The funny side of travelling through China

Largest sitting Buddha in the world in Leshan, China

Largest sitting Buddha in the world in Leshan, China

The first thing that strikes you about China is its size. For a country that is huge, expansive and wide-skied, its people are quite petite. Women especially, and they come in all shapes of tiny. The second thing that strikes you is that the Chinese really don’t care about anything happening beyond the Chinese border. Forty days must be the longest I’ve gone without a newspaper. Thank heavens for VPN (virtual private network) or I’d have been as free from Twitter, Facebook and blogs as from world news.

A fondness for ‘Pajikistan’ makes you feel welcome in China (rare for Pakistanis anywhere else in the world except, perhaps, Turkey). The Chinese judgment is clouded by our ‘higher than the Himalayas and sweeter than honey’ friendship. Between my last holiday to China (last year) and this one – I have travelled a bit between Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shenzhen – my being Pakistani has awarded me an instant smile from the locals and, in some cases, a chilled bottle of mineral water, too — which is a rarity there. The Chinese do not drink cold water or hot tea.

On a road trip to Leshan, several hundred miles outside Chengdu, to see the world’s largest Buddha statue, our guide Seth very innocently announced, “Pakistan used to have the largest standing Buddha until the Americans blew it apart.” To correct him by saying that the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, were bombed by the Taliban was useless. To most Chinese, the US is the axis of evil and I was all too happy to play along with Seth’s naiveté. Make hay while the sun shines, as our prime minister would have said.

Emmit, the Abercrombie & Fitch model outside the brand’s flagship store in Hong Kong, was just as refreshingly unaware of how brilliantly our country is marketed on the nine o’ clock news every evening. “I really want to visit Pakistan,” he told me, “because everything is either made in China or Pakistan these days.” I did try and elucidate on the security situation but his response (“Isn’t that Iraq and Afghanistan?”) shut me up. Why take away his rosy specs?

China and Pakistan (and their sweeter-than-honey friendship) is just one part of the story. You have to be in China to appreciate the diversity within this nation. It has over 3,000 years of history and yet the Chinese eye and spirit for progression looks ahead another couple of thousand years just as easily.

It’s a country where religion may have taken a backseat but where feng shui and chi (positive energy) play a corroborative role in people’s everyday lives. So many buildings are constructed without 90-degree outer angles simply for good luck. Hong Kong property prices hike because of the perfect yin yang setting of the mountain against the water. People believe that’s the core of Hong Kong’s prosperity. Life in China is about striking the perfect yin and yang. It helps the nation stay alive.

“How old are your parents?” asked Louis, our very worried guide in Xi’an as she helped us climb 40 steps of the City Wall. We all huffed and puffed while the Chinese octogenarians, possibly even centurions, hopped, skipped and jumped by, some on their bikes, others in their walking shoes, dancing to Tai Chi movements on the roadside and staying generally fit, happy, and (often annoyingly) optimistic.

All these differences apart, the Chinese are a lot like us. They may be protecting the Giant Panda in Chengdu but at a circus in Guangzhou every possible animal was being exploited in acts that the developed world would condemn for animal cruelty. The roads are perfectly paved but the cabbies are constantly on their phones, chatting away and ignoring the law until a policeman comes within sight. Most of the phones, mind you, are counterfeit and openly available at the world’s biggest counterfeit flea market, Louhou.
China has seen and overcome odds. What can we do to achieve their kind of optimism and drive? Put religion on the back burner and kill a couple of million people, as Mao did?

That would be seeing the glass half empty, as we’re all too used to doing in Pakistan. What I see here is a nation with the will to work hard. If a country six times our size can do it, there’s no reason why we can’t too. But who’s going to enforce the law about having one child, one pet and one servant? That may be a challenge.

Aamna Haider Isani is a writer who enjoys fashion, travelling, blogging and talking to all kinds of people.

On a roll

Competent — that is what Sanam Saeed is. And as someone competent, she is capable of playing any role well, whether it is pulling on a blonde wig and a pair of tights as Roxie Hart for Chicago on stage or fighting for her rights as the angst-ridden, lower middle-class girl Kashaf in Zindagi Gulzar Hai or singing as one of the background vocalists at Coke Studio. Aamna Haider Isani profiles Sanam Saeed.

