LGBTQ movement. Same-sex sexual acts carry criminal penalties in the nation even though intersex and gender ambiguous individuals—known as khawaja sira—were celebrated during the Mughal Empire. “It's not just the upper class that proves these misconceptions [about Pakistan] wrong," says Siddiqui. "You can find progressive people across South Asia, even in the tiniest of villages.”


So far, HeF’s support for minorities hasn’t invited any trouble from authorities. “We’re not making political statements; we’re just using streetwear to disseminate our values,” Siddiqui explains.

Streetwear’s ability to expose people to unconventional ways of dressing and thinking makes it a major element of counterculture, explains Karachi-based DJ/producer Turhan James. And like all countercultural movements, music is a part of it too. Regular pop-up parties between HeF and Third World Radio—a platform for electronic musicians of which Ansari is a part—have become safe spaces for locals to hang out. Featuring live art by Pakistani illustrators such as Naveen Shakeel and underground DJs, the events are a chance for the public to experience a different vibe, explains Ansari.

HeF and Third World Radio both aspire to collaborate with platforms across neighbouring countries, including India. HeF has already worked with the likes of Sine Valley, a Nepal-based electronic music festival that together with Lost Path—a boutique festival set in Pakistan’s wilderness—is sparking music tourism.

“We’re all trying to create this culture together,” says Siddiqui.

Nisa Kreems can be found here.