In her 14 years-long career, Khadijah Shah can be credited for creating some great collections, setting trends in motion, shaking up the high street and helming some beautiful fashion shoots. Her carefully curated fashion shows are rendered memorable through extensive, carefully planned social media marketing. The lawn catalogues, shot in exotic locales round the world, have always been advertised rampantly. And so on. Khadijah’s great at what she does, but she’s also great at making the world at large aware of all that she has achieved.
The weekend that I meet her, for instance, she is just about to open a glossy new store for her brand Elan. Images of the interiors, created by Yousaf Shahbaz, are flitting over social media: the elaborate chandeliers, glistening black-and-white parquet floors and quirky detailing on the walls. The new ‘Maison Elan’ is beautiful, and everyone knows this thanks to the images on Instagram.
This is also the weekend when she has impetuously flung herself into controversy. Pinpointing a young Lahore-based brand for replicating her designs to the tee, she has been ranting about unethical copycats in local fashion. She has posted these commentaries via Insta-stories, an option on Instagram in which posts disappear into cyberspace after 24 hours. This is still ample time, though, for Khadijah’s posts, which show Elan’s designs placed next to that of the other brand, to be screenshot rampantly and passed about on WhatsApp groups.
How would the other brand react, it was wondered. Quite predictably, it didn’t react at all. This could be construed as an admission of guilt or, at least, a defence mechanism. Khadijah would never refrain from calling out a copycat designer should he or she be naïve enough to respond to her with wishy-washy explanations. Hell truly hath no fury like a Khadijah Shah scorned … when she feels that she has been wronged.
Khadijah Shah knows how to make waves and build brands. As much as her design skills, it’s her acumen for marketing that really stands out
And yet, for all her refined aesthetics, marketing skills and vociferous dislike for plagiarism, Khadijah has faced her share of ups and downs. Her brand, Elan, may be a fashion favourite but a large number of copycat brands are constantly trying to plagiarise her designs, trying to somehow tap into her clientele. And a year-and-a-half ago, amidst much talk, she had parted ways with high-street brand Sapphire. This was a brand that she had built from scratch, moulding it to her vision as it had expanded from one store to another, one collection to another. I remember meeting Khadijah right after she had left Sapphire. There had been a resigned sadness about her at the time, and she had told me that she was still trying to come to terms with how things had ended.
Today, she is happier. There are other brands that she has managed to build since then, other stores that she has opened, newer plans that she has chalked. “I’m lucky, I suppose,” she tells me. “Whenever I try out something new, it gets accepted wholeheartedly by people.”
Could this possibly be because of her lineage, I ask. Khadijah belongs to one of Lahore’s oldest families and it must help to have friends in all the right places. “Yes, but how many times would those friends buy from me just in order to oblige me?” she asks. “It takes hard work and skill to build a long-lasting brand with a strong customer base.”
The journey — from Sapphire to newer horizons
“I learnt a lot from my experiences at Sapphire and I have also learnt a lot after leaving it,” she mulls. “Elan has a loyal customer base and has been doing very well, but I also started Zaha, a high-street brand that I am now building organically. The great thing is that I’m doing it all for myself.”
As opposed to Sapphire, where she was building the brand in partnership with a textile heavyweight? “I had even thought that I was doing that for myself. But I was wrong. I sometimes look back at how things ended with Sapphire and I very philosophically conclude that it was a victim of bad karma. It was a brand that had shaken up the industry’s existing players and a lot of people had been unnerved by how successful it got overnight. When there’s a lot of negativity directed against something, sometimes it just gets undone. Which is what happened with my partnership with Sapphire.”
A year-and-a half down the line, does she have any regrets? “I prefer to look ahead,” she shrugs. “I can never sit still and I have been flitting from one project to the other. I opened up a store for Elan in Karachi, another now in Lahore, launched Zaha and entered into a contract with a new high-street brand, Afsaneh. And in the midst of all this, I had a baby! I was about to leave for the shoot of Zaha’s first unstitched collection on the day I gave birth to my daughter. Luckily, I had already completed two days of the shoot and this was the final day, when we were wrapping up things. I took a few weeks off and was back to work then, taking the baby with me wherever I went. I haven’t really paused to take a breath!”
