STYLE: MARCHING TO HER OWN DRUMBEAT

November 17, 2019

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Photos: Faisal Farooqui & his team @ Dragonfly
Photos: Faisal Farooqui & his team @ Dragonfly

Mahgul Rashid made her debut on Pakistan’s fashion landscape in 2013 and from the very beginning, there was never anything commonplace about her. She may have had her fans as well as her critics but you couldn’t deny that Mahgul was different — in the fish-scale embroideries that she once etched on to a wedding-wear collection, in the chinoiserie prints that she merged with embellishment in a formal line, in the memorable accessories she created to complement the clothes in past fashion shows, and in mixing animal prints, bar codes and butterfly wings. Mahgul, new though she was, seemed to be very sure about her design ethos.

Somewhere down the road, though, she did make a beeline for the more commonplace. She tried to cater to the high-street, a market where safe, generic design tends to sell better than artistic creations. For a while, the Mahgul who had made such a splash with her first collection, seemed to have receded into the shadows. We’ll talk more about that later. More significantly, though, at the recently culminated PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week, she was back, once again marching to her own drumbeat.

The designer’s ‘Tales Of Bijin’ stood out on a catwalk that was weighed down by pastel-coloured, heavily-cancanned bridal atrocities. In contrast, Mahgul spun out dazzling colours, creating embellishments that were well thought-out — florals, following distinctive patterns, mingling occasionally with a phoenix, its magnificent wings splayed out, or geometrics laid-out in grids or mirrors, running in dainty paths down a shirt. It was wearable wedding-wear and, yet, with enough of a twist that made it stand out rather than blend in.

In an industry where many designers have shifted gears towards more commercial routes, creating beautiful, sellable but ultimately forgettable clothes, Mahgul is opting to do things her way

Bona fide designer-wear, after all, should stand out. In an industry where many designers have shifted gears towards more commercial routes, creating beautiful, sellable but ultimately forgettable clothes, Mahgul is opting to do things her way. “I can’t do them any other way,” she tells me. “I’m happy catering to a more niche, discerning clientele than creating clothes that don’t define my aesthetic.”

Do they sell well? “Yes, so far,” she smiles.

Photos: Faisal Farooqui & his team @ Dragonfly
Photos: Faisal Farooqui & his team @ Dragonfly

I’m meeting Mahgul some days after fashion week, at a trunk show that she is having in Karachi. Her catwalk collection is displayed on mannequins and sales racks and customers keep drifting in to examine them up-close. I ask her a more pointed question, “Are they selling as well as they did last time?”

‘Last time’ was three years ago, when Mahgul had similarly brought in a hot-off-the-ramp collection for a trunk show. This was before her short tryst as Creative Director of high-street brand Sapphire had taken over her schedule. Then, she would show very regularly at fashion weeks and made plenty of seasonal headlines. It was also a time when economic recession hadn’t taken over.

Mahgul is, of course, no stranger to the ups and downs of fashion designing. Her own career may still be in its early years but she learnt the ropes by working with her maternal grandmother, veteran designer Nasreen Sheikh. “She has taught me a lot — to value my work ethos and to always, always, value the client,” she says.

“To be honest, customers were buying more frequently three years ago,” Mahgul observes. “They were placing orders without contemplating too much over them. This time, I feel that people are thinking more about what they want to buy.

“I also realise that I need to showcase at fashion weeks more frequently. While I was involved with Sapphire, there were months when there was nothing new in my own studio. Seasonal new collections are very important in order to keep customers interested.”

How is she countering the demands of this increasingly reticent clientele? “There will be regular fashion shows, hopefully. And we are consciously trying to cater to what they want,” she says. “I have never believed in machine embroideries but, this time, I have included elements that bring cost down while making the designs look unique. I have used a lot of applique and I feel that people like it. I have also created quite a few pieces that work well as separates. So a customer can just buy one thing and mix and match it with other clothes in her wardrobe.”

Photos: Faisal Farooqui & his team @ Dragonfly
Photos: Faisal Farooqui & his team @ Dragonfly

Mahgul is, of course, no stranger to the ups and downs of fashion designing. Her own career may still be in its early years but she learnt the ropes by working with her maternal grandmother, veteran designer Nasreen Sheikh. “She has taught me a lot — to value my work ethos and to always, always, value the client,” she says.

Mahgul continues, “There are, though, some things that I can’t compromise on. I wouldn’t ever want to glue on sequins. They have to be stitched by hand. Every motif and pattern in this collection has been visualised by me. I have sketched them out and worked on them with my craftsmen. I do have a design team but I have deliberately taken on fresh graduates who I can train more easily. They are attuned to my wavelength and the way I visualise design.

“It’s a long process but one that I enjoy. For several months, I’m just fully invested in the research and development — the inspiration, how to place the various embellishments, extensive sketching. Then, the craftsmen begin their work. For fashion week, I think I created about 35 designs and then shortlisted them down to the 16-odd clothes that I could show. The collection needed to be cohesive and, while I prioritised wearability, it was also important that I put forward trends. It’s very important for a fashion week collection to be trendsetting and not just beautiful.”

With her love for details and artistic inspirations, I end up asking her directly: why did she consider dabbling with the high-street at all, where hundreds of designs have to be churned out monthly and creativity is overridden by commercial concerns? It was in 2017 when Sapphire’s partnership with its first creative director, Khadijah Shah, had come to an end amidst rumours of bad blood. In early 2018, Mahgul was announced as the brand’s new creative director. Earlier this year, however, she also parted ways with the brand.

When Mahgul had joined the brand, it had been questioned whether she would be able to bolster it commercially. Now, she answers my question quite honestly: “As a creative person, it excited me that I would be driving a large team of people, creating collections that would be affordable and accessible to a huge market. But the high-street works at a very fast, very competitive pace. There is no time to rethink a design, add new nuances to it and correct the errors. The focus is on utilitarianism rather than on artistic integration.

“It was so demanding that I was losing sight of my own brand, Mahgul. I realised that I would lose out on this client-base, that I had built with so much effort, if I kept trying to keep up with the high-street. I reassessed what I wanted and rebooted my brand. This is what I want to do. And yes, now that I’m no longer working in Sapphire, I would want to create capsule ready-to-wear lines. But I would want to work with quantities and timelines that are manageable for me. I may also return to creating luxury lawn line-ups — as I did for Al-Zohaib Textiles in the past — but again, I would want it to be at a pace that I can work with.

“I want to take on only as many orders as I can manage and I want to make sure that every client who comes to me is happy with what she buys. And I want to create designs that I believe in, that say something about my vision and are distinctive.”

And so she did, at the fashion week. Her ‘Tales of Bijin’ told some riveting stories. Welcome back, Mahgul. It has been a while.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 17th, 2019