Photos courtesy Rizwan Beyg
Photos courtesy Rizwan Beyg

Three decades ago, Rizwan Beyg quite literally stumbled into fashion. He was an architect-turned-interior designer who had created a capsule line of apparel on a whim. It caught the eye of a well-known editor who placed it in a magazine and the rest, as they say, has been history.

But it’s quite some history! Rizwan’s accidental but fortuitous beginning led to a career that quickly spiraled. Having gained a foothold in the industry, he strode on, getting professional training in design, honing his skills, gathering pace, spreading his wings, upwards, onwards.

He has garnered plenty of accolades along the way — from dressing some very illustrious people, including the British royalty, to a perpetual deluge of rave reviews to orchestrating some of the country’s most game-changing fashion shows to the present day, when the government announced it would be awarding him with a ‘Tamgha-i-Imtiaz’.

There have also been many times during his sartorial journey when Rizwan has receded from the spotlight, spurning generic commercial shackles and eschewing the catwalk. But even during these low-profile phases, his atelier has always run strong: experimenting, reviving age-old craft, with his creations consistently being coveted by the discerning fashion enthusiast.

It’s been three decades since Rizwan Beyg began his sartorial journey and this star shines brighter than ever

This continues to be the case. I can vouch for this, and not just because I have personally been left spellbound by many of Rizwan Beyg’s couture shows. Rizwan’s popularity is actually something I witness firsthand as I wait for my interview with him to begin.

I’m meeting Rizwan Beyg to discuss his three-decades-long, prolific career. We are at his glossy new flagship store in an ‘it’ commercial area in Karachi, and I do feel that it is an ideal location for our interview. The store, in many ways, is testament to the ethos of Rizwan Beyg: it is open-spaced, well-lit, and choc-a-bloc with clothes racks distributed over two floors, stocked with designs that run the gamut from pret to luxury-wear, bridal design and anglicised couture. Framed along the stairs are some of the designer’s most memorable shoots, offering avant-garde glimpses of his designing vision. More than anything else, though, in the two hours that I’m there, the store is thronged with walk-in customers.

There are some who want to discuss their bridal outfits and, having forgotten to take an appointment, have come in hopes that they will bump into Rizwan. There are others who are regular buyers and proceed to buy off the rack, as well as place a few orders. Many make references to other friends who will be dropping by later in the evening. Rizwan knows all of them. He helps one customer make a purchase for her sister who, he suggests, will like a particular shade of turquoise.

This enthusiastic, consistent crowd of customers make my work difficult — but it also gives me an insight into Rizwan Beyg’s world. He caters to entire generations within families, women who have been coming to him for many years. And his designing clout and edgy couture shows also continue to draw in newer, younger customers. This store, a newly established online platform and plans to expand soon to Lahore are spurring on sales all the more.

He jokes with me, “This is my bread and butter but now that I have gone online and have this store, it’s become jam!”

In these economically difficult times, this is nothing short of a coup — and a long overdue one. By all means, business should have been rolling in from much earlier. Timeless, classically beautiful clothes have always been Rizwan’s hallmark. Aficionados will vouch that he has never been one to follow trends, opting to set trends of his own. Designs that are so exceptional should always be selling in droves.

And yet, hitherto, Rizwan had always had an artisanal approach towards his career. He was infamous for cocking a sardonic eyebrow at the requirements of commerce, happy catering to his regular clients. Now, with a new partner on board — his brother Rehan Beyg — business is growing the way it should be.

Diana was coming to Pakistan to attend the opening of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and Jemima Khan reached out to me, asking me if I would create a design for a guest of hers,” Rizwan recalls. “I asked her who the guest was and initially, she did not tell me. She just provided me with the measurements. But somehow, I suspected that it was her and I researched and found out that the Princess liked to wear ivory.”

“I strongly believe in fate, things are supposed to happen when they happen,” he says. “I’m, of course, happy with the way the business is moving, because not only is it prompting me to explore and experiment more but it enables me to make more people financially viable. My work with the craft clusters living in Pakistan’s villages has increased proportionately.”

