Finding the traditional lose cloak too archaic, scores of Kashmiri designers and investors brought in a turnaround in one of Kashmir’s key identity symbols, the Pheran. It has triggered new commerce, created new jobs and made tweed relevant to wool-abundant Vale. Now the chick cloak is as trendy in Srinagar as Cashmere was in Napoleon’s Paris, reports Insha Shirazi and Tahir Bhat
“Is the pheran now the same as we wore when we were young?” asks Ghulam Qadir, an elderly Shehr-e-Khas in Srinagar. Amazed by the way, the long loose cloak has changed its character from being a requirement to a statement, he thinks he has nothing much to relate with the new garment.
“We used to wear the pheran to protect ourselves from the extreme cold and to keep the Kangir inside it,” the gentleman said. “I used to keep my grandchildren inside my pheran. They would take it as a game and would get warmed up at no cost.”
The pheran has changed its character and it now lacks space for the ‘game’ parents used to play with the kids. From a requirement, the cloak has moved to be a fashion statement and an identity symbol.
The fact is that Kashmir is personified culturally by pheran, traditional attire that has evolved over the centuries. There is a lot of dispute and debate about its origins. Some say it has evolved from the Persian word pariehan, which means clothing but there is a counter-narrative suggesting that Nilmat Purana has a mention of pravarna and the pheran could be its evolved name. People keen to accredit historic figures even attribute pheran to Badshah, the Zain ul Abidin. So many chroniclers attribute its introduction to the Mughal era with the motive of taking away the martial nature of the residents from their character. Even Walter Lawrence believes so but there are no clear details to substantiate all this.
A gender-neutral outfit, it would be used throughout the year with lighter models in summer, especially by women. Since it covers most of the body, has a loose-fitting dress and descends just below the knees, it never was in a clash with culture, faith or the weather. During Kashmir’s abject poor days, this was the only garment that people would use.
What is clear, however, is that the pheran has evolved as a piece of garment, and a symbol of identity. Available in traditional and modern patterns, pheran is now part of every cupboard in every family – some retaining it for requirement and many for its fashion. Interestingly, however, the cloak has bounced back to the market as material changes in its character have made it worth use outside home, offices and the schools. It has replaced a coat and a jacket and is trendy.
Syed Tabasum is a seamstress in Hawal, a profession she adopted when she was 16. She says the pheran is in huge demand for the last few, primarily because it is a style statement. “Every day, I get a lot of calls from clients who want the pheran stitched,” she said. “Stitching pheran is a well-paying job,” Tabassum said though she is stitching a lot of garments but pheran has emerged her favourite because of the demand and the costs its stitching involves. “Earlier pheran would be for elders but now it is for all ages – children, women and the youngsters.”
“I have never seen such a radical transformation in pheran as we are seeing now,” Tabasum insisted. “There are plenty of styles – Qurab pheran, Ladheh pheran, makhmal pheran, new coat type pheran, and special design pheran for brides.”
At one point in time, pheran had become such a negative attire that people were not being permitted into offices with their pherans’s on. Even students were denied permission to classrooms. Alia, a university student, remembers the day she was disallowed into the classroom with her pheran. “Now pheran no longer resembles with that traditional cloak it was all about. It is a coat or a jacket and everybody dons it now,” Alia said.
The turnaround came after some residents holding positions of power and authority started donning pehran. At one point in time, a circuit of IAS officers during Shah Feasal’s IAS days were seen in official functions in pherans, so were the ministers. Those days, the powerful would gift their friends in Delhi a piece of pheran. Prime Ministers’ VP Singh and Narendra Modi were seen wearing pherans publicly, something that Mrs Indira Gandhi would normally do during her frequent Kashmir jaunts.
The trend was quickly picked by social media as the internet offered a new democratic set-up. Soon, this was linked with the culture and the wool resource as Kashmir is one of the major wool producers but has given up the entire infrastructure of processing even one per cent of the raw material. The designers jumped in and created marvellous designs that suit twenty-first-century fashion. An identity issue, some non-resident Kashmiris attempted wearing it publicly offshore and it triggered a new buzz. That was how the turnaround took place.
