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Photos courtesy: N-Pro
Photos courtesy: N-Pro

There’s a reason why Nabila’s career now spans 34 years, and is still going strong. I think that it’s because she’s always changing, moving with the times and often, thinking ahead of it. In the many times that I have written about her in the past, I have often described her knack for trends as ‘ingenious’ and also her as ‘mercurial’ — never stagnating, keeping an eye on her business while working on building new ones, multitasking through a busy schedule, ricocheting between playing stylist to businesswoman, between image-maker and visionary.

On the morning that we have our breakfast meeting at Xander’s, she sips her coffee and predictably tells me, “I’ll be needing the energy, I have a long day ahead of me.” She’s in Karachi for a few days — Nabila has been busy building her make-up retail business, and this had prompted her to shift to Dubai some time ago. Now, she’s just about to extend the business further, which means that she will be moving to London. “I travel round the world but my closet is always in Karachi,” she says.

And during this short tryst at her home base, she has a lot to do. Her bag is teeming with paraphernalia that, she tells me, is going to last her through the day. As always, she’s wearing idiosyncratic sunshades and her hair is stylishly unkempt. Women around us keep turning to look at her. “Because I look funny?” she smirks at me, knowing it not to be true.

“Because you look great and you’re famous,” I point out the obvious to her, but she doesn’t have time to bask in these compliments as she begins to recount her schedule to me. “I got done with my haircutting appointments yesterday. Now, it’s Thursday, and the weekend starts in Dubai tomorrow. I have been sending out emails there since early morning so that some of my work gets done.” Later in the afternoon, she plans to select models and finalise hair trends for a small show that she’s about to have in a mall. She’s got the usual office work to look into and is then rushing back home to get things ready for her son, Zakir, who lands in Pakistan later that day.

Pakistan’s stylist par excellence, Nabila is still going strong even after 34 years on the job. Now, as she eyes expanding her influence abroad, Icon tries to understand where her constant adrenaline rush comes from

She’s also planning out one of her infamous parties for the coming weekend. “The venue isn’t ready at all. I have to work things out with the electrician, and I’ll probably sweep the place with a jhaarroo [broom] myself.” She says this gleefully. Nabila has always loved to work on the tiny details, sweeping away the dirt and the ordinariness and creating something spectacular. “This is the fun bit for me,” she agrees.

The guest list at her parties is always teeming with the city’s most famous and glamorous. The images inevitably trend all over media, and it helps build her PR. Is that why she makes such great efforts for her parties? “The PR is just a by-product. I make the effort because I love the adrenaline rush of creating something new and exciting.”

This reminds me of a metaphor that she often uses: of chicken karrahi and oysters. When Nabila delves towards safe and commercial aesthetics, she says that she’s making traditional ‘karrahi’. When she veers into the avant-garde, she’s serving out ‘oysters’. People who know her work understand that, while the former helps haul in profits, the latter keeps her excited and creatively sated. However, when she makes such statements at fashion events, it often riles those around her. Could Nabila possibly be alluding their aesthetics to pedestrian street food?

Chicken karrahi or oysters?

Nabila with her son Zakir
Nabila with her son Zakir

“The one thing that I don’t do is beat about the bush,” she states. “We all eat traditional food and enjoy it, don’t we? When I’m creating a campaign or working on a show that is mass-centric, the focus is on traditionally pretty, appropriate aesthetics — chicken karrahi served in a classy way! What’s there to be offended about?

“I think people in the fashion fraternity shouldn’t lie to themselves about their own design sensibilities. If they are creating beautiful but uninventive clothing that is selling very well, they should be happy about it. If all they want is the usual ‘smoky eyes, slicked back hair’ look for a show, then I have trained an army of professionals to be backstage and create exactly that for them. But if they are insisting that I should especially be present at the event, then they should let me give them something new.

“I really can’t do anything if they don’t like the way I operate. I always have been open to working with anyone and everyone, and I’m not out looking for appreciation or awards from others. Whatever I do, I do it to the best of my abilities and, tomorrow, when I know better, I will do it better. I live my life in a blinkered way, focusing only on myself and my work.”

Anyone who knows Nabila can vouch for how hard she works, and she proceeds to tell me how she plans out three- or four-day long fashion weeks with her team. “We do our research weeks in advance. I may make special trips to buy special pieces; 30 wigs for 30 models, braids, fringes, accessories. I have a staff of around 60 people backstage at a fashion

week, and I train them to work with army-like precision, guiding them till the last hairpin, making sure that they don’t delay changes in hair and make-up. Then, once we’re ready, I relax and sit in the front row with the rest of the audience!”

It is no secret that fashion’s more creative designers become more experimental with the looks for their shows when they know that Nabila’s team is working backstage. Fahad Hussayn will bring in more elaborate headpieces and an Ali Xeeshan may opt for wackier styling. “I love designers who have a vision and want to do something different. I like it that they give me a challenge.

I love challenges.”

The one thing that I don’t do is beat about the bush,” she states. “We all eat traditional food and enjoy it, don’t we? When I’m creating a campaign or working on a show that is mass-centric, the focus is on traditionally pretty, appropriate aesthetics — chicken karrahi served in a classy way! What’s there to be offended about?”

The impeccable styling by Nabila’s N-Pro team is undeniable, and making their work even more covetable to event organisers is the fact that Nabila doesn’t charge very highly for the extensive services that she offers. In fact, this has often been a bone of contention between her and her peers. They complain that Nabila’s team is omnipresent simply because others can’t possibly compete with the cost of catering to a fashion week, while charging little or no money at all, the way she does.