Reviving craft

The revival of craft and the creation of sustainable income for rural artisans is something that he talks about often. He is a founder member of the government’s ‘Ek Hunar Ek Nagar’ initiative, and has also launched ‘Bunyaad’, a project dedicated to reviving traditional crafts that are on the verge of extinction. “About 98 percent of what you see in this store has been created by women living in rural regions.” He makes a wide sweeping gesture which encompasses chiffon and cotton shirts embellished by neat threadwork, as well as extremely heavy, luxurious velvets and silks, hand-worked with marori, tilla, kamdani and myriad other techniques.

Isn’t it logistically difficult and expensive to send fabric to rural villages when it could just get embellished in front of him, in Karachi? “We now have our systems in place,” he says. “It has been 12 years since I began working with indigenous craftswomen. We went through a long process of trial and error. I have trunks that are full of fabric that couldn’t quite work out the way I wanted it to. But now, the women are well-trained. And their work is in a league of its own.”

He explains, “There was a time when I, like so many others, would simply talk about making a change while sitting in the confines of my living room. Then, I was visiting a workshop in the Bahawalpur belt where an old woman asked me if I would buy a sari that she had made. It had the most beautiful hand embroidery on it, on net. She told me that it had taken her five months to embroider it, but it had been rejected because she hadn’t used a thimble and there were specks of her blood in between some of the threads. Quite literally, she had poured her sweat and blood into it. She had taken a loan of 1,200 rupees for the threads that she had used, and she needed to pay it back. She told me that I could buy it for 1,800 rupees.

“It made me cry. The skill of this woman and the level at which she was being exploited was terrible. This was when I decided that I had to make an effort to help these women, to provide a platform that would showcase just how exceptionally talented they were, and to make it possible for them to earn a proper wage.”

The ethics of fashion and the Buckingham Palace tryst.

The onset of Rizwan’s work with indigenous craftswomen was also the beginning of his long-lasting commitment to ethical fashion. For nine years running, he participated in the ethical fashion segment of Colombo Fashion Week. And then, last year, one of his designs was selected to be displayed at the Buckingham Palace, as part of the Commonwealth Exchange, a project dedicated to showcasing artisanal fashion skills and the promotion of sustainability.

“The design displayed at the exhibit was a long skirt and coat. Pakistani truck artists had drawn motifs on it which had then been embellished by craftswomen in Bahawalpur,” describes Rizwan. “It was such an honour. It was the only design that Hamish Bowles, the European Editor at Large of Vogue USA, promoted on his own social media account. And I hadn’t even contacted the organisers. They reached out to me on their own, perhaps because they were aware of my ethical work or maybe because of some of the personalities that my brand has been associated with.”

The Diana experience

Diana, wearing a fully embroidered achkan created by Rizwan Beyg, next to Imran Khan at the opening of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital in 1996
Diana, wearing a fully embroidered achkan created by Rizwan Beyg, next to Imran Khan at the opening of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital in 1996

One such personality was, of course, Lady Diana. In 1996, when Diana visited Pakistan, she opted to wear a fully embroidered ivory achkan created by Rizwan. The outfit was noticed widely by the international press and, to date, the designer considers it a landmark moment in his career.

“Diana was coming to Pakistan to attend the opening of the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and Jemima Khan reached out to me, asking me if I would create a design for a guest of hers,” Rizwan recalls. “I asked her who the guest was and initially, she did not tell me. She just provided me with the measurements. But somehow, I suspected that it was her and I researched and found out that the Princess liked to wear ivory. We worked delicate thread embroidery and pearls on fabric and when she saw the final garment, she told me that it was beautiful. It was surreal. I had never imagined that something like this could happen.”

He continues, “I have been very lucky. I have never been very greedy for more work or recognition and yet, so many times, all these opportunities have just fallen into my lap. Dressing Diana was like a dream come true and, to date, I have a steady clientele who cherishes my work and values it … from people in Pakistan to the royal families in the Middle East. I feel truly blessed.”

