How the pandemic gave Pakistani denim a second life


Most clothes in Pakistan are tailor-made. It is a strange phenomena of the third-world that a majority of people that would be considered not well off wear bespoke clothing. The major reason for this is cheap labour. Skilled tailors are everywhere and they do not ask for the kind of money that their skilled work deserves and should fetch in more developed countries. 

This means that it is cheaper to buy loose cloth and ask your local tailor to stitch it according to your measurements. Buying off the rack from brands is actually a status symbol since those clothes are more expensive. In most western countries, high-end brands particularly for things like suits often have in-house tailors, or high-end tailors often sell fabric as well. 

But one of the fabrics that have historically not been able to be bespoke is denim. Hard to work with and increasingly in demand, denim products like jackets and jeans need special craftsmen. The journey of denim began in 1873, when Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a U.S. patent on the process of putting rivets in men’s work pants for the very first time. Tough yet comfortable to move around in, denim was first used for clothes worn by workers because of its high durability. Then it became widely popular in the 1930s when Hollywood started making cowboy movies in which actors wore jeans.And from that point onwards denim clothing spread along with globalization. 

Denim also happens to be one of the fabrics that Pakistan is good at producing. The manufacturing of denim garments is a complex, difficult and lengthy task that is performed step by step. It is an art that has been perfected by hundreds of small and large factories in Pakistan, which produce world-class denim garments. That is why Pakistani denim is popular everywhere, including in European countries. In fact, in July 2021, Pakistan exported denim clothing worth $38 million to the United States and these figures were released by none other than the US Office of Textiles and Apparel. And while Pakistan has managed to increase its denim exports by such huge numbers, there is still some doubt as to whether this level of exports can be maintained.

Rising exports 

One of the main things you hear from almost every sector is the need to increase exports and decrease imports to improve the balance of payments. Producers like to export products because they get a better price and it is also in the government’s interest, so the success of denim this last year is a win. Interestingly, the volume of exports was 140 percent higher than in July 2020 last year. This was also part of a larger trend in the region and beyond. 

According to the data, denim exports from Mexico increased by 58 percent during the same period, while exports by Bangladesh increased by 24 percent. The data also shows that among Asian countries that supply textiles and garments to the US, Pakistan’s exports to the US have increased by 62.16 percent to $188.94 million. Similarly, Bangladesh’s exports increased by 42.82 per cent to $362.38 million during the period, while imports from China increased by 13.28 per cent to $192.49 million.

Bilal Chaudhry, who deals in local and imported readymade garments in Karachi, Faisalabad and Lahore, believes that this time Pakistan’s denim has dominated not only international but also local markets – which are often not hotspots for world-class denim since these products are very expensive. However, with the increasing exports this year, there has also been a massive increase in export leftovers which people are now buying.  

Bilal claims that earlier the clothes available on the market were of a subpar quality. All of the good denim products would be exported and we would be left with lower quality items. “You could not find good clothes here because many shopkeepers display clothes that are not fit to be worn. If the fabric is of good quality then the sewing will be inferior and if the sewing is good then the quality of the fabric will be very poor,” he explains. “Since earlier exports of readymade garments from Pakistan were not high, export leftovers were rarely seen in the market and even if one had them available, the defects of this garment were clearly visible.” 

This is where the pandemic might have actually helped local denim producers. Until the lockdowns were first imposed, the denim market was dominated by brands like Levis. When the Covid lockdown was imposed business was severely affected, but online sales remained high. At this point, sellers started importing denim from China, Bangladesh, and Turkey. They were imported at reasonable prices and sold hand in hand. 

This is where there was a twist in fate. Around the time that Pakistan began recovering from Covid and lockdowns were being lifted, countries like Bangladesh and Turkey, from whom we had been importing before, went into lockdowns of their own and started looking towards Pakistan for denim. It was also at this point that the US demand started to look towards Pakistan for denim. “Pakistan filled the gap for a while and that is why our exports rose. All of these orders were completed by Pakistan and our exports rose,” says Bilal. “At the same time there was also a huge amount of export leftovers which then appeared in the local market and began giving the big brands a serious run for their money.” 

It was a simple process. Suddenly there were a lot of high-quality denim products available on the market for cheap. Earlier, small retailers would buy low-quality products from factories and would not cater to the same segment that would be buying clothes from places like Levis. However with export leftovers, suddenly these small retailers were selling the same quality of products for cheaper. Since these small retailers often operate in the same markets as large brands, they began undercutting the sales of these brands on the local market as well. 

“Take the example of a single pair of jeans. Earlier, the best quality pair of jeans from a local factory would be available for Rs 400 to Rs 700 to the retailer. However, even the best quality available to us was not what is considered ‘export quality.’ We were not playing in the same league as the large brand names. Now there are plenty of factories that have thousands of denim export leftovers and their quality is high and can compete with places like Levis. Everything in the country is becoming more expensive but denim products have actually risen in quality and fallen in terms of price.”

Earlier, when the non-export quality pants were available for Rs 400 to Rs 700 from factories, retailers are now buying export-leftovers for Rs 250 to Rs 500 from the factories and selling them between Rs 800 to Rs 1200, which leaves both customers and retailers very happy. In fact, the denim products that these retailers imported back when Pakistan was under lockdown is sitting in warehouses collecting dust since it is of the same quality but significantly more expensive. 

“Since the cost of a pair of jeans that we import costs us about Rs 900, selling it at Rs 1,200 is not a very lucrative deal. Similarly, denim jackets were easily available in our local markets. Some of the big brands had these jackets available and their price was not affordable to everyone. Right now, denim jackets in the market are only between Rs 1500 to 2500. People used to buy used denim jackets from Landa Bazaar and were happy to wear used jackets but now the new ones are easily available in the local market at cheaper prices. Similarly, the markets are full of denim shorts and they are selling for only between Rs 300 to Rs 500. And all of these export leftovers are branded products from brands like Levis, Zara man, Lee, Gucci, True Religion, Polo and Diesel. Now ask yourself how the rush in the markets will not increase,” says Bilal.   Source Link: How the pandemic gave Pakistani denim a second life – Profit by Pakistan Today

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