First person: A luxurious road less traveled

February 01, 2015


A heavily-worked chugha in a glass frame
A heavily-worked chugha in a glass frame

The road to translating high-end couture to mass-friendly prêt can be a treacherous one for a designer. Continue coasting high with rich fabrics and experimental silhouettes and your price-points may remain steep enough to alienate your target mass market.

Trundle far too down to the hackneyed alleys of ‘safe’ designs and mass-production techniques and you run the risk of losing your brand identity. It’s a difficult path to walk where many an atelier has faltered and diluted itself to the run-of-the-mill. But it’s a road that Shamaeel Ansari had fairly waltzed through over the past year.

This may largely be due to Shamaeel’s experience and design acumen but it’s also because the designer has chosen to walk the road less traveled, paving her own way rather than following others.

Shamaeel has hit the nail on its fashionable head when it comes to creating affordable prêt

The newly opened ‘House of Shamaeel’ flagship store in Karachi is a case in point. Like so many other designers, Shamaeel decided that it was time to set up shop, but where others rerouted to malls she opted for a location that was just off Karachi’s popular E-Street and the throbbing Dolmen City Mall, not very out of the way but certainly a bit far from the madding crowd.

“We’re not a mall kind of brand,” Shamaeel observes. “When I was Chairperson of the Fashion Pakistan Council, I noticed that every other designer was eager to jump onto some bandwagon or the other. Everybody wanted to create lawn, set up store at a mall or step into affordable ready-to-wear. That’s when I decided that I would proceed with building my business in my own way and never lose out on my brand’s distinctive identity.

“I have created this shop with a lot of love for the clients who have stood by me for the past 27 years,” she continues. “I feel fortunate to still be dressing them as well as even their third generations!” But isn’t she interested in also drawing in new customers? “We are very visible at fashion weeks and on the internet, and we also hold regular exhibits. Genuinely interested customers will not find it difficult to find their way to the shop.”

Shamaeel’s store reflects the grandeur that has been her ethos; reflected in the courtyard at the entrance, the Turkish lamps and intricate wooden latticed frames, the full-length black and white fashion imagery by photographer Rizwan-ul-Haq and the finery of a heavily-worked chugha, spread-eagled and encapsulated into a glass frame. Past screens featuring her quintessential Mughal miniatures and walls covered in embroidered brocade, one sees the different lines that form the brand.

A store was long overdue, of course — and there’s another set to open within the next six months inside Fashion Pakistan Lounge in Lahore and an e-store in the offing — but isn’t Shamaeel afraid that her feelers in retail will alienate her regular clientele? Many local couturiers refuse to test retail waters simply because their clients prefer to order designs that are wholly exclusive.

“I think of it as making more available for our customers,” she explains. “My passion lies in expressing art through couture but I also enjoy the mechanics that go into creating prêt, the digital prints, embellishments and production techniques that keeps price margins down. Women who enjoy the old-world romance of our couture are bound to appreciate the edgy traditionalism that defines our prêt.”

For the prêt, flitting about the Rs10,000 mark for ‘Metropolis’ and about Rs 20,000 for the more formal ‘Tughra’, echoes semblances of that sultry nonchalance of Shamaeel’s couture; a glimmer of the Mughal miniatures or the 15th century Ottoman-esque florals or shades of artwork from the Ming dynasty. It’s all available at a fraction of the price of the formals, of course — pricing that may just help Shamaeel nail the retail market.

Just as importantly, though, Shamaeel will have to ensure a constant flow of new stock in the store. Last year was a busy one for the designer with the launch of the luxury-line ‘Tughra’ and the cost-effective ‘Metropolis’, two fashion week showcases, regular exhibits within Pakistan and abroad and a thriving Facebook clientele. If the design house faltered at all, it was in supplying new stock consistently, particularly in the case of ‘Tughra’.

The line, an immediate hit at the Spring/Summer Fashion Pakistan Week and initially available at mainstream multi-labels across the country, eventually sold out. For months on end, new stock was not sent in, even missing out on the generally profitable Eid and wedding seasons.

“We got busy with our plans for the new store but from now on, we’ll regularly be bringing in new collections to our store as well as to the multi-labels where we stock,” says Shamaeel. “We will also continue being part of fashion weeks and gauging customer responses by uploading images of new lines on Facebook.”

Business, after all, is what makes the wheels of fashion turn round and Shamaeel understands this even as she overcomes her initial hiccups in entering the market for prêt. “I have always had a head for business but last year, I also joined hands with financier Samir Ahmed, allowing my brand to become a corporate identity. We now have systems in place and production has become more streamlined. I have head designers overseeing each line, but I have trained them to visualise my particular signature. I don’t have to worry too much about the business end and can concentrate instead on what I love doing the most — designing!” smiles Shamaeel.

Step by step, slowly and surely, Shamaeel’s firmly entrenching her high heels into the mass market. She’s one of the country’s more senior designers and it is heartening to see her step forward from the ‘appointment only’ realms of her studio to the competitive, clustered market for retail. About 27 years ago, her absolute flair for design drew in society’s high-fliers, women with a penchant for fashion and the wherewithal to purchase what took their fancy. She’s still dressing them today as well as their fashion-savvy daughters. Her first retail store is a sartorial delight — one hopes that it remains so rather than succumb to the irksome, all-too-prevalent lure of the run-of-the-mill.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 1st, 2015

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