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“You can just check our Facebook page, you know?” said Mohammad Faisal as I stared at the racks of jeans — skinny, frayed, jeggings, boyfriend — that reach up to the ceiling in his shoebox-sized Karachi shop on a visit last fall.
For more than a decade, Faisal has outfitted girls in Karachi, Pakistan in Zara jeans and H&M shirts, reselling rejected stock from garment factories at a pittance of the retail price. His shop is so tiny that the “changing room” is essentially a closet where one shares space with bags of skinny jeans while trying not to pass out in 100-degree heat. But his Facebook page, which has been up and running since 2015, is updated with images of new stock, and so before I plan a visit — and risk an avalanche of dark denim— I can check out what’s in store online.
Faisal isn’t the only retailer on Facebook. In Pakistan, the website synonymous with fake news and “he put a ring on it” updates is used as a shopping website. It’s a platform to shop everything from antique furniture to Swarovski crystal-encrusted bridal gowns that run for thousands of dollars. It’s Net-a-Porter, Etsy, Pinterest, and a shopping mall experience combined into one endless scroll.
Everyone from high-end designers and popular retailers to savvy fabric store owners maintain a Facebook presence in Pakistan. Trends filter from the runways in New York into Instagram and Facebook feeds, eventually appearing in the collections of Pakistani designers and retailers and garnering hundreds of likes and comments until they reach my tailor (who is on Facebook), who can replicate a Zara shirt right down to the buttons. It’s like watching Miranda Priestly’s cerulean monologue from The Devil Wears Prada unfold in real time on your news feed.
It seems like an improbable phenomenon. Online shopping is only just making inroads into Pakistan, thanks to brands offering cash-on-delivery services since credit card use is extremely low, but it’s still bucking against convention. For decades, Pakistani women shopped in markets where salespeople unrolled yards of fabric under clusters of lights. Kids would be plied with warm bottles of Fanta and sickly-sweet chocolate bars to not complain while women bargained over the price per yard and argued about the provenance of the cloth. In smaller towns, vendors bearing bundles of fabric made house calls, or women would plan shopping trips around visits to major cities. The fabric was then passed on to tailors to create the local attire of a tunic, trousers, and a long stole. Design inspiration came from catalogs, the wardrobes of actors in popular Indian films and Pakistani TV shows, or from the style pages of local publications. There were a bare handful of ready-to-wear retail stores in major cities that only the upper-middle class could occasionally afford to shop at.
So how did the conventional shopping experience, tailors and all, find a home on a website largely known for family photos and Candy Crush?
The secret may be in the timing.
Pakistan’s ready-to-wear industry for local attire came of age around 2009, as Facebook was garnering mass appeal and as young urban women were entering the workforce without time to shop or go to tailors. A couple of savvy retailers started posting photos online as a way to drive sales from twentysomethings spending time on the site.
Not surprisingly, it was a younger set of fashion entrepreneurs that led the charge. Catalogue-style shots of outfits and prices appeared on the page for brands like Ego, led by the ambitious entrepreneur Adil Moosajee, who got a (then) up-and-coming female band called Zeb and Haniya to wear the label.
Maleeha Chaudhry, Daaman’s creative director, says Facebook is now the brand’s “lifeline.”
“It was instrumental in getting us off the ground and getting us noticed,” she says. “We might not have made it without it!”
Ego and Daaman were also savvy about pricing: Their lines cost almost the same as procuring fabric and a tailor’s fee put together. A tunic would cost around two thousand rupees (around $20), while a tailor’s fee came to five hundred, the fabric would cost about that, and one would spend another six hundred in cab and rickshaw fares to and from the tailor.
Larger brands jumped onto the site, like Khaadi — arguably one of Pakistan’s most successful retailers — which started off selling hand-woven fabric and now has stores in London and Dubai, not to mention 1.9 million likes. Designer labels followed, including Sana Safinaz, which went from a socialite staple to mass success when it began designing textiles in 2009 and put up a Facebook page. It now has more than 740,000 likes and several imitators.
“We had to keep up with the brightest trending — primarily engaging millennials and connecting with them in a more emotionally intelligent way,” designer Safinaz Munir said by email.
Eight years later, it’s hard to find a designer or retailer who isn’t on Facebook. It isn’t just twentysomethings — it’s women of all ages, income groups, and locations across the country. Click on the profiles of the women posting on brands' pages and you’ll find a middle-aged school principal in Karachi, a girl living in Afghanistan’s Logar province, and Pakistani expats in the Middle East.