Lawn Revolution

Fabric swatches alongside a print

Fabric swatches alongside a print

The lawn business is mammoth; its proportions are gargantuan. Hundreds of thousands of rupees are dropped into production and campaigns at the drop of a hat, millions of yards of fabric is printed and distributed, and most is sold. The lawn market is like a vast ocean, with contenders casting their nets and vying for some kind of fortune from it. Lawn is where fortunes are made, whether you are a mill owner, designer, campaign photographer or even a model.

The kind of numbers that mills like Gul Ahmed and Alkaram generate can’t even be imagined unless you read their annual financial reports. According to reliable sources, Gul Ahmed has an estimated five billion rupees set aside for their lawn production alone. “We produce around four summer collections a year; the last is Eid specific since [the festival] has been falling in the summer during the last few years,” says Shehnaz Basit, director for marketing at Gul Ahmed. “All the summer collections consist of lawn fabric. Simultaneously, exclusive ranges of lawn prints are developed for our ready-to-wear department. Over the past few years, clothing has become very important,” she adds.
Gul Ahmed’s textile exports are huge, but that doesn’t imply all lawn is exported; most is also absorbed within the local market, Basit explains. “Only around five per cent is exported.” She says, that “the demand for lawn [export] is very high, especially in India”, but it’s “still a grey market because export duties are very high”.

The amalgamation of fashion designers and lawn, of course, has added prestige and design value to an already commercially successful product. Financially, there was really no need for such collaboration but with the tiny fashion industry hogging the style spotlight, it was a step taken for attention. And true to its intention, textile/designer collaborations have overshadowed publicity for eight months of a sartorial year. March through October, when Pakistan enjoys a lengthy summer and women turn to lawn as their staple fabric, ‘designer lawn’ is all they can talk about.

The last three to four years have seen the saturation of two trends: mills contracting fashion designers to lend their names and expertise for limited ‘designer lawn’, and, inversely, designers hiring mills to print their fabric. The first collaboration is straightforward. Textile mills like Alkaram, Orient, Lakhany, Lala, Crescent, etc, have been known to commission fashion designers anything between two million and 20 million rupees per collection (depending on the designer’s ranking), reveal sources in the business. For textile mills, that amounts to a bucket out of a multi-billion rupee pool; for designers it is relatively easy money (and a lot of publicity) coming their way.

Until two years ago, almost every lawn campaign revolved around this equation. Soon after, many designers (especially those with investment capacity) realised that there was a lot more money to be made if they could finance their own lawn instead of designing for mills. That said, not everyone can afford this huge investment running into millions of rupees required for a process ranging from raw fabric purchase to printing (the latter alone can cost anywhere between 15-20 rupees per yard), to the marketing campaign and actual sales that include exhibition costs and distribution. For a young designer, who wants to play it safe, by printing around 30,000 suits or joras – (which would include fabric for a kameez, trouser and dupatta) to the accomplished names that easily produce up to 200,000 joras, it is a huge undertaking.

It is a risk Sana Safinaz were willing to take when they went solo a couple of years ago. After lending their name to Alkaram, Firdous and Lakhany for almost 14 years, they decided to start printing their own fabric. Today, Sana Safinaz buy their lawn and chiffon and silk used in dupattas themselves, and outsource the printing to various mills of their choice. “It is a head-banging process to get the right quality. We feel that we are bleeding all the way,” says Safinaz Muneer of the procedure that begins in August for a collection to be launched in March next year. It is lengthy and tedious, especially for designers like Sana and Safinaz who sweat it out to create designs according to their own design philosophy, and then team it with the finest quality of fabric available. “It is not easy to put in the sleepless nights, the work and the money,” Muneer adds.

In Lahore Khadijah Shah of Èlan talks about some of the challenges. Shah prints in Faisalabad and with the gas and power outages the entire process becomes a nightmare. “It’s a six-month process, from motif development to printing to adverting and the actual launch,” Shah tells the Herald. “Most textile mills are into bed sheets and linen printing, which doesn’t work for lawn,” she says. “We are printing 25,000-30,000 suits because I feel branded lawn should be exclusive and we don’t want to inundate the market with it.”

