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Photography: Humayun Memon @ 18% Grey | Make-up: Nabila’s
Photography: Humayun Memon @ 18% Grey | Make-up: Nabila’s

In a world clustered with bling, labyrinthine embroideries and desi ‘gowns’, Maheen Khan has always stood apart, understanding the beauty of a finely-cut silhouette, working on fine finishings and dabbling with new shapes.

At 73, she has presided over local fashion for 47-odd years, and one could consider her something of an anomaly: insisting on setting trends and refusing to go over-commercial by retailing what she considers ‘prints that look like your grandmother’s antique bedcovers’. Her brand Gulabo continues to be young and trendsetting while the eponymous Maheen remains true to its forte with timeless, elegant evening-wear.

Even her home emulates her design aesthetic. There is nothing flashy about it. Instead, it is assuredly individualistic, clustered with statement pieces collated over the years, lovingly restored and placed at well-thought-out vantage points. There are antique tables that Maheen picked up from old bazaars, textured walls that she has painted by hand and age-old black and white photographs framed on the walls.

I meet her on a sunny Karachi afternoon and her central courtyard is resplendent in shades of turquoise and green, bordered with tall, lush palms with floor tiles sourced from her husband’s ancestral home in interior Sindh.

Maheen Khan doesn’t mince her words. She doesn’t need to. She understands fashion when so many others don’t. Her 47-odd years in the industry make her quite an authority

“Why does everything have to be about commerce and showing off your wealth?” she asks me. “What about true personal style and artistic statements? It is truly sad for a nation when fashion dies within it and that’s what I see happening. The way people dress, decorate their homes and live is now being dominated by this constant need to look wealthy.”

On that sombre note, we start our interview.

You have just opened a new standalone store in Karachi’s Khyaban-i-Bukhari while you also continue to maintain a Gulabo store in Dolmen City Mall. Considering mall rentals and the demands of stocking at two different retail points, will you now be closing the mall outlet?

Not necessarily. It is something that I am looking into. I do know that I can’t compete with the commercial design and price points in the high-street stores at malls. I refuse to create clothes that are over-the-top or make women look like boring clones of each other. A long time ago, I had a standalone ‘Maheen’ store that I closed down on impulse. I had just walked into it one day and realised that I didn’t like anything on the clothing racks because it was all too commercial. Within a week, I had shut it down. I truly believe that if I am not having fun creating something, then it’s not fashion.

Even now, if I stop having fun with it, I might close down the Dolmen City Mall store but for now, I am staying on with it.

Is it tough to break even in a mall, given that Gulabo is a boutique brand with higher pricing while many other contenders in the same vicinity are purely commercial, selling very competitively priced — though often uninspirational — apparel?

It is very tough. Sometimes I break even and am able to take home my salary, which is quite minimal. At other times, I don’t.

We keep turning towards other cultures, instead of seeking inspiration from our own icons, women such as Begum Liaquat Ali Khan and Begum Fatima Jinnah, who epitomised elegance. Instead, I see this all too prevalent love for wearing Western gowns, particularly done-to-death one-shoulder baring ones. The Pakistani figure generally doesn’t look flattering in Western cuts but this is completely disregarded.”

Wouldn’t it just be easier to sometimes dabble into more commercial territory and earn higher profits?

I don’t want to. Money is necessary but is it not everything. At 73, it’s not the kind of wealth that I am interested in. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by people from my industry who love and respect me. There are young designers that I have trained over the years who I was very strict with while they worked with me. Yet, they now take me out for dinner once a year and tell me that they wish I had scolded them more because they learnt so much from me. This love is my wealth.

Photography: Humayun Memon @ 18% Grey | Make-up: Nabila’s
Photography: Humayun Memon @ 18% Grey | Make-up: Nabila’s

And I wake up every morning, eager to start off the day. I love my work and I take pride in staying true to it. I couldn’t be luckier.

You are amongst the few who veritably laid the foundations for the Pakistani fashion industry. As a pioneer, do you feel appalled by the copycat culture and commercial turns being taken by the local industry?

Fashion in Pakistan is in a pathetic state and people don’t know how to dress intelligently. I see women all around me who are trying to look elegant and sophisticated but don’t really quite know how to. They don’t know the difference between daywear and evening wear. They will wear capris at night and they will even wear them with a long shirt that extends well below the pants. My husband once saw a woman at a wedding and thought that she had forgotten to wear pants because she was wearing capris with a very long shirt. It’s hilarious and ridiculous.

It’s not that women don’t have the wherewithal to purchase a beautiful outfit. It’s just that they prefer quantity over quality. I remember that when my sisters and I got married, our mother insisted on giving us 100 saris each. This obsession with having an extensive wardrobe continues. A woman prefers to buy three mundane lawn suits instead of one fabulous outfit that can be styled in different ways.