“A woman in Chichawatni can be as fashionable as a woman in Karachi,” says Zahir Rahimtoola, who runs e-commerce solutions company ECOM PK, comparing the small town to a metropolis of 20 million people. “Other than being a game changer, it’s driving social change.” Women across the country can now shop independently; in many rural and urban areas, homemakers had to wait for their husbands or brothers to return from work to take them out shopping or arrange for transportation. With Facebook and online websites, they can now order clothes for themselves. Cash on delivery services have played a key role, since there's low credit card usage in Pakistan.
The popularity of smartphones has helped. There are more than 120 million cellular subscribers in Pakistan, and at least 10 to 15 million of them are estimated to be using smartphones. According to the tech website TechJuice.pk, there are 20 million Facebook users in Pakistan, with around 4.7 million women.
“I think we really treat our phones as jewels,” Muneeb Maayr, a cofounder of the shopping site Daraz, said in an interview at his seafront office in Karachi in 2015. “A lot of [online sales] is people looking at things in their Facebook feed,” he said.
The real action, however, is in the comments, where a fashion consciousness is emerging. Comments under a single image can run into the hundreds, with women asking “price pls,” details of fabric and sizes, and whether the styles are available in store.
Tooba Masood, a 27-year-old journalist in Karachi, says she’s started shopping more since discovering shopping on Facebook. “I had been eyeing these shoes on a page called Mochari but they weren’t in stock anymore, so I went through their photos and found a pair I liked. Then I realized I needed a bag and ordered one, too,” she recounted. “Both things turned out to be cheaper than if I had gone to a store at a mall. Now that I order stuff on Facebook — it makes me want to go out and shop more too, because I keep thinking of what shoes I can order if I had this kurta [a tunic]... it’s becoming a problem.”
If Facebook turned Pakistani women onto trends, it’s also made them into critics. Almost every page features women critiquing styles and prices. “Even my maternity frocks were better than what they have to offer,” one woman recently posted on the page for Generation.
Fashion pages also lure in misogynists and conservatives. Comments range from critique of models’ weight and poses to comparisons to domestic workers. On the page for Sana Safinaz, a woman calls out an image of a model in a backless outfit. On Generation’s page, a girl dismisses a jacket with a traditional print as “common.” Retailers that offered Black Friday sales faced a deluge of comments to re-brand the shopping event because Friday is a traditional day of prayer in Islam.
Facebook has also fueled an online black market, leeching off retailers and designers with pages that offer replicas. (The irony of this is that several Pakistani designers have been called out for plagiarism.)
But the site is a boon for young artisans and designers like Penguin Pop and Mochari, who combine their visual streams of funky, hip designs with a Facebook business model: They take orders via Facebook messages and courier the products to customers, and are garnering cult popularity.
“Most people really can’t afford to set up brick-and-mortar operations,” Rahimtoola says. “So this becomes a very easy medium.”
Not everyone is enamored. “Facebook is a nice website where you can get a lot of ideas about new collections and fashion before going to a physical market,” says Humera Qutb, 26. “But I would only use it for window shopping because some pages charge insanely, particularly on skin and hair care products.” Hira, who works at a non-profit in Lahore, recently passed up on a pair of “gorgeous mahogany patent tuxedo shoes with giant black bows” because the Facebook store didn’t have a return or exchange policy.
There’s also a sense of weariness. Subscribe to two or more pages, and you’re bound to get an unending dose of that season’s look. “In a way, I shop less for ‘trendy’ things for myself because having a stream of Facebook pages advertising those items make them visually monotonous,” says Hira. “Also if I know something that's really on trend is actually available in Pakistan, it somehow makes it less desirable, if that makes sense. Having said that, I think I would definitely buy platform oxfords if available online.”
As I browse through the album of an accessories designer’s annual sale one evening, I realize why shopping on Facebook works. It’s that ringside experience of watching fabric being rolled out combined with the voyeurism of seeing if your frenemy “likes” the same tunic you were planning on buying.
Pakistani brands are now migrating to Snapchat to attract millennials, but there are still hundreds of likes piling up on Facebook. “I think we’re just waiting for that inflection point where even illiterate people are essentially going to be hooked onto consumerism,” Maayr said. “I think the hidden consumerism in Pakistanis is just waiting to explode. We’re not savers. We are inherently spenders and show-offs.” If anything, then, Facebook is a preview of a floral tunic-filled future.