Details of an embroidered piece of lawn fabric

Details of an embroidered piece of lawn fabric

Sania Maskatiya, who is launching her debut lawn collection with Sapphire Textiles this year, is going by the same philosophy. “We are printing around 25,000 pieces (joras) so [the quantity] is pretty contained,” says Umair Tabani, the brand’s head of business. The interesting thing is that Maskatiya is simultaneously launching her lawn as a limited prêt collection. Around 5,000 of the printed lawn pieces will be sold as ready-to-wear tunics. While designers have been offering tailoring of their own lawn to their clients, no one has put up tailored units on a considerable scale. “The mill printing for us – Sapphire – will be stitching our ready-to-wear [collection] as well,” Tabani adds. “But we have supplied all the patterns, the buttons and the trimmings for the finishing. We have our own quality controls, checks and balances in place because at the end of the day it is our name on the line.”

Another evolutionary step in the Sania Maskatiya line will be the introduction of figurines and animal prints. Designers have historically stayed clear of both because of a simple reason — they don’t sell. The conservative market condemns figures and animals as prints, unacceptable for religious reasons. But Maskatiya, who has built a reputation around her love for figurines, will be including them in her lawn. Tabani, however, explains that “only 20 per cent of the prints are figurative” and believes that there is a big enough market for them. “Our clients are comfortable wearing animal prints and figurines and we feel people are more open to them now.”

Whether it is textile mill and designer collaborations, ready-to-wear lawn or the introduction of cultural diversity into prints (the latter was unfathomable five years ago), lawn is undergoing a revolution that is influencing the dynamic of the textile and fashion industry. Last year, the Trade and Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) took a large textile exhibition to Delhi, India. This year an Indian designer is reportedly designing a collection of lawn prints for a Pakistani mill, namely Five Star Textiles. Will lawn become the real prêt-à-porter for Pakistan? Will textiles facilitate business between India and Pakistan even if borders remain closed for open trade? So far, it appears that lawn has shown that it has the power to pull revolutions of sorts.

Trail of success

Photography by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Photography by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Hot on the heels of success, Humaima Malick is all set to be Pakistan’s next female actor to make a mark internationally on the basis of her performance alone. Performance, rather than ‘theatrics’, as have been exhibited by other starlets who have crossed borders with fame in mind, settling for nothing more than scandal, controversy and ‘item’ numbers. Malick promises to play her card intelligently, and it is no surprise that she is trying to take the Ali Zafar path when it comes to working in India. So far Zafar is the only (male) actor from Pakistan who has maintained his identity while making waves in an environment as competitive as Bollywood.

The only other female artiste to win acclaim in India was Zeba Bakhtiar, who starred in the super hit Henna back in 1991. Can Malick be the second? Bol was watched by limited audiences in India but whoever saw Malick appreciated her work. It spring boarded her career in India and a lead role in Soham Shah’s Sher followed. It’ll take her time, luck and the right strategy to make it big but she seems to be on the right path.

Malick has crossed borders with appreciation already under her wings. Her work in Bol (2011) has kept her going long after Shoaib Mansoor’s strong social commentary won the critic’s approval. She has been picking up awards for her role as Zainab, a woman on the death row for murdering her tyrannical father. “Shoaib Mansoor turned an average girl into a star,” she says of the director who cast her in the award winning movie. “For Shoaib sahib I’d even do a film for no money.” Money isn’t what makes her tick but she is making enough to afford her own home, something she is immensely proud of achieving at the very young age of 25. It is her nest in Karachi, where she flies back to every now and then.
Her flight of fame takes her around the world. Bol put Malick on the map with nods for Best Actor in a Leading Role (female) at the London Asian Film Festival, Pakistan’s Lux Style Awards and the South Asian Rising Star Film Awards; she was competing with names like Parineeti Chopra and Preeti Desai. She was also nominated (with Vidya Balan) for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards but both lost out to Filipino screen legend, Nora Aunor.

Awards have decorated her mantle but that is not all that has kept Malick alive in the public eye since Bol. She is extremely ambitious and has stayed in the media’s eye with appearances at fashion shows, corporate endorsements and stage performances, which have all been frequent. The celebrity grapevine has buzzed with rumours regarding her relationship with cricketer Wasim Akram which she has acknowledged in print but prefers to keep private now.

“Humaima came to me when she was 12 because she wanted to be a model,” remembers fashion veteran Frieha Altaf who has been sporadically working with her for over a decade now. “I was doing a Leisure Club show and I needed kids and teenagers. She was just a kid, a sweet innocent kid. But she had the confidence and the focus of an adult. Even at that early age she knew what she wanted.”