Also, we keep turning towards other cultures, instead of seeking inspiration from our own icons, women such as Begum Liaquat Ali Khan and Begum Fatima Jinnah, who epitomised elegance. Instead, I see this all too prevalent love for wearing Western gowns, particularly done-to-death one-shoulder baring ones. The Pakistani figure generally doesn’t look flattering in Western cuts but this is completely disregarded. And once women wear gowns, they proceed to imagine that they are going to the Oscars and go overboard with hair, make-up and accessories. Anyone who travels and is well-acquainted with international fashion knows that a Western silhouette looks better with less over-the-top styling but they don’t understand — and don’t want to understand.

Similarly, at a wedding, nobody even bothers to look at the bride anymore. There was a time when a bride would wear a beautiful jora and would look young and fresh. Now, she drips with sequins and her face becomes unrecognisable with multiple layers of make-up. Everyone just gets dazzled by what she’s wearing rather than the way she’s looking.

It’s sad that most designers prefer to cash in on these consumer preferences rather than guide them into dressing in classier ways. They continue to churn out gowns although most of them don’t know how to cut them and they think that showing skin on the catwalk is equivalent to fashion.

Despite being disillusioned by local fashion, you continue to support Fashion Pakistan Week (FPW) and are a board member of the Fashion Pakistan Council (FPC). Why is this so?

I am the founder of the FPC but for the past three years, I have opted to be less involved in the nitty gritties because it can get draining for me. I do support FPW and will continue to do so because it is important to guide new talent. Collections are edited endlessly backstage before we allow them on to the catwalk. I credit my friend Deepak Perwani, the Chairperson of FPC, for working with the debutantes and guiding them.

It isn’t easy. Every FPW, we wonder who we can take into the lineup because there are very few truly good fashion brands about. And even the ones that do have promise may just decide to show with some other fashion event simply because there are so many of them happening per season!

Having said this, I may be appalled by the current state of local fashion but I am not disillusioned. There are brands that have definite promise. I have always believed Shamoon Sultan of Khaadi to be a true visionary and he can be credited for trying to make the high street more fashionable. Also, Khadija Rehman of Generation has managed to give her brand a complete facelift, making it trendsetting while simultaneously keeping an eye on retail. There is hope.

Why do you think so many other designers don’t have promise?

They just aren’t hungry. They are happy bringing in profits but they are not bothered with innovation. They will never evolve. I remember meeting photographer Rizwan-ul-Haq some 15 years ago. He was a simple man who was just starting out and he told me that he taught himself via the Internet every day. He studied fashion and photography to the point that today, he is one of our finest fashion photographers. He also knows more about fashion than many designers do. It’s because he was hungry for success, for the next big project.

Even at my age, I am perpetually hungry. Fashion is a changeling and I feel that I am chasing it all the time, trying to catch up. I know that I will never catch up but the chase is part of the fun.

You are very forthright with your opinions. Has this won you many enemies?

I don’t think so. I am in the habit of avoiding people that I don’t like. I am disgusted by the way some of the people within the industry abuse models and resort to blackmail. These are the people that I know don’t like me. The feeling is mutual.

Do these unethical practices include the harassment of models? A male model recently opened up about how a well-known photographer insisted that he would only give him work in return for sexual favours. Being a veteran, have you seen such misconduct taking place in the fashion industry?

I have heard of it and often, directly from the horse’s mouth. Male models often come to me and complain. When I can, I help them by giving them work but it has really come to the point that when young boys tell me that they want to become models, I strictly tell them to never dare to do so. Male models are rampantly misused in the fashion industry and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Are female models safer?

Yes. For one, girls get mentally mature sooner than boys and they understand where to draw the line. Also, there is simply more work in Pakistani fashion for females. For males, there is only limited work and it can truly only exist as a side job rather than a full-time career.

You recently confessed on Twitter about having been harassed as a child and have been speaking out in support of the #MeToo movement ever since. Do you think that the movement can be instrumental in bringing about change in Pakistan?

I hope that it can. I stand in support of every woman who has suffered and knows what it feels like. The argument that why didn’t a woman speak out as soon as she was harassed is completely invalid. It took me many years to confess that I had been harassed. It’s difficult admitting to these things, especially in a society like ours.

I do feel that men are more scared now and will be careful about making an unwarranted pass at a woman. This is great. However, as in the case of every movement, #MeToo needs to be edited carefully. Those of us who are watching from the periphery are now morally bound to investigate every case carefully before voicing our opinions. I would not like to see it becoming a tool for vengeance. I hope that it doesn’t.

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 15th, 2018