Nabila says she loves designers who have a vision and want to do something different
Nabila says she loves designers who have a vision and want to do something different

“Other stylists are welcome to work for events as well. If I choose to make financial sacrifices in return for mileage, that’s just the way that I have opted to run my business,” she shrugs. “One thing that I’ll never do is pay to be part of an event. I feel that that would be like bribery. Yes, I often get paid token sums for styling an event and, at other times, I barter our services in exchange for more air time on TV. Fashion weeks don’t have big budgets, but they are great platforms for PR. They allow us to showcase the latest trends that we are working on. It’s a win-win situation for me as well as the organisers.”

Doesn’t she end up spending a lot more than she is earning, and doesn’t she ever ponder over the profits that she could be earning if she asked for higher remuneration? “My currency has never been Pounds or bricks and mortar. Yes, I enjoy the finer things in life, and I make enough to be able to purchase them,” she observes. “But my main motivation has always been the excitement of doing something more. It doesn’t matter if profits aren’t as high as they could be.”

And yet, for all her competitiveness, one of this year’s spring/summer spate of events, hitherto entirely monopolised by N-Pro, now features the name of another stylist. “If event organisers and fashion councils want to opt for others, it’s up to them. I have a great team and I work hard to maintain standards. If others can do the same, that’s good for them. May the best man win. If they miss us, we’ll be back.”

Passing the baton

We move on to other events and other avenues of her business. For some time now, Nabila has very visibly been spreading her feelers towards international events. She has always been part of Pakistani fashion showcases organised abroad but, recently, she was also the official stylist for the Bollwood-based International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, as well as Dubai’s Masala! Awards. “I conduct myself with a lot of dignity when I am representing Pakistan internationally. The great thing is that wherever I have worked, people have embraced me — and they love Zero Make-up!” she says, referring to the five-in-one face perfecting palette that she has created, and is now retailing.

“It was always my dream to retail to the MENASA [Middle East, North Africa, South Asia] region, and now that I have set up a strong infrastructure in Dubai, we’ll hopefully get there,” says Nabila. “I feel that it’s time now that I begin reaching out to the European market. Our stronghold is in Spain because Zakir, who handles my brand’s digital outreach, lives there. I want to start from Spain, and because I will be living in London, I’ll also be tapping into customers there.”

Nabila applies finishing touches to model Sadaf Kanwal’s look
Nabila applies finishing touches to model Sadaf Kanwal’s look

How will she simultaneously be able to manage her salons and her thriving presence at fashion weeks in Pakistan? “Geography has never stopped me from delivering,” she points out. “I’ll be making regular trips, and I have a very good team steering the wheels in my absence.”

She goes on to elaborate, a hint of pride in her voice. “My other son, Zair, came up with the concept of a masculine, luxury men’s salon and established N-Gents. The entire salon has been constructed according to his vision, while I trained the barbers in precision cutting. It’s been a big success. He runs it with extreme vigilance and is also very enthusiastically developing a new shampoo line. He keeps giving me samples to try out!” she laughs.

“And Sara, my daughter-in-law, started off N-Pro. There was a time when I simply refused to dabble towards commercial bridal make-up. She was the one who told me that I was living on Mars, and needed to come down to Earth. She came up with the concept of the modern bride — a girl who appreciates natural-looking make-up and wants to look like herself on her wedding day. Fortunately, by that time, an entire generation had gotten older who didn’t want to be weighed down by multiple layers of foundation.

“Also, Sara very actively comes up with bridal trends, and I tweak and translate them for her. She is currently researching into creating a young make-up line, and is almost always working backstage at events.”

Another mainstay from Nabila’s team, perpetually seen representing her brand, is Tabesh Khoja, who handles her PR and is involved in all her projects. “Tabesh is very loyal to my brand and to my vision,” she says. “He networks for me and keeps my work relatable to the masses as well as to the media. His efforts are also indispensable.”

Nabila continues, “I can depend on my team to understand my vision. My children constantly resist me and question me. They bring in so many new ideas and teach me a lot and, in retrospect, I pass my knowledge on to them. I feel that they, along with Tabesh, have been instrumental in taking my business onwards and steering it towards new directions.”

Life … on the move

“It was always my dream to retail to the MENASA region, and now that I have set up a strong infrastructure in Dubai, we’ll hopefully get there.”
“It was always my dream to retail to the MENASA region, and now that I have set up a strong infrastructure in Dubai, we’ll hopefully get there.”

I muse out loud that many others in her position would feel that they were ruling the roost, and no longer needed to set new goals and continue struggling to reach them. Doesn’t she ever get tired? “No,” comes the reply that I had expected. “I enjoy this.”

Life in the fast lane, eh? She immediately begs to differ, swiping through her phone to show me images of glorious sunsets that have been taken from above the clouds. “What I am is indefinable,” she declares. “I love nature. In Dubai, I chose an apartment that was on the 70th floor and on a cloudy day, I could see the sun rise and set from above the clouds.” Moving on to more images, she shows me a wide, barren landscape. “This was a retreat where I spent nine days and for two nights and three days, it was required that I live in a tent out in the wilderness with just a bear spray to protect me. It was a life-changing time for me.”

Some years ago, she had told me of similar experiences when she had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and traveled to the K2 base camp. “Life is short and there is so much that I have to do,” she muses.

But her bucket list isn’t an ordinary one. It runs the gamut from building her business, inventing new trends and new make-up lines to scaling mountains and watching out for grizzlies! Nabila’s relentless. No wonder she’s still going strong.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 3rd, 2019