Altaf talks of how Malick did a lot of commercial work in the past, more advertisements and less fashion. “She did a bit of television too. But in the fashion industry she got recognition after doing a Sunsilk commercial [with Asim Raza] in which she looked so gorgeous that her image got picked up internationally.”

Altaf considers Malick more of a performer than a model. “She has done a lot of stage performances and dancing (she recently danced at the Lux Style Awards for the Ali Zafar segment). I’ve seen her go through personal upheavals and her discipline and professionalism have suffered with her moods but that is something that should mend itself as she matures. At the end of the day, this girl is a star. She has the looks, the attitude and people are quite mesmerised by her.”

Meanwhile, Malick has been quietly working on furthering her acting career. Her next film – Sher, opposite Sanjay Dutt – is ready for release. Set in Rajasthan, Sher is the story of a gangster’s wife, forced to look after his empire after he is killed. Like Bol, the film is a flashback narrative. “It’s a very glamorous role,” Malick smiles when we meet in Karachi. She has the pristine appearance of a girl very conscious of revealing the right image. The jeans and jacket allow a structured and adequately glamorous image; the huge sunglasses reflect a fashionable avatar and the crystal artwork on her nails hint at youthfulness. “I’ve enjoyed wearing the ghagra cholis and stunning Rajasthani costumes,” she continues, confirming her love for appearances. “My character in Sher is very different from what people have seen in Bol.”

She is extremely happy with her experience of working with the legendary Sanjay Dutt. “I would never have given a solid performance without the comfort zone of working with Sanju. He’s a fantabulous human being and takes care of people on sets, from stuntmen and technicians to co-stars. He has a sense of humour and brings positive energy to the table. And despite being such a senior artiste he never flaunts his seniority. People say he’s a big name but he’s truly a big person from inside. He was very kind to me throughout the shooting.”

Malick is tight-lipped about her projects, revealing nothing but a tentative date for the release of Sher, which could be anytime in the first half of this year. Official looks have not been revealed yet and Malick, despite taking her own make-up artist and photographer from Pakistan (Akif Ilyas), refuses to release any pictures until the producers do so officially. “They have professional systems in place,” she says about Bollywood, “and they know how to treat a star. I was allowed my own make-up artist and I could call in my family whenever I got homesick. I was very well taken care of. So I’d like to play by the rules of the trade. India boasts of an organised, disciplined environment and I can’t give away any information that hasn’t been released officially.”

She applies the same rule to her next projects. She has signed three films with producer and writer par excellence, Vidhu Vinod Chopra (famous for Parineeta, 3 Idiots and the Munnabhai series). Scheduled for release in 2014, these upcoming films, Malick says, are essentially love stories. The first of the lot resonates of Parineeta, she shares with trepidation.

Malick has truly got international cinema on her mind and she is unwilling to stop at India. She recently signed a contract for two experimental Iranian films that will most certainly cement her reputation as a serious actor. She is already polishing her Persian as the films will be shot in Persian and English. “I’ll probably start shooting in Tehran from June onwards, once my commitments in India are wrapped up,” she says. “I can’t disclose much except that [one of the Iranian films] is an emotional film; it’s an unusual reality story. But what delights me most is that it’s a performance based film and I want to be known as a performance based actor.”

Malick shares stories about her life as we talk. She is one of six siblings and the only one to take up a career in the arts. That too happened by coincidence, as she was ready to step into the corporate world once acquiring her degree in sales and marketing from Greenwich University in Karachi. She talks about her marriage and its dissolution “being one of the most liberating experiences of her life.” She says she only learnt what independence was once she gave up on life with a much older (and unsuitable) man. She talks about the publicity of her relationship with Akram, dismayed at how certain journalists blew her comments out of context to defame them. That there is a ‘them’ is very clear.
She is candid when she talks, guarded when she is being quoted and politically correct when it comes to any kind of questioning. She knows she has come a long way from the time (a decade ago) when she did her first commercial or modeled for designer Deepak Perwani. Ambition took her through television as well, she started with the popular Ishq, Junoon, Deewangi for Hum TV; her last performance was as Asghari in the popular drama serial Akbari Asghari.