Was it difficult starting off a new brand, Zaha, and what is her equation with the fledgling high-street label Afsaneh? “I actually enjoy building brands because I think that I have a strong head for marketing,” she says. “The Elan clientele naturally gravitated towards Zaha. For the brand’s first collection, we had opted for slightly more economical fabric but the customers were expecting better quality from us. This time, then, we’ve chosen to reduce our profits and select fabric that is of very good quality.”
“I have come on board as a consultant for Afsaneh. My design head, Rehan Bashir Jalwana, is leading the team there and I also oversee the collections. We have envisioned the brand’s identity for them and decided on the product range but it’s all on a contractual basis. Let’s see how long it lasts.”
Bridal business in a world of counterfeits
And how is Elan doing, I ask her. The brand’s forte has always been highly-priced, intricately detailed couture and seasonal collections of unstitched fabric. Has business been affected by the many rival ateliers also trying to replicate the same aesthetic at prices that are much lower? “Business is doing well. We expanded to four unstitched collections every year and customers have really liked them. As for the replicas, thankfully, the Elan clientele is very discerning. They appreciate the quality and originality that is associated with the label. They wouldn’t buy low-quality copies regardless of how cost-effective they may be. If you examine them up-close, the workmanship of the copycat brands is miles apart from that of Elan. We create detailed hand embroideries while they just do basic machine work and sew a few sequins and beads upon them.”
But still, I persist, isn’t she losing out on the clients that used to save up especially just in order to buy that one Elan bridal? Now, many of these women may just opt to buy somewhat similar, more affordable versions. “Maybe,” she admits, “but I don’t know this for sure. Perhaps business may have grown a lot more had it not been for this constant plagiarism. I don’t know. I do know that my business hasn’t decreased.
“High-end brands are copied round the world but the copycat brands operate under the radar. Here, though, it’s sad that these brands just need to pay media to advertise for them and they are elevated to designer status and are often placed on the same platform as the brand that they are copying. That’s just completely unethical.”
Speaking of unethical, some months ago, she had very vocally spoken against other ateliers who lured away her regular employees by offering them very high salaries. Were these ex-employees responsible for some of the replicas currently in the market? “Yes, but I can’t do anything about that,” she says. “The thing is, all they are doing is recreating the same old collections that they once designed with me. Meanwhile, my brand is constantly evolving in other directions.”
I find it odd, then, that she hasn’t become more wary given how fickle her design team can be. The Elan team includes two well-known designers, Rehan Bashir Jalwana who was earlier a part of the House of Kamiar Rokni and Akif Mehmood, who has often been lauded as a very bright young designer. Khadijah is quite generous about sharing the spotlight with them. Doesn’t it worry her that they too may switch loyalties any day? And isn’t she more careful now, in general, about passing on her knowledge to young designers working for her? “Rehan, Akif and the other designers on my team are all very talented and I enjoy working with them. But yes, there was a time when I used to be cagey about sharing ideas. Then I realised that the designs that I create with my team are because of an equation that I have with them. There is an interaction of minds and they may lead to some really great collections. So many of the designers in my team have left me to work with other brands but they have gone on to do completely different work from what they did with me. Meanwhile, I am constantly charting new trajectories for my own labels.”
What new trajectories is she charting now? Apparently, there’s a solo fashion show for Elan, planned for later this year. “I’ll be showcasing Zaha at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week this April,” she says, “I’m also about to travel abroad for the shoot of Elan’s summer lawn collection.” She refuses to reveal the location — in the clustered, competitive world of lawn, efforts are made to keep shoot locations top secret lest some rival brand decides to follow suit.
I talk to her a few days later. She is Instagramming about the latest edition of unstitched lawn by Zaha. She has also just returned from her secret location shooting for her lawn with her baby daughter in tow. “It’s coming out really well but it’s a lot of hard work,” she tells me. That’s Khadijah for you. Always working in tandem, multi-tasking, rushing here and there. It is hard work, yes. But something tells me that she likes is that way.
Published in Dawn, ICON, February 17th, 2019