The fashion ‘moron’

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Feeha Jamshed. Photo by Arif Mahmood

“You can criticise my craft but not my inspiration,” says designer, Feeha Jamshed, leaning forward almost ferociously on the white leather sofa in her drawing room. It’s the one time during this interview that her eyes darken, her mood shifts to something vaguely resembling hostility. Earlier this year, Jamshed’s fashion show titled Minnal was criticised by fashion commentators for being dark. Following the shocking death of her beloved older sister, the show, though beautifully accomplished, was sombre; the atmosphere made even more so by the sad music playing in the background, with models scattering rose petals as they walked the ramp.
Fashion journalists felt that her personal tragedy should not have been portrayed so publicly. This criticism, Jamshed believes, was a contradiction in itself. If they believed that her line was so fantastic, then why did they hold the inspiration against her? Do they forget she is an artist, reminds an admirer.

Actually, forget the artistry for a moment.

At 28, and with no formal degree in designing, Jamshed has not only managed to resurrect her father’s larger-than-life business fearlessly and single-handedly, but also simultaneously launched her very own line. Success has embraced her. Yet, one can tell that the show and expressing herself meant a lot to her. “I don’t have stage fright,” she says, “I don’t get nervous, but I felt my heart pounding when I was doing this show,” she admits, adding, “I came forth with my vulnerability. You’re strong because you face your fears … and I have faced mine.”

For someone whose life in the past few years has been dictated by death and tragedy, she has shown tremendous fortitude. “I give myself a day, and then I come back full throttle,” she says. Her grandfather’s death a few years ago when she was studying in Lahore weakened her legendary father, Tanvir Jamshed (also known as Teejay) already suffering from a heart condition. He had a silent heart attack; and because he was such a high-risk patient senior doctors refused to perform heart surgery. Jamshed says that “A junior doctor offered to do it,” and his heart is now working at 30 per cent capacity. “It has been four years since then,” she says, “my father wanted me to come back anyway and at that time he was in no condition to handle anything.”

But then, “she was always destined to be a fashion designer,” says younger brother, Mustafa. “It was in her blood since she was a little child.” He remembers her designing for actor Marina Khan’s show when Jamshed was just a teenager and admits proudly that “she was destined for greatness and deserved to take over the Teejays legacy.”

Jamshed herself discloses that when she was only 13, she designed for actor, Atiqa Odho in Tum He To Ho. “My father was very busy with something so he told me to do it and it became a big hit.”

Growing up in her father’s shadow couldn’t have been easy, especially since she admits that he’s rather hard to please. But then Jamshed was cut from the same cloth. Anyone who worked with Teejays during his heydays must have known what a brilliant businessman he was. Jamshed is no different. Most enterprising, she started earning independently at 15. Younger sister Maham says, “Feeha was always a merchant,” adding that “with the lack of western wear sold here, she would design and cut gorgeous maxi dresses and skirts. Friends would then ask her to make them clothes. later, it evolved into wedding ensembles. Word got around and at 15 she had a client-based clothes business.”

Also, Jamshed admits that while she was still in school she would save her lunch money – 10 rupees at the time – and instead take Super Crisp packets from home to sell them at the canteen. “In Lyceum, I started to sell brownies,” she says. Maham adds “most people don’t know that she makes the best brownies ever! There was such a demand for those brownies that people would reserve them.”

It was also a time in her life when Jamshed didn’t agree with her father’s philosophy. She would see other designers such as Faiza Samee and Rizwan Beyg make so much more money after selling one lavishly-embellished ensemble while her father made so many clothes which in comparison cost nothing. “I was very immature at the time. I didn’t understand what he was doing. To be in retail and to be inventing as well — that was a big risk to take and he was the only one doing it at the time.”
It was a learning experience, opening her eyes to what this business is really about. “I was wearing sunglasses on a rainy day,” she says seriously. “If you can make clothes for the complete 100 per cent, why cater to the two per cent niche market was his philosophy,” says Jamshed.

It is this philosophy that she works with now. “I did the bridal thing but it was so boring. There is no challenge in that. When I joined Teejays my father gave me cotton and told me to make something for him. I ended up making the most difficult pieces using pleats and making flowy clothing that to most would be possible only in chiffon. Cotton challenged me,” she says. “My best piece came out of 50 samples,” she adds, “I started educating myself at the grass-roots level.” So it was no surprise for most that Alexandra Senes, the director for Pret a Porter, the biggest women’s fashion fair in Europe and PFDC’s French fashion consultant picked Jamshed as one of the Super Eight to represent Pakistan in Paris at the show. As it came hot on the heels of her sister’s death, she turned it down but it was one of those rare moments when her father was proud of her.

Now when stating her choicest designers, she is confident her opinions are well-informed. “My favourites are YSL, Jil Sander, Alexander Wang.” Locally, she is a fan of Kamiar Rokini’s design aesthetic, and she loves Umar Sayeed and Imran Ahmed’s cuts. “I’m a cut-oriented person,” she says decidedly.

Anyone who has ever seen Jamshed at weddings will testify to that fact. Besides the breathtaking silhouettes, her eastern wear almost always has a traditional feel. “I am the only one who has made a sharara jumpsuit,” she says, adding that, “I have a margin of how modern I will go.” For her baat pakki she wore her mother’s old dupatta with a simple suit. Being undeniably beautiful, her charm reminiscent of old-world beauties, at weddings she often looks like she has stepped out of an old black-and-white Indian movie. Even during the interview, despite being dressed in skinny brown pants, a beige shirt and taupe heels, it is obvious from the round gold-and-pearl earrings that she loves all things traditional.