Though she has put television on the back-burner these days (films are taking up most of her time), she vocalises her take on the Turkish plays that are causing controversy in Pakistan these days. “We need to be strong and confident enough to compete with what comes our way,” she says. “We should be open to art from all over the world.”

Trail of success

Hot on the heels of success, Humaima Malick is all set to be Pakistan’s next female actor to make a mark internationally on the basis of her performance alone. Performance, rather than ‘theatrics’, as have been exhibited by other starlets who have crossed borders with fame in mind, settling for nothing more than scandal, controversy and ‘item’ numbers. Malick promises to play her card intelligently, and it is no surprise that she is trying to take the Ali Zafar path when it comes to working in India. So far Zafar is the only (male) actor from Pakistan who has maintained his identity while making waves in an environment as competitive as Bollywood.

The only other female artiste to win acclaim in India was Zeba Bakhtiar, who starred in the super hit Henna back in 1991. Can Malick be the second? Bol was watched by limited audiences in India but whoever saw Malick appreciated her work. It springboarded her career in India and a lead role in Soham Shah’s Sher followed. It’ll take her time, luck and the right strategy to make it big but she seems to be on the right path.

A cut above the rest

We are on the ritzy fashion avenue of Dubai Mall and as we step into Tory Burch, two women – apparently Lebanese, with a distant South Asian connection – start gushing over Nomi Ansari and how much they love his clothes. Not only do they recognise the Pakistani designer, they know that his sister Faiza (also with us) is wearing one of his latest digital prints. They want to know where they can buy these in Dubai.

We are in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the opening of the multi-label boutique Ensemble (where clothes from Ansari’s collection are available for sale) and Ansari appears to bask in the recognition he is getting. He has a radiant personality, a youthful spirit that is effortlessly reflected in his love for colour. He also has a delightful sense of humour that makes itself evident at the oddest of moments. He is a great mimic at all times, whether he may be poking a finger at a celebrity he has worked with, or a witch doctor he recently had the misfortune of dealing with when a cousin believed her bones could be hypnotised into elongating themselves three inches.

Rural to runway

Rizwan Beyg in his Karachi home

Rizwan Beyg in his Karachi home

Most people in Pakistan confuse ‘ethical’ for ‘ethnical’ but the term ‘ethical’ should acquire the clarity and visibility of a neon sign now that it is gaining steam across the world. It can be incredibly pertinent to Pakistan and Pakistani fashion especially. What do ethics have to do with fashion? More than you think.

Ethical fashion, in Pakistan and the third world, is all about rural empowerment and it simultaneously serves the purpose of reviving dying crafts. The chikankari and gotta work done by the women of Bahawalpur, the rilli patchwork done in central Sindh and the phulkari work by women in northern Swat are just a few examples. There are numerous crafts that are threatened by extinction if they are not revived. Similarly, there is a mass of population that is threatened by poverty if it is not helped to sustain itself. Ethical fashion primarily targets these two issues.

Designer Rizwan Beyg recently announced the launch of Ethical Fashion Week (EFW), which would operate in tandem in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. The first EFW would open in Colombo this September; while Colombo has been devoting one day out of Colombo Fashion Week to ethical fashion, EFW would be a platform singularly devoted to it. “Ethical fashion has to have its own platform to take a more powerful shape. We want more and more designers to come onto that platform and show social responsibility towards empowerment and rural development. These are issues that will make fashion viable and sustainable,” he says.

He explains how EFW would create a united platform to pursue ethical causes in the South East Asian region. It already has designers like Bibi Russell (Bangladesh), Ajay Vir Sing (Sri Lanka) and like-minded designers fromIndialike Abraham & Thakore and Samant Chohan on board. Beyg will represent Pakistan.

In Pakistan, there are many enterprising people who are working on ethical grounds and don’t even know it. But Beyg says, “the awareness is very low. And because interested people are doing it privately, it’s not getting the right kind of projection. We need to take it forward and convert designers and a lot of stores to actually start working in terms of ethical fashion.”

What constitutes ethical fashion? “Ethical for us is very different from ethical for the West,” Beyg explains. “In the West, ethical primarily means going green. For them it’s more about recycling and it’s more environmental. They’re not talking about developing communities, they’re not talking about social-economic development and they’re not talking about female empowerment or craft revival. They don’t need to [because they are all developed states],” he says. “For South East Asia, ethical is about social development. This is the third world and the third world is all about developing the rural sector.”