Soon, various internet sites started offering pherans, and it started triggering a market appetite. Now readymade pherans available are available with dozens of apparel stores and people have started investing in the new trend. These garments come in diverse styles. The change was adopted by urban Kashmir much faster even as the peripheral Kashmir still stays with the classic and the base model.
Khan Majid is a pheran retailer, whose basket includes tilla pherans, pashmina pherans, and simple classic pherans. Tilla pherans are cloaks having gold thread embroidery and used to be a key item in Kashmir women’s cupboard. These went out of fashion for almost two decades only to bounce back with a huge appetite within and outside Srinagar.
“We earn honourably especially from tilla embroidery pherans, which are in high demand,” Khan said. “Earlier, we used to sell cloth for pheran, which used to be patu. Now the fabric used in pheran is diverse – velvet, china wool, makhmal, and pashmina.”
The pheran variety is now huge – Tweed pherans, pherans with patches and designer arms, box pattern with big buttons, pherans with zip collar and pockets in front, and pherans with patches on sleeves and pockets have all been popular in recent years.
Tweed Is Back
This has helped the policymakers in Jammu and Kashmir to get the focus back to the Kashmir tweet, which, by no means is inferior to the Harris Tweed that sells at more than ten times more costly than the one Kashmir produces. It is more because of brand promotion rather than any superiority in composition. At one point, the government did enter into a relationship with the Raymond’s to market the Kashmir tweed. The experiment did not fail but the lack of follow up killed the initiative. Now the surge in local demand has improved production.
“There are three interventions on the tweed front,” Mahmood Ahmad, Director Industries and Handicrafts said. “In Bandipore, we have a cluster under a World Bank-funded project in which with the handholding of an NGO, Rangasutra, we are helping artisans to produce hand-spun and hand-woven tweed.” The NGO is helping in the capacity building by improving colours, designs and efficiency of looms. There are similar clusters in Pulwama and Kulgam. By an average, from these three clusters, almost 30-50,000 meters are produced in a year. Being hand-spun, it sells around Rs 1000, a meter.
In the industries department, the revived Bemina Woollen Mills is into the mechanised tweed, which is now available in 50 shades and with as many patterns. On a yearly basis, around 150 thousand meters are produced in a year. “If the demand appreciates as we expect, we can run the machines in two shifts and improve the production,” Mehmood said. It is now one of the best tweed showrooms in Srinagar where people can get cloth or place an order for a coat, or jacket under the famous Poshish brand.
One of the key factors for reviving the Mills was to utilise part of the wool raw material. Kashmir’s is India’s second major wool producer with an estimated production of 75 lakh kilograms. “Our wool has 18-24 micron size, which is the second-best after Cashmere fibre but the crisis was that we were not utilising this raw material,” Mehmood said. “Even now, we are not using more than a million kilograms.” Machine-made tweed sells at Rs 400.
Women ExclusiveThe larger reality is that instead of males, it is teh female who are behind the change in pheran’s design and demand. Tilla pheran, silk with embroidering pheran, Kani pheran, quraab pheran with tilla, ari kam pheran, zeavij keam pheran, Makhmal tilli pheran, pearl work (mokhti keam) pheran – all these costly cloaks were traditionally part of the bride’s trousseau. As lehanga got in, all these costly pherans became part of the routine.
However, the local demand in all these patterns has revolutionized the modern pheran. These pherans are not limited to Kashmir; people from across Jammu and Kashmir use them. For a change, some of the Bollywood biggies even use it.
After Kashmir gave up the wool sector, pheran fashion was solely dependent on the imported fabric from Punjab. Off late, however, a variety of textiles are used and these include some produced locally. The colours of pheran used to be limited, but thanks to advancements in the textile business, colours can now be added to the fabric used to make pheran, according to Dilawar, a fabric entrepreneur.
