Circa 1994, a young 19-year-old set up his designer-wear store in Zamzama, a commercial zone which was on the cusp of becoming Karachi’s ‘it’-most shopping area. Located squarely on the main road, the logo ‘DP’ was emblazoned on the store — it quickly became a landmark that identified Zamzama as a zone for the city’s most fashionable. It also became the vantage point according to which the location of other shops could be explained because, of course, everyone knew where the Deepak Perwani store was.

Everyone also knew who Deepak Perwani was. He was the wild child who made fashion exciting. At a cracking pace, Deepak defined the country’s quickly expanding fashion universe, moving from fashion shows to styling music videos to opening a flagship store that was frequented by the very glamorous, the rich and the famous.

On the personal front, Deepak was in the front ranks of the young fashion set — a cool, clubby, creative little group who lived life in the fast lane and were at any party worth going to. “I didn’t go to the party, I was the ‘it’ party,” Deepak smirks. Twenty six years since the opening of that fateful first store, I’m meeting him for an interview, and our conversation has started off with a colourful trip down memory lane.

We continue the reminiscing. Deepak, in those early glory years, was a rockstar. He’d stalk into a show and cameras would veer towards him. He designed for the stars, had shops in prime locations and reveled in making politically incorrect quips. I remind him of an event where one of his fellow designers had launched a new venture with a grand dinner, inviting most of the fashion fraternity. The emcee for the night went about the room, asking the guests why they were there, and they made suitable comments. When the mike turned to Deepak, he had just shrugged and said, “I’m just here for the food.”

Looking at Deepak Perwani 26 years on, one often wonders whatever happened to the rockstar designer from the past? Is fashion boring him now? Or has he himself grown older, wiser, and a tad bit boring?

Deepak bursts out laughing at the memory. “It was the truth, but I had said it jokingly. I do think that, as designers, sometimes we take ourselves too seriously.”

Professionally, Deepak steamrollered from opening stores in mainstream locations to becoming one of the founding members of the Fashion Pakistan Council (FPC) to shows across Pakistan and around the globe. He was indelibly famous, starring in a few music videos too and even dabbling with TV dramas. It made his brand even more covetable, and life played out to a thumping, exuberant melodious beat.

Deepak Perwani, the rockstar

“I enjoyed designing for music videos,” says Deepak. “No one else but rockstars would wear pants made from Ajrak or PVC. I remember creating clothes for Junoon’s world tour. The band was going to India and I made these printed jeans for Ali Azmat that were printed with the words ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ in Hindi. I also created a Sufi look for the band. Salman Ahmed’s stuck with it even now.”

There were many more music videos — Deepak counts as many as 200. “I worked with so many musicians — Awaz, Vital Signs, Hadiqa Kiani, Najam Sheraz.” Taking me on a nostalgic journey through some of Pakistan’s most prolific musical moments, he continues, “There was Khamaaj by Fuzon. Saqib Malik was directing it and Shaan was cast in the video’s lead. This was at a time when his film career was downsliding, but Shaan did such a phenomenal job that his image received a complete turnaround.

“Saqib also directed Ali Azmat’s Na Re Na and designing the wardrobe for the video was a great challenge. Tariq Amin was in charge of hair and make-up, and we wrapped up the video in Lahore over a span of seven days, filming Ali, the angels, the devil. Sometime later, I met Ali Zafar, a boy who made my sketch in the lobby of PC Bhurban, and he gave me the CD to his song. I took him to meet Tariq Amin in Lahore, and I created the wardrobe for his debut video, Channo.

Photos by Rizwan-ul-Haq
Photos by Rizwan-ul-Haq

“We wanted to be creative and didn’t obsess overselling,” says Deepak. “They were exciting times for fashion, music, the field of entertainment. It was a time when we just wanted to put our ideas out there and make waves.”

As opposed to now, I prod him, when fashion’s furious tides seem to have simmered down to a lilting stream? The Deepak Perwani of the past would step on to the catwalk for his final bow with a skip in his step. He is laughing now as he turns back the clock to the past. He also continues to collaborate with the stars, designing wardrobes for major movies such as Jawani Phir Nahin Ani and Baaji. But there have been many more recent times, when I have seen a grumpier, drained-out side to the designer: frowning during interviews, stalking anxiously at a fashion show venue when the event is getting delayed, and inevitably shouting while managing the usual squabbles over front-row seating at a fashion week. Now when he comes out to take the bow at the end of his own show, Deepak is more likely to be smiling tiredly, as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders.

Whatever happened to the rockstar designer from the past? Is fashion boring him now? Or has Deepak himself grown older, wiser, a tad bit boring?