Beyg seems to believe that “ethical practice in South East Asia must have a certain criteria.” Here it has to be about craft revival, about checking industrialisation and investing in labour as opposed to technology. “It’s about investing in human resource and exploring areas which are strong craft centres, whether they are in southern Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” he says.

Industrialisation is important but it has to go hand in hand with human development because who is going to design machines and run them if you are not investing in people? “Yes, it’s the human component that is very important. I think we’re paying a very heavy price for industrialisation. There’s hardly anything precious or handmade left. It’s all mass-produced. We have to move beyond selling 40-dollar t-shirts.”

We have been made to understand for a while now that fashion designers are working with low-income groups and women from the rural sector – and some may have worked on a collection or two – but no collaborative or widely documented effort is being made and that is what Beyg is aiming for.

“Designers are not doing ethical fashion,” he says and asks whether they are travelling into rural areas. “They are all working with kaarighars (craftsmen) in their kaarkhanaas (factories). Nobody has gone out into the field. The whole concept around ethical is to get people to go to these villages, work with these women and help them produce a garment that can go from rural to the runway.”

Beyg, who has been selected to the board of Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (Ahan), a government-devised scheme to promote local crafts, has always had an obsession with the precious and priceless facets of fashion and he insists that craft revival figures are high on his priority list for ethical fashion. He picks out an exquisite white chikan kurta from his store display and flaunts it as a high fashion garment made by women in southern Punjab. It is hard to tell the kurta apart from any other finely crafted garment in his studio.

“Designers need to work with these women to create high fashion garments,” he insists. “We’re trying to create social awareness. I want people to buy this instead of a piece I’ve made in my kaarkhana. This is the basis of ethical fashion.”

For this kurta, Beyg had developed the motif and provided women with the fabric, in this case a very thin silk net. The designer also provided the silk thread and intervened in the layout of the pattern, from the placement of French knots to the spread of chikankari. The result is a breathtaking product that lights up immense possibilities on what our rural women are capable of crafting.

“The logistics of the rural sector see men going out into the fields, as their income is completely agricultural,” Beyg continues. “Women stay home and look after children. We employ women to supplement their incomes and to encourage them to get into the crafts. It’s all embroidery based because those are the only crafts that women are taught as children. You can actually map clusters of women who are trained to do different types of embroideries, some of which are incredibly beautiful.”

And what kind of wages are these women capable of earning, I ask him. “Working with the middleman they get next to nothing,” he responds. “It usually depends on the product but it suffices to say that they get next to nothing. It isn’t worked out per hour and is pretty much based on hit-and-miss. What happens is that these women make something and take it to the middleman and ask for anything between 1,200 rupees and 2,400 rupees for their work, for example. They don’t even know how to price it.”

Beyg and his colleagues are working on eliminating the middleman who actually makes the most amount of money. “Designers need to work with these women, help them design garments that can qualify international standards and give them the right kind of money that they deserve to be making.”

The chikan kurta he shows is priced at 85,000 rupees in his studio and Beyg says that 75 per cent of the cost will go back to the women who worked on it. That is serious financial empowerment we see at play.

With EFW coming up, the challenge will be to quantify the work being done and gathering information on every project proposed as ethical. “The most important criterion is that it must be verifiable,” Beyg responds. “People can’t just come up and make claims unless they can document and prove that they’ve actually visited the sites and worked with women. It must be quantifiable and we want to see proof: pictures, videos and numbers.”

The ethical movement started in Pakistan with people who may not even have been aware of it. Step two now is to ensure it is regularised and developed under one umbrella. That is where EFW will come in. As step three, EFW, which will travel between Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, will lead to the formation of the Ethical Craft Council, which will be South East Asia based and will even include designers from Indonesia and Malaysia. With Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar as the chairperson of Ahan and other influential people on board, the government is already supporting the movement.

Social connections and responsibilities are imperative to make fashion relevant to an impoverished Pakistan. Revival of indigenous crafts, whether the fast dying phulkari embroidery or marori techniques, is just as essential. That more than 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population is female, and that too restricted to the confines of their homes without any vocational training or opportunity enabling them to put their skills to work, is a fact that fashion should take note of. The opportunities within an ethical movement are immense for the economic emancipation of these women. Here Pakistani designers need to realise which role they wish to play: a commercially motivated one or the one where they can work with a social conscience and responsibility.