On celebrity culture

With such a lofty clientele and having dressed veritably the most stylish British princess in history, does he feel the inclination to partake in today’s celebrity culture? Does it interest him to follow the current trend where designers dress stars for red carpet affairs in an effort to gain mileage? “I’m not celebrity obsessed,” he admits, “but I do enjoy dressing particular people for a particular event.”

I mention the few times he dressed Babra Sharif. It was widely commented that the yesteryear actress had never looked more beautiful. “Babra and I are great friends. I met her at an awards show and it turned out that we both shared a wicked sense of humour. I enjoyed dressing her but, overall, I like designing for people who can be identified with my brand,” Rizwan says. “I don’t want to loan out dresses to multiple celebrities just so that my work is seen on the red carpet. I refuse to be part of the rat race.”

His words ring true on another front. Many years ago, Rizwan helped found the Karachi-based Fashion Pakistan Council. He showcased regularly at the Council’s Fashion Pakistan Weeks, and was also seen on the runway of the Lahore-centric Pakistan Fashion Design Council. Then, some six odd years ago, Rizwan made a turnabout and decided that he would no longer participate in local fashion weeks. Was it because he had gotten tired of the rampant politics and rat races within local fashion?

“I’m not really a political person although I do strongly stand my ground on ethics. But my decision not to be part of fashion weeks was a personal one. This was a time when I was broadening my horizons on the ethical fashion platform. My journey was changing. I had been invited to be a consultant on USAID. A number of other NGOs were also reaching out to me. For some time, I didn’t feel the need to show. I just quietly went about my work.”

On Showcase

Inevitably, though Rizwan tends to make noise. In 2017, he became the director of Hum Showcase, an annual show dedicated to couture, aired on the Hum TV Network. The designer line-up for the first event was carefully curated, boasting industry stalwarts such as Bunto Kazmi as well as younger exciting brands. The three day-long event set the benchmark for how a fashion event could punch above its weight by featuring the best in the industry.

But hadn’t Rizwan receded from the catwalk? What made him decide to return to it, not just with fashion shows but by actually helming an entire fashion event? “We wanted to orchestrate a show that was event-based. There was no need to become a member of a council in order to be featured in it. Participants were going to be selected on the basis of merit and brands that had potential would be mentored. With Showcase, quality control is of the utmost importance. To the best of my efforts, generic bridal-wear is not allowed on the catwalk. It is an event dedicated entirely to cutting-edge fashion.”

There are times, though, in its three years so far, that even Showcase has fluctuated in quality. Designers have ended up showing wedding-wear and the odd mediocre collection has been part of the line-up. “We learn from trial and error,” Rizwan points out. “We try our best but hitches will come in our way. With every year, I have a clearer vision of what Showcase is meant to achieve.”

Does he miss the fashion shows of his earlier days, when a single show would be curated and conceptualised and staged in a select, exclusive venue? “What I miss is the quality delivered by every show. There were fewer designers but they all had distinctive signatures. I miss the quality of models, designers, clients and even the celebrities who wore our clothes!”

His best show to date

What would be his best show to date? “Carnival de Couture in 2006,” he shoots back quite matter-of-factly. “I knocked the socks off everybody. Indian designers Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra were also part of the show. My collection was the hit that night. Tarun even later said that no one could make coats the way I did.”

There have been many other instances when Rizwan has, in his own words, ‘knocked off everyone’s socks’. In 2013, for example, Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph attended fashion week in Lahore and declared his truck art collection to be the best of the night. From commissions from British royalty to exquisite exhibits that everyone clamours to see to rave reviews from critics and national awards, Rizwan is obviously quite the star.

But he begs to differ. “I have just been building my brand, catering to my clients, making sure that when they come to me, they get something which is special and distinctive. I have been lucky and I don’t consider myself a star.”

He may not like the characterisation but he is, of course, one. Thirty years strong, he’s shining brighter than ever.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 20th, 2019