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Firstperson: Brand Shehla

Shehla Chatoor’s designs are an emulation of her personal style: it could be a slinky, fitted one with gold spangles or a classic silken jumpsuit scooped and gathered around the waist with a delicate gold-chain belt. It could even be luxurious wedding wear resplendent with traditional hand embroideries and delicate stonework. Quintessentially Eastern, completely Western or a medley of both, each outfit has an understated grace and sophistication about it — much like the designer herself.

I meet Shehla a few days before she is to leave on vacation — she is going to break off her vacation to return to Karachi for a few days in order to attend the Lux Style Awards where she is nominated in the Best Luxury Pret category.

Translating catwalk drama into wearable luxury pret that screams elegance is what makes Shehla popular as a high-end couturier. It won her the most votes for the Etihad-sponsored Pakistan’s Most Inspiring Designer award (at Fashion Pakistan Week 3) and has made her a strong contender for the LSA this year. After all the media hype generated through fashion weeks, it’s pointless if it doesn’t rake in business.

Shehla consistently brings forth new collections even as she gets orders for her previous ones. Her studio is stocked full with her line-up that was shown at FPW3; others that were designed a decade ago and continue to be recreated for brides that want them as part of their trousseau. Rivaling the regal Roman arches constructed along the walls are outfits that are just as opulent. A one-off, red-and-green wedding ensemble stands next to Shehla’s desk while spotlighted in the corners on headless mannequins are wedding dresses and a shimmery, slinky halter dress in the colour palette that Shehla loves best: ivory, white, brown, cream and beige.

“My clients usually share my predilection for ivories and browns. I love gold but don’t like to go over the top with too much bling,” she professes.

The business of luxury pret Shehla’s own wardrobe was what drew clients to her in the very first place. For anyone who’s seen her attend a red carpet affair, it’s obvious why any woman would want to jump into her bejeweled stilettos. She is perhaps the best model for her own designs, carrying a jumpsuit or even a simple wrap dress with an innate poise which makes heads turn and cameras click. And back in 1995, when Shehla designed her own bridal trousseau, the orders started coming in for similar outfits.

It helped, of course, that her husband was already involved in the textile business. Salim Chatoor helped Shehla in acquiring workers and to set up an efficient production facility. “Today, the Shehla Chatoor brand has a niche clientele and a signature look of its own,” says the designer.

However, Shehla took her time to spread her wings. The year 2004 saw her taking on the Bridal Asia show in Delhi. “My clothes got sold out immediately and ever since, I have had a very regular clientele in India,” she says. “Indians love Pakistani fashion because it is very sophisticated. Their own formal wear is mostly designed for specific festivals while very little emphasis is given to clothes that a woman may wear to just any party. Here in Pakistan, we wear shalwar kameez all the time and so we make sure that the shirt fits well and the entire outfit looks stylish.”

Shehla presently exhibits regularly at a multi-label store in Delhi. She also stocks in Dubai, London and Houston, selling to the usual milieu of Indians and Pakistanis as well as to Europeans with a penchant for Eastern embellishments on modern Western lines.

Her stronghold remains her clientele within Pakistan, though, that flit to her studio in Karachi from all over the country for her bridal designs and sumptuous gowns and jumpsuits. Taking part in fashion-related events has provided her with media mileage but, according to Shehla, she had her fill of clothing orders even before her name was applauded in fashion week reviews. She is also hesitant to expand to a shop in a popular mall. “I don’t usually make clothes for sale. I stock samples in my studio and based on them, create clothes on order. I am one of the very few designers who devise entire looks rather than just outfits. I provide shoes, bags and accessories like necklaces and belts that go with the dress. I just can’t see myself mass-producing such elaborate, detailed looks for a shop.”

For the time being, pret is a far-off dream for Shehla. She’s having far too much fun creating the sexy, expensive-looking dresses that have become her signature. “My dresses may sometimes be revealing but I have never believed in showing skin just for the sake of exposure. I like my dresses to be classy, draped in places to complement the Eastern figure and adorned with a statement belt or simply, just my logo.”

Although the sheer sophistication of her designs makes them instantly recognisable, if there’s any doubt at all, Shehla’s Oriental-looking logo cleverly defines her dresses as her own. “I created my logo when I saw the shoes I designed especially for my brides being replicated in stores in Karachi’s Zamzama,” she explains. “From thereon, the logo just became part of all my designs; dresses, clutches and shoes.”

LSA and beyond

And as she forges ahead with her individualistic, logo-ed take on fashion, the LSA nominations were quite inevitable. This is the second year in which Shehla has been nominated for the Luxury Pret category and gracefully, she declares that it is an “honour just to be nominated.

The LSA jury consists of professionals that I respect a lot and I am happy that they considered me,” she says. “Of course, I hope to win. Let’s see.”

Judging from the way her luxurious clothes are now the rage red carpet events worth the mettle, there’s a good chance that Shehla might win. And really, one just has to take a look at Shehla’s designs and Shehla herself — exuding affluence, class and grace — to know that while awards and accolades are great, this designer’s a winner already.


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