Everything you wanted to know about Pakistan’s fashion weeks

This marathon of five fashion weeks was enough to dazzle, frazzle and confuse anyone. And so it was only natural that Pakistan’s famous five: Showcase 2012, Fashion Pakistan Week 3, PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2012, Islamabad Fashion Week and Bridal Couture Week would open the floodgates of curiosity. People were interested as well as confused — why, in this country that is riddled with instability and extremism and struggling with economic meltdown, was fashion suddenly taking centre stage? And so, here it is: a guide to understanding fashion weeks in Pakistan and an attempt to interject some logic into the sometimes-baffling decisions made in fashion circles.

Sania Maskatiya


 

Sania Maskatiya: an unusual name for a young designer just as unusually successful in a very short period of time. An Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture graduate with a major in textiles and a family background in manufacturing garments, Maskatiya may have had technical support that gave her wings to fly, but her success is attributed more to her business acumen. The last one year has seen the rise of the Sania Maskatiya label: from the inauguration of a flagship store in Karachi to widespread availability in mainstream fashion stores across Pakistan. Her popularity has stemmed from a strong design sense growing through fashion-week success and culminating in the appreciation she garnered by dressing Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy for the awards luncheon in Los Angeles.

Another reason for Maskatiya’s popularity is her personal grace. She is appreciated for having an optimistic karma and a ‘can-do’ attitude that she shares with her brother Umair Tabani who is undoubtedly the backbone of the Sania Maskatiya enterprise. A qualified chartered accountant, he brings professionalism to an industry that has an unfortunate ‘get-by’, lackadaisical attitude towards everything. Together they operate the 150-member team that ensures seamless day-to-day running.

Here the Herald talks to the woman behind the brand and why her conservative clientele wear designs with animal and bird imagery.

Q. Do you have any regrets not going to Central Saint Martins?

A. When I got into Saint Martins my father wanted me to go but my mother is old school and she convinced me not to. But no, I have no regrets at all because I loved Indus Valley. If it weren’t for Shahnaz Ismail I would have quit in a day or two but she is amazing. She holds the place together. Art school is always intense and Indus was too. Then when I got married I realised that I was lucky to have gotten to spend four extra years with my parents.

Q. Does a professional degree in textiles and/or fashion help?

A. A lot of people are crazy successful even without a degree but I learnt so much at school: discipline, technique, colour proportion. We actually learnt how to dye and weave cloth. We used to sit at khaddis (handlooms) doing an insane amount of work. In retrospect I understand the business of fabric so much better. You learn the basics. There’s so much learning that gives you confidence and clarity to deal with issues.

My screen printer, for example, wanted to use iron clad frames and I told him it was such an extra expense because we could do the same work on wooden frames which were 4,000 rupees cheaper. We could save 80,000 rupees on the 20 frames that we needed. Had I not had that knowledge he would have persuaded me to go for the iron frames. We gave him a technical solution to printing on wooden frames. Another example is that dyers still stick to the myth that ferozi colour bleeds. We’re in the 21st century and it’s preposterous to say that any problem doesn’t have a solution. We have given them sealants and technical solutions.

Q. How much does it help to be part of a textile family?

A. I never wanted to join the family business per se because I was interested in design and they do everything in mass production. It never appealed to me then but now it does. My father was instrumental when it came to acquiring fabric, machinery as well as helped with merchandising, spinning and knitting. When we started, he took us to all the factories, silk printing mills and we got great exposure in terms of insight as well as practical help like lending us space to make screens.

Q. What advice would you give new designers trying to make a breakthrough?

A. It’s important to have a good business plan and to work on the ground plan. We had this place [flagship store] for six months before we actually opened it. Sampling is important; we procured the fabric and came up with samples for every line. Having full stock capacity was an issue for us. In Pakistan, you go to stores – even many famous stores – and you see five things hanging on the racks. We wanted to make sure that would never happen. Visibility and accessibility are most important for a successful brand these days.

Q. What about brand building, which you have been very effective in doing?

A. We needed brand building for which we hired Lotus and that was really important and helpful. It was expensive but instead of spending on billboards and TV we invested in a good publicist. We photograph our work and advertise it constantly because then even if someone is replicating your work, people have seen it as yours before.

