Dusty sunlight filters onto piles of leather bags lined up against one wall. Skins in retro-bright pinks, blues, limes and reds lie against another wall, the smell of leather permeating the room. Mahin Hussain’s studio workspace is a treasure trove for any fan of her work, and, like her work, it’s full of textures, colours and sudden, surprising elements.
Hussain’s work is a direct reflection of her personality: bright, fun and refreshingly unpretentious, despite the Lux Style Awards (LSA) that sits on her desk. Besides the vibrant palette and the singular aesthetic she works with, there is an element of craftsmanship in her work, whether it is in braided handles or patchworked suede and leather.
Hussain started out as a freelance designer of fabric bags for the popular retail outlet Khaadi while she had a day job with the doyenne of Pakistani couture, Maheen Khan. As a print major from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture inKarachi, she explains that her first attempt at making bags was not a success. “I needed to be trained and I needed more information and technical knowledge,” she admits. Four years ago, after a technical course focusing on working with leather at the London College of Fashion, Hussain started designing products for her own line. She’s quick to tell me that she has high standards for herself. “I’m just not happy with doing what everyone else is doing or my work looking like everyone else’s work — my work had to be different.”
Steering clear of the fabric bags she designed for Khaadi, Hussain chose to treat “leather in a very different manner, to make it fun.” Her love for colour is evident, but it must not have been easy to break into a market so dedicated to luxury accessories in hues of beiges and blacks — wasn’t it a huge risk to take, given that most people interested in leather handbags seemed to want exactly what everyone else had? “I feel there is a severe lack of originality,” says Hussain. “People are happy in their little bubble of being safe; there’s a desire to be like everyone else. It’s a struggle yet it is an everyday challenge that I do take on — appreciation does help a lot. It’s a business but my only agenda is not to make money, my principles are slightly different from that and whatever little I have done has been appreciated and it really works for me, so I have stuck to what I do best.”
What she does best is create accessories that break the mould of what larger, more traditional leather manufacturers have done for years inPakistan. It’s old news that Pakistani leather is of extremely high quality, but most of it is exported, whether as skins or as garments and Hussain has a tough time finding not just the limited quantities of skins she needs but also the bright colours that she uses. Of course, working with leather the way she does is time-consuming, labour-intensive and not as profitable as fabric bags.
Quality control is an important facet of craftsmanship for Hussain who admits that she is “a super control freak in the quality control and the time management of labour. Maybe it’s not a good thing but I just can’t let go. I do it very passionately.” Each line is heavily influenced by Hussain’s aesthetic — given how many labels have teams of apprentices mass-producing designs, this is what makes her products stand out, even more so than their design and bold colour.
Label she wears: Zara
Career: November 2009: participating in the first Pakistan Fashion Week. Winning the first ever LSA by an accessory designer at the 11th LSA 2011 in the best emerging talent category
Location: Based out of Karachi. Married in March 2011, so currently shuffling between Islamabad and Karachi.