You can't go far in Kathmandu without coming across a tailor's shop or hearing the whirr of a dress maker's sewing machine, but Nepalis' skills in garment design have not yet made much of an impact internationally. Now an increasingly ambitious and trend-conscious generation is trying to change that.
Among those hoping to set the trends in the near future are aspiring clothes designer Sristhi Bista and her friend Najima Aman, who runs a clothing export business with her husband. The two women met at Kathmandu's IEC School of Art and Fashion, which has been teaching would-be designers since 1997.
Bista and Aman have more ambitious plans for Nepal's fashion industry than most in the business. Traditionally, the bread-and-butter work for clothes designers here has been making costumes to celebrate the country's numerous religious festivals. The potentially more lucrative and exciting alternative is to design for the export market, for sale to European and American shops.
Tenzin Tseten, a prominent local designer at Himalayan Couture, says the difficulty with aiming for the foreign markets is that good designs are copied and relabelled by overseas outlets, while the name of the Nepali designer fades into oblivion.
Nevertheless, sustained creativity and flare will doubtless attract attention, and industry watchers here see the demand for good design slowly growing - thanks in part to the efforts of people like Shailaja Adhikary, the director of the IEC fashion school, who has popularised the concept of fashion design among Nepal's young urban middle class. When Adhikary opened the school in 1997, few could see any demand for what she was offering. "People didn't know what fashion designing was about," she says. And parents couldn't see any future in fashion for their children. They wanted them to be doctors or engineers.
But the past decade has seen a six-fold increase in the number of students at the school, and Adhikary says capacity cannot keep pace with demand: "Today, we have to screen the students." She admits that not everyone is concerned about fashion, but believes demand will continue to rise steadily over the next decade.
While women of all ages and backgrounds take classes at the school, Adhikary's plan is to bring fashion to the more remote parts of Nepal. "There are designers from remote areas who are very creative and have the desire to do fashion designing, and they have to come to Kathmandu to learn it," she says. "I have a dream to open up branches in other parts of Nepal so fashion design can reach out to more people in the country." It will be a while before Nepal truly establishes its own fashion style.
Adhikary, noting the evolving fashion scene in Singapore and Malaysia, hopes that one day Nepal will also be headed in that direction. She says the government can play a role, just by encouraging design exhibitions. "These small opportunities will also count," she says.
Mirroring the state of the country's fashion industry, Adhikary admits the future will be tough: "I still have a long way to go," she says with a hopeful smile.