Nomi Ansari’s office walls are lined with an orange and black tiger print. There is marketing paraphernalia all round; framed images, quirky slogans and memorabilia from his younger days, when he was a dynamo fresh out of fashion school and interning with senior designers. A lion’s face squints out at you lazily from a wall and right next to it, a bright red horse’s head and a yellow star. Framed alphabets spell out, ‘NOMI ANSARI’. But of course. His office was bound to be psychedelic, like him.
But Nomi’s vivacity extends beyond this riveting office-space and the spellbinding clothes that he creates, mixing colour with pattern and making magic. He is also mercurial by nature. Anyone acquainted with the designer knows him to be volatile to the core, emotional and fiercely opinionated about the workings of an industry that he knows inside out.
He completes two decades as a fashion designer next year. and he has a vast network of friends that he has worked with over the years. There is also a considerable list of people with whom he has had differences of opinion at some time or the other. But even the people who are not his friends — even those who have experienced his temper — can’t deny that Nomi Ansari is a designer par excellence.
Perhaps Nomi even dreams in technicolor because there is no other local designer who spins the colour wheel quite as expertly as him, creating rainbows, floral gardens, butterflies and fairy dust. His signature is very distinctive and his construction, impeccable. There is never a stitch out of place in a choli created by Nomi Ansari, balanced perfectly, with not a safety pin or a wayward thread in sight.
I examine these designs up-close as I wait for our interview to begin: lehngas, cholis, dupattas, shirts and groomswear lined upon racks upon racks throughout the rooms of his studio space. I have hitherto seen many of these clothes on catwalks but I don’t mind experiencing their beauty all over again.
Even in these economically difficult times, the future looks bright for Nomi Ansari
“The orders still come in for the older designs as well,” Nomi tells me, “by clients who come in with appointments and others who live abroad and place their orders online.”
This gives me the perfect opening for our interview. Business seems to be doing well for Nomi — even my interview with him has been squeezed in between his meetings with clients. With many designers complaining about the ongoing economic crunch, hasn’t Nomi’s business been affected by it at all?
Business, in hard times
“Everyone’s business has been affected, round the world,” Nomi observes. “Overheads are high and customers tend to ask for huge discounts. We often have to accommodate them by trying to reduce the costs of production to the best of our abilities — how else would we sustain ourselves? It’s become extremely important to give customers good value for money. I wouldn’t want to create bridal couture which is too edgy because I know that clients prefer clothes that they can keep for life, and reuse. Designs with experimental hemlines and cuts may sell for less but heavy duty bridal-wear and trousseau orders are ideally traditional.”
Do copycat brands also hamper business for him? There are shops in markets such as Gulf and Aashiana in Karachi that infamously pride themselves on selling replicas of his latest work. The finesse and workmanship is substandard but Nomi’s colours and patterns are unabashedly copied to the tee. “No, business does not get affected because my customers are discerning. They appreciate that I never compromise on quality, craft or my signature.
“At the same time, I find this outright plagiarism to be very insulting. It sometimes takes me months to put together a single design, envisioning the colour, the cut, the embellishment. There are often colour on colour on colour details on my clothes. Sometimes, close to fashion weeks, I end up sleeping on the couch in my office, or in the factory. It’s a lot of hard work. And to have all that effort replicated, even in a crude form, in a matter of two days is extremely disturbing.”
Is it the fear of copycats that has made him stop investing into too many fashion shoots? Nomi only sporadically delves into fashion shoots — in fact, his Eid collection, a festive-wear pret line that I got to see during the course of our interview, wasn’t photographed at all!
“There wasn’t enough time to have it photographed and then bring it to retail,” he explains. “We haven’t even posted about this collection on our official social media pages and, yet, it has been selling very well. But no, the only reason why I’m not investing into too many shoots these days is that I don’t feel inspired towards planning them out. I used to work on a lot of shoots but they can be quite a hassle — coordinating with models and photographers, and making sure that the images don’t get leaked before you release them officially.”
He does, however, participate very regularly in fashion weeks, usually trying to showcase at least one collection per year. This year, for instance, he showcased a bridal-wear line that glinted with mirrors at the spring/summer edition of Fashion Pakistan Week. Unlike so many of his peers, he says that he did not pay social media platforms to post images from his show. And yet, there was hardly any attendee at the fashion week who could have resisted uploading images of Nomi’s kaleidoscope on the internet. Now, these very images are up on his website, serving as a catalog from which clients can place orders.
“Fashion weeks definitely help business along,” says Nomi. “The thing is, my design house is constantly on the go, bringing out new lines and, every few months, we have a collection that can be showcased on a platform. And it doesn’t matter what fashion week it is, whether in Karachi or Lahore. It just needs to be a good collection.”
Does he sell better in Karachi or Lahore? “My aesthetics are very me. They don’t really pander to the sensibilities of any one city. I have clients coming in from all over the world now, thanks to e-commerce.”
He was also part of a show at the PFDC Fashion Week this year, where he collaborated with sportswear brand Tuhura and put forward an athletic wear line. What prompted him to swerve from embellished cholis and lehngas to minimalist tracks and trainers? “The business has to grow and the line is doing well online,” says Nomi.
He continues, “If I’m paid by a brand for a collaboration, then why wouldn’t I do it? There are so many other times when big multinational brands ask me to collaborate, refusing to pay, assuming that the mileage that the project gives me is my compensation. But I’m a veteran designer who has worked hard to build his way up. I don’t need to give out freebies just for the sake of publicity.”
Fashion and the celebrity
I tell him that perhaps he is able to shrug off opportunities for publicity simply because the spotlight tends to follow him around. Nomi’s life is the stuff of Insta-stories. His designs are extremely picture-worthy as are his travels round the world, usually with an entourage of his celebrity friends, all dressed to the nines as they pose against picturesque landscapes. Unlike so many of his peers, he doesn’t even need to invite Instagrammers to his soirees. His annual ‘White Feast’, for instance, is an iftari that he hosts in his home every year, and the guest list is utterly star-studded. The images of some of fashion, film and music’s most famous faces, dressed in all-white, posing against fairy lights, inevitably trend on social media.
“People just post a lot of images and they get noticed,” he shrugs. “I don’t have a PR team promoting White Feast and, even though brands have offered to sponsor it, I have never gotten them on board. It’s just a party that I have at my home with family and friends. It started off 10 years ago with a guest list of 20, and now it has magnified to a much bigger number.”
Celebrities also frequently feature in his fashion shows and shoots. There is always a celebrity showstopper in a Nomi Ansari showcase and his brand’s official Instagram account is littered with images of famous faces, putting their best foot forward in his colourful designs. “I think a lot of stars trust me and enjoy wearing my clothes,” he muses. “I have been dressing so many of them for years now, from Meera, Reema, Nirma and Zara Sheikh to now, this second generation of young actors and actresses such as Maya Ali, Mehwish Hayat, Hania Aamir and Ali Rehman Khan.
“Stars work really well for my brand,” he says. “It’s all about social media now and who’s wearing your clothes, where they’re wearing them and how they’re wearing them.”
The city’s most famous who’s who is wearing his clothes and they’re wearing them to all the most ‘it’ places. But looking beyond the star power, there’s no denying that the clothes themselves are intrinsically beautiful. Even in these economically difficult times, the future looks bright for Nomi Ansari. Technicolor bright.
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 2nd, 2019