“I prefer to wear pheran instead of jackets and coats because the garment provides tremendous warmth and addresses my cultural moorings too,” Arooj, a university student, said. “My teachers and friends also wear designed pherans.”
Brand Gets In
As the modern designer and fashion circuit got in, now brands have emerged. While some brands are running exclusive stores, a few are available online and doing good. Only Pherans is a brand being promoted by Esha and Lubna Malhotra. Poshish is being promoted by the Handloom department for years now, both in coats, jackets and pherans.
Malhotras said it was difficult for them to break the stigma associated with pherans because the cliché designs had prevented any intervention. Achieving a harmonious synergy between traditional and modern pherans was challenging, they said because people were not ready to embrace it at first.
“We realised as Kashmiris that traditional pherans did not have a lot of international recognition,” they believe. “Traditional pherans are largely regional, if not national in scope. Our instructors and students frequently complained about pherans, citing their poor quality, the restricted number of designs available, and their desire for more modern patterns, among other reasons.”
By then, they were studying. During the Covid19 lockdown, they realised they needed to start acting on their vision. For the past year and a half, their brand was embraced by the people. “We prefer x in the summer, and choose tweed or something warm like china wool in the winter,” one of the Malhotras’ said.
The two sisters belong to a family that is in the textile business for 150 years. Running a major wholesale chain, they work with OCM, Raymond, Gul Ahmad, and other national and international textile mills. This helps them find the best fabric for their pheran brand. Wool apart, they use Velvet, linen, viscose, blended textiles, and many other yarns. For embroidery, they send the half-finished product to Punjab, Jaipur, Lucknow, Bareilly, and Surat. “We wish to combine all of the cultures in order to make these pherans universally available and recognised, and this will give the new modern pheran a contemporary feel, we are using the latest digital machines to print our fabrics and work on them.” one of them said.
In the last few years, many designers threw their hats into the pheran rung and are doing good. Spruce World, for instance, is selling its pherans online and offline.
Mohsin Abad, its promoter, said he started in 2019, with basic and classic pherans. “This restricted our clientele to elderly persons as quite a few people from younger lot felt attracted towards our products,” Mohsin said. As he moved to improved trendy designs, his company’s situation changed. “I have 50,000 clients right now.” He hired a team of designers for creating elegant pheran and the market accepted their product in 2020 and 2021. “We also an offline store each at Bemina and Qamarwari and both are doing good,” he said.
Major Online Retailers
Now, Pherans are sold by Amazon and Flipkart as well. A local company, Modest Attires managed a tie-up with major online retailers and is shipping pherans outside Jammu and Kashmir.
Umar, the Modest Attires promoter was into e-commerce around four years ago. In 2021, he got into pherans and said he is happy with the response.
“We sell many sorts of pherans, ranging in age from youngsters to the elderly; traditional to contemporary for both the genders,” Umar said, insisting that apart from online, they have offline operations in Batamaloo, Lal Chowk, and Chadoora. “The modern pheran is trendy; it is more of a coat than a pheran.”
Lark could be the oldest pheran manufacturer and retailer in Kashmir. Khalid Azmatullah said his company is in pheran business for over 25 years. They are now making hybrid pherans, which the company calls Raglan pheran, a hybrid between Raglan Coat and Kashmiri Pheran.
Raglan Overcoat has an interesting story. During the Battle of Waterloo, British soldier Lord FitzRoy Somerset lost his arm to a French sniper in June 1815. He continued with the army but always had problems with the tunics. In 1851 when British tailoring company, Aquascutum started, its promoter, John Emery responded to the soldier’s request and created the Raglan coat. It is a typical overcoat that is being used globally. All modern pherans are closed Raglan coats.
“We source the fabric for these hybrid pherans from China and South Korea,” Faizan, Azmatullah’s son, said. “We employ high-quality materials for these pherans because they are in high demand.” His personal experience while handling the clients said the people prefer better pheran than a poor quality coat or a jacket. “In younger lot, the cultural identity is part of the pheran so they prefer it over other winter garments,” he said.