Abbas Jafri.–Photo by Images

What do you find in common with Khal Drogo, Eddard Stark, Jack Sparrow, Gandalf, Albus Dumbledor, French supermodel Patrick Petitjean and Abbas Jafri? Most obviously, the beard

The mountain-man beard has become the antithesis to the polished, prepubescent ‘metrosexual’ boy that dominated the last decade. This time around, the beard is the new symbol of masculinity and virility. It’s the aesthetic opposite of ‘effemininity’.

Take a look at popular television with bearded warriors in The Game of Thrones and you’ll understand their strength. Even a quick glance at Parisian catwalks will reaffirm their contributions to style. In Pakistan, style-conscious men like Omar Farooq of Republic are embracing beards as the look for 2012. Likewise, Abbas Jafri — with the unruliest mop of facial hair around — is the face of the moment.

Sitting at a café in the midst of one of Karachi’s most popular malls, I observe the men walking by and tally that one in every four of them has a beard. But one likes to think there is an element of style prevalent too, especially in the few young and smartly dressed boys that wear their facial hair with a swagger. Lux Style Award winner for Best Model (male) Abbas Jafri, who bagged the award for being 2011’s most prominent face, reflects that same sense of style.

“The beard is both an advantage and a disadvantage,” he claims with a frown. “During the last Fashion Pakistan Week it attracted a lot of attention from French journalists who were comparing it with models abroad. There have been bearded men in almost all shows from Versace to Cavalli.

“But then there are people here who take the beard negatively. I don’t want people to stereotype me. They automatically take it towards Talibanisation but I’ve deliberately tried to steer clear of that tribal, turbaned look. I want the beard to be seen as a fashion statement, something that is popular worldwide,” he says.

The beard certainly has worked wonders for Abbas Jafri’s popularity; he’s become the most well-known face amongst male models in just over a year. He has been modeling for years now but it was only his appearance on the runways last year that caught people’s eye and attention. He was very quickly dubbed a ‘Jesus Christ’ lookalike for the tall, lean shadow he imposes and the grizzly that has become his signature. Today his hazel-eyed, guarded gaze glares down from billboards all across the city. Love it or hate it, his is an image that is hard to ignore.

He’s done the campaigns, he’s done the shows. He’s been face of Republic in a wintry Nordic avatar. He’s modeled for Ismail Farid, Ahmad Bahm, Jazib Qamar and other names in menswear that spell creativity. In a profession dominated by women — honestly, how many male supermodels (even internationally) can you name — Jafri has become just as popular for his unique appearance. His critics suggest that he wouldn’t go far if he shaved his beard off.

“Why would I shave my beard off?” he questions with another frown. “That’s a ridiculous question, like saying a female model, any model, wouldn’t be the same if she shaved her hair off. Obviously not. This is my look. I’ll shave when I’m ready for change. This is how I want to be right now and that doesn’t mean I can’t be diverse as a model.”

And what exactly is Abbas Jafri like, many of his fans may wonder. Born in Karachi, raised between here and Dallas, Jafri is the son of a hotel entrepreneur. His father manages a small chain in Dallas and Jafri wishes to complete his education in Hotel Management to get there. Young and driven, he certainly doesn’t come across as someone in control of his life or profession yet but his passion to be known as Pakistan’s first internationally acknowledged male model is palpable. He wishes for a platform, a launch-pad in Pakistan that could propel his career to foreign grounds.

“I wish our fashion councils were more proactive,” he suggests quietly. Quite like his Jesus avatar, Jafri speaks in a gentle and almost inaudible manner and listens with deep browed concentration. For a model, there is a lot of intensity brooding under his surface.

He shares how, for years, cricket was the centre of his existence. He’s played for Pakistan in the Under 19 National Team and continues playing on the domestic circuit. Cricket, he admits, is the reason his fitness level is so high.

Finding it hard to balance his studies with the demanding cricket calendar, Jafri switched to fashion when he started getting offers back in 2001. Since then, he agrees that fashion is even more consuming. That said, he’s committed to it. Not only is he in correspondence with international agencies and photographers, he is periodically travelling to Europe to understand international trends.

Does the industry here give him room for professional growth, I ask him? “It’s a very competitive field but I have been welcomed by almost everyone. And I have been very selective, doing some of my best work with Rizwan-ul-Haq, though I have also done shoots with Guddu Shani and more recently, Nabila.”

Jafri adds that he still isn’t comfortable with the way male models are treated. He hasn’t gotten used to being called ‘hot’ by other men and can’t understand why models haven’t acquired the dignity and panache that they should have.

“There’s a lot of power struggle and back stabbing in fashion,” he suggests without delving into details, “but I like to keep to myself. I’m very selective in my work and I will continue to freelance for projects that are good for my image.”

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