Q. Do you have a specific vision for the Sania Maskatiya brand?

A. We may not want to do the kind of volumes produced in factories yet but we want to expand production eventually. We will want to produce massively and have vendors everywhere. We are already stocking in many places but I’m talking bigger. And we understand that the way we want to do prêt is by bringing the price under 5,000 rupees and giving our clients a value-added product.

Q. What in your terms is a value added product?

A. We make sure our fabric is pure. When doing cottons we use Al-Karam, Gul Ahmed or imported voiles. I think anyone can make clothes nicely and most Pakistani women have a great sense of style so we try to give them something that they can’t put together so easily themselves. We offer a bit of block print, a little bit of lace trimming in our casuals, pair it with detailing, our screens. Tailors would throw a fit if they had to do all that.

Q. As a textile student you do have a flair for prints.

A. I love prints and we do our own computerised prints, screens, blocks etc. I’d love to do lawn too but I just feel that we’re too young a brand to get into it as yet. But we’re working on computerised cotton prints this year.

Q. You started off as the label Chamak and it wasn’t very well received at Fashion Week. What mistakes did you make?

A. That was the first time I ever showed and the stuff was similar to what I am making now. But I was under the impression that we had to show something funky and different and not all wearable so I worked a lot harder because I wasn’t selling that stuff. I realised a little too late that I needed to show what we can wear, not fantasy. It should have been a concept that could translate to wearable clothing. That said, I learnt from my mistakes.

Q. You’ve come a long way since then, the flagship store being a benchmark of your success. You were initially designing for friends and family but what kind of clientele does the brand attract now?

A. Some of my clients just come to me for couture. But now that there is always something on the racks they end up browsing and picking up ready-to-wear too. We try to be as accessible and available as possible. There are barely any sleeveless clothes in the store. My clients don’t wear very slinky clothes. I’ll make dresses and tube tops and jumpsuits but that’s mostly order based. Off the rack is mostly conservative and draped, with colours and material being the focus.

I believe that the contemporary vision is whatever makes a woman feel good about herself. To change one’s look is always good. I do think every woman has an innate sense of style and they need to capitalise on that and find their own sense of style. That’s most important. Sales, on the other hand, depend on the season. For instance, these days most women are coming for cotton casuals. People visiting from abroad during the holiday season are generally good buyers.

Q. You say your clientele is conservative and yet there is so much animal and bird imagery in your designs. The perception is that conservative women don’t like wearing animal prints?

A. You know I used to think so too but it’s not necessarily true. The elephants are all sold out. We’ve had giraffes and camels and birds as well and they did very well. Some people will come and say make everything as is but don’t make the eyes. They feel they can’t pray with figures that have eyes. Sometimes women ask me to sketch birds with their heads turning into flowers. Initially I didn’t want to change designs but we do now. We change designs and always accommodate clients but we make everything look nice and arty.

As a designer our responsibility is not to change someone’s belief. That said, I love nature and especially birds. The collection we’re showing at PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week 2012 is all about birds.

Q. Ethical and eco-friendly fashion is such a big issue these days. Do you feel you follow any outlines?

A. We’re big on ethics. We’re not very eco-friendly to be truthful but we are particular about ethics by giving workers good working conditions, free lunch, subsidised food and good weekly wages. We give them transportation on strikes and we pay them extra. We need to get the production out. We’re particular about paying them every Saturday, on time. When workers come to us and brag about having worked with ‘so and so’ we tell them to unlearn whatever they have learnt. Because of all this we’ve managed to retain most of our employees over long periods and those who leave really do us no damage.

Interview: Sania Maskatiya

Sania Maskatiya: an unusual name for a young designer just as unusually successful in a very short period of time. An Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture graduate with a major in textiles and a family background in manufacturing garments, Maskatiya may have had technical support that gave her wings to fly, but her success is attributed more to her business acumen. The last one year has seen the rise of the Sania Maskatiya label: from the inauguration of a flagship store in Karachi to widespread availability in mainstream fashion stores across Pakistan. Her popularity has stemmed from a strong design sense growing through fashion-week success and culminating in the appreciation she garnered by dressing Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy for the awards luncheon in Los Angeles.