Nida Khan, a stylist at Tariq Amin and a close friend, says Jamshed is very “desi” at heart. “The radio is always on in her room and she loves both Bollywood and Pakistani music.” Both brother and sister admit that their childhood was like a sitcom. “Growing up with Feeha, there was never a dull moment. She used to make us watch all the Indian movies as she used to get so excited about them. She would make me and Maham do choreographed dances from movies. She would make sure we got it right,” says Mustafa, while her sister Maham adds that, “We were always singing, dancing, acting out scenes from movies and our very own scripts. We would perform these improvised skits in front of our extended family and Feeha was the main attraction. She was an entertainer all around and always had the limelight. And she loved it. Our father was always making home videos and she would come in front of the camera and shout ‘Me! Me!’ Her fame doesn’t surprise any of us.”

But this very fame hasn’t come easy; neither was her childhood a perfectly carefree one. “We had to grow up way too soon, too fast,” admits Maham. “But we made the most of it and had a blast. Our friends would love coming over for night-long gossip sessions with us three sisters and our mum. They still do!” Actor Mahira Khan, one of Jamshed’s closest friends says: “We have lived in each other’s homes and called each other’s mothers amma/mama.” Insia Faisal, another friend now living in Singapore says that in their 22 years of friendship, “We have bonded over everything from boys to Bollywood to weight issues to food. We would hold Miss Universe contests when we were children and we would both wear this horrible coconut lipstick when we started wearing make-up.”

“I am a fashion moron,” laughs Jamshed, “I started wearing make-up recently.” And then, smiling widely, she admits that she got her first pedicure last year. But then “I want people to like me for me,” she says, “not because now I have a better haircut.” The ability to laugh at herself while nonchalantly stating her accomplishments makes her fun to speak to. “Feeha is funny even when she’s not trying to be,” says Khan, “you will always see people laughing around her.” Her sister agrees with Khan, saying she makes her laugh no matter what sadness life brings.
“We understand that you can’t live life without friends, good times, and lots and lots of gupshup,” says Maham. The time to chill is always accompanied by Jamshed’s favourite activity, tea and biscuits, say her friends and family.

And perhaps, this pervading sense of joy in her life was the necessary ingredient. From having to deal with the closing down of Teejays all over the world when foreign accounts were frozen in the aftermath of Pakistan’s nuclear blasts – including outlets on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, in Jeddah, even in South Africa, that sold shoes, safari suits and jackets – to dealing with her older sisters’ illness which spiralled out of control three years ago, Jamshed has faced much emotional upheaval. “We sent my sister and mother to Paris for something that was supposed to take only three months. Minnal was very seriously ill, she was kept in an incubator at the facility and we were sending them 20,000 to 25,000 euros each month for her treatment. Whatever Teejays made was being sent to them,” she says candidly.

“But God had other plans,” she adds. Three months became two years, during which time her sister started to recover. Then one day, while getting coffee for her mother at a bistro under their apartment, she disappeared. “She always came home at 7 pm, even in Karachi if she went out after that, I was her chaperone,” says Jamshed. But on that day she didn’t return. Their mother waited in agony for her daughter. She was found four days later, floating in the River Seine.

The attitude of the Paris police was most lethargic and it was after her father went through great lengths to put pressure on the French government that lawyers investigated her untimely death. Nothing conclusive came up except for the fact that she died 10 hours after she disappeared. There is a lot of conjecture, and for Jamshed’s mother, a doctor, the two gashes on her daughter’s forehead were a clear sign that she had been attacked. “My sister was very God-fearing, she would not have killed herself.” How one can retain their sanity in the aftermath of such a mysterious death of the most beloved member of a family is anyone’s guess. But they did find a way. While her father who hadn’t left his room in years found solace in work, going back to the factory for 12 hours a day, Jamshed and her mother turned to God.

“Minnal, my mother and khala have been mureeds of Sheikh Nazim [the Turkish Sufi saint who lives in Cyprus],” she says. She adds that she prays five times a day now. “We need this, you know, it’s where I, too, derive my strength from otherwise I wouldn’t know how to go on.” She plans now to take her mother to Cyprus to visit the Sheikh. It is clear from the way she speaks about her mother that not only does she love her but she admires her as well. “Dealing with my mother in all this has made me strong. After everything she’s been through, her own mother died a month back,” says Jamshed sadly. “Yet she is so tough, and I wonder, if I need to be strong for her, how much stronger do I need to be.” After a moment’s silence, she adds, “I don’t know anyone like her, and this struggle makes me what I am today.”

It is with all this that one wonders how she balances the might of the fashion industry with her deep spiritual proclivity. “Praying has brought me out of my pain and given me peace. Buddhists meditate every day in the morning; we do it five times a day. Religion has never conflicted with my life. It has made me what I am — and I make clothes. It is so easy for me to make a connection between my beliefs and my life.”

“She taught me the pursuit of happiness,” says Maham. It is in the same optimistic vein that Jamshed adds that as far as her career and business are concerned, she will keep evolving. And “I love, love, love children,” she laughingly concludes; we now know marriage is next on the cards.

Listening to Jamshed and her family narrate their roller coaster of a life leaves me stimulated. So young, yet so battle-hardened. Small wonder the young woman defends her inspiration so ferociously.

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