STYLE: ONLINE AND ONWARDS

31 Jul 2020

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Designer Ansab Jahangir (R) with her sister Zoha Shakir
Designer Ansab Jahangir (R) with her sister Zoha Shakir

Here’s a story that regularly circulates among Pakistani high-society circles: girl loves designing clothes but studies conventional career-centric subjects in order to please her parents. After graduating with a business or medical degree, she gets married. With free time on her hands, she decides to pursue her erstwhile dream for designing. She sets up a studio in a room in her home, creates a collection and invites her family and friends to an at-home exhibit. If she’s good at what she does, the clothes start selling and she begins to plan out more exhibits.

Usually, the story ends here. The girl has sporadic exhibits and her fledgling apparel brand does well, considering that she’s operating from home and relying on word-of-mouth to bring in business. And then, the exhibits get fewer as she gets preoccupied with the demands of motherhood and the successive rigmarole of school admissions, tuitions and a heavy duty social life.

Designer Ansab Jahangir had a similar career trajectory. But it was at this point that she decided to take charge and steer her career towards a different kind of happy ending: she wasn’t going to let her business remain limited to a home-based, small-scale enterprise and make it grow beyond her circle of family and friends, and be seen at high-end platforms endorsed by the elite.

She needed to make waves, and she did. Ansab’s five-year-long designing career can now be considered a road map for new designers trying to build a strong online presence. “It helped that I had studied economics in college,” muses Ansab. “It’s very important to know how to market one’s brand. Within six months of starting out, I had my designs featured on the cover of a popular weekender magazine and then, a few weeks later, on another magazine cover.”

Designer Ansab Jahangir’s five-year-long career in fashion can be considered a road map for new designers trying to build a strong online presence

Another priority for Ansab was to make sure her designs were visible in the right social circles. “I’m friends with a lot of bloggers, and I collaborate with them from time to time. They wear my outfits to various events and get photographed in them, which helps draw people’s attention to my work. I make it a point to work with Lahore-based bloggers so that my brand becomes better known there as well. I don’t want my brand to be perceived as Karachi-based.”

It was later that her sister, Zoha Shakir, joined in on a temporary basis to help with the rapidly expanding business — and then, decided to stay on for the long haul. “We are now partners in the business,” says Ansab.

Business, in these five years, has grown, and from bloggers and society ‘it’ girls, has now become associated with star power. Actress Ayeza Khan frequently endorses Ansab Jahangir; Sana Javed opted to wear the designer for most of her stint as a judge in this Ramazan’s Jeeto Pakistan (JP) game show on ARY. Beyond the parameters of Karachi and Lahore, Ansab’s online orders now stream in from all over Pakistan, and around the globe. Traversing wedding-wear, evening formals and pret, Ansab admits to being “very, very busy.”

Around the time Icon talks to her, she’s catering to Eidul Azha orders. Apparently, even in these Covid-19 times, her clientele has been avidly purchasing formal-wear. “It’s actually very surprising,” she admits. “I thought that business would slow down due to the coronavirus pandemic and, for a few days during the first week of Ramazan, we did experience a drop in enquiries. But then the orders started pouring in.

“I think people are getting used to the idea of self-isolation and then they decided that they still wanted to dress up for close family gatherings. We took a risk and launched our ‘Motiya’ collection at the time, and raked in a lot of orders. Earlier, our brand’s strength had mainly been embellished wedding-wear and bridals, but the demand has now shifted significantly towards pret.”

It has also been during the Covid-19 lockdown that Ansab launched a collection that has been her quickest to sell out so far. Her ‘Mommy and Me’ line offers matching clothes for mothers and their young daughters, and she says the orders started to pour in from all over as soon as the images of the shoot were released on to the internet and social media.

“It was a very simple fashion shoot with no celebrities, but the overnight response was amazing. Within hours, we had sold out whatever stock we had,” she says. “Of course, any shoot that Ayeza Khan does is also hugely successful and Sana Javed’s clothes in JP got noticed a lot too. But the product itself needs to be good for people to keep on buying. Just marketing doesn’t help.”

While business may be doing well, Ansab is yet to solidify her atelier’s presence with a flagship store. And while she may have gained mileage through celebrity collaborations, well-timed fashion shoots and slick online promotions, she hasn’t put her designs to the test by placing them out on the catwalk at council-led fashion weeks, sharing space with other designers and laying them out for critique. Online marketing may work wonders, but it also allows her brand to operate safely from within its comfort zone. People also are yet to recognise her, or her sister Zoha, as the faces of the brand.

“Yes, we will have to expand to a retail store and to fashion weeks,” says Ansab. “We did participate in the Hum Network’s Bridal Couture Week once, but it didn’t generate much of a response for us. We do eventually want to be identified as the designers behind the brand but, as of now, we’re focusing on building the business.

“There are four P’s that we are following in order to market our business successfully,” she says, delving into her economic know-how. “Our strength right now lies in the product, pricing and packaging of our brand. It’s only the place that may have to be restructured later on. Right now, our place for retail is online, through our website, and at our studio in Karachi, via appointment. We’re also constantly participating in major exhibits around the world. I only want to expand to a flagship store when we’re ready. I have two kids and the pace at which we are working right now suits me. I want to open a store only when we have the production capacity to constantly bring out new stock.

“The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that we need to be prepared for anything that comes our way. The fashion retail business has been very badly hit, with designers struggling to pay their shop rent. It’s important to know that you should expand your business only when you’re sure that you’ll be able to sustain the additional costs,” she observes.

Ansab’s plans include an unstitched formal collection which she plans to launch by next year, on popular demand.

Wrapping up the interview, I ask Ansab if she minds that actress Ayeza Khan, who is constantly associated with her brand, also collaborates with a plethora of other labels? Doesn’t it diminish the brand image when the same actress works with multiple other labels on a weekly basis?

“We’re not a high-street brand that can limit Ayeza in an exclusive contract,” says Ansab. “Ayeza also happens to be a friend and I’m happy that she’s getting work from other brands too. It doesn’t impact our brand image in any way. When we design for Ayeza, we create bespoke clothes, keeping her personality and looks in mind. People gravitate towards the images because they like Ayeza, but they also like the clothes. The product does matter.”

From small-scale exhibits to becoming a well-recognised name with a steady clientele, Ansab Jahangir is a young brand that has grown steadily. But in the long run, it still remains to be seen if the designer will be able to move forwards, expanding from online retail and marketing, on to the wider, more competitive platforms of a fashion week and retail stores.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 31st, 2020