The council that drained out Deepak Perwani

The fact that I have just asked him if he is old and boring now strikes Deepak as extremely funny. Perhaps it’s the sort of description that he just isn’t accustomed to. He grins and says, “Just because I don’t like to parade my life out on social media doesn’t mean I’m boring. I’m a private person when it comes to what I do once I’m done with my work.” Pausing, he adds, “If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything it’s that designers who seemed to lead the most glamorous lives have had to shut down their labels within two months of lockdown. They couldn’t even sustain their businesses for a few months. The cards have come crumbling down — what you see on social media isn’t always true.”

He then proceeds to give me a reply that I had expected: for 12 long years, he was handling the administration of the FPC in various capacities, and it wore him out. His term as Chairperson of the FPC only ended last year. “For 12 years, I would wake up every morning and fret about arranging funds for the council,” he recounts. “I felt this constant pressure. Since I was the one who usually arranged for sponsors, they would want to communicate with me only. At one end, I wanted to encourage new designers and, at the other end, I would be dealing with all the many demands that designers make as fashion week looms closer. I would be rushing about, dealing with everything from the seating arrangements to delays to backstage hitches. For a long time, even my offices were used by the council, for free, before it could finally afford to set up a separate space.

“When my term with the council ended, I just felt disappointed. I had given 12 years, at the very prime of my career, to this organisation, supporting and encouraging my peers and new designers. But I had been dealing with a fraternity which is extremely insecure. If I was heading a council and helping them put up their shows, then they needed to be able to listen to my constructive critique. Instead of appreciating that a veteran was giving them advice, they would assume that I was being jealous. Why would I be jealous? I was already established, and I was merely operating in my capacity as chairperson of the council. Not one of the young designers, that I had helped along the way, messaged me or called me when my term ended with the council. It was disheartening.”

Does he feel relieved now, having finally left behind the messy council politics that are a sad, inevitable reality in Pakistan’s fashion industry? “Yes, it feels great!” he grins. “But even though I opted to no longer head the council, I do think that the FPC needs to rethink its structure. The council is back to square one every two to four years, when a new chairperson is elected. This just doesn’t work because a longer term is needed for an individual to get things organised. The Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) in Lahore has been able to organise itself much more effectively because there is a continuity within its administration, with Sehyr Saigol permanently instated as a chairperson.

“The FPC also needs to have people from business backgrounds to be part of its core team. Designers are creative people and aren’t always great with numbers. So far, Feri Rawanian has been the only non-fashion CEO that the FPC has had.” He goes on to quote a fellow designer, Rizwan Beyg, who had also once been part of FPC.

“In the golden words of Rizwan Beyg, he told me that he had to give me credit that, after he left FPC, I had managed to institutionalise it and put in the right people.”

We wanted to be creative and didn’t obsess overselling,” says Deepak. “They were exciting times for fashion, music, the field of entertainment. It was a time when we just wanted to put our ideas out there and make waves.”

The lure of the wedding

Moving away from the endless, oft-fruitless, council talk, I ask him if he truly believes that it is just council politics that have made Deepak Perwani a less adventurous man? There was a time when he would shake up the fashion industry with avant-garde design. There was the vivacious ‘D-Philosophy’ line that had made such a splash at Milan Fashion Week and then, returned to Pakistan and sold out completely. The statement circular bags were such a hit that roughshod copies of them were made by the enterprising shopkeepers in marketplaces such as Aashiana in Karachi and Liberty in Lahore. ‘Everything But The Girl’ had etched out an urbane, edgy dress code for men’s suiting, the classic ‘Amrita Shergil Collection’ had floated out dreamy screen-printed fabric and ‘Frida Goes to Kharadar’ had been a tongue-in-cheek ode to the iconic Frida Kahlo.

In contrast, over the past few years, Deepak’s collections have been beautiful rather than full of character. His e-store right now features an extensive line-up of lehngas, ghararas and three-piece suits that have superseded the mini-dresses and gowns of yore. Like so many of his peers, Deepak has been thinking of commerce, zoning in on milking the big fat Pakistani wedding market.

Revolutionary designer-wear may be great on the catwalk but no one in Pakistan, except for a very small minority, wears it. Wedding-wear and pretty three-piece suits, meanwhile, can be sold by the dozens, at considerable profits. His fine eye for design and finishing ensures that even his wedding-wear sells very well but, nevertheless, it lacks the cutting-edge streak that has always been the Deepak Perwani identity.

“Anything I have ever made has sold out,” he smiles proudly, “from the menswear to the wedding-wear, the pret, the luxury pret. When I was designing ‘Frida Goes to Kharadar’, my team discouraged me, telling me that no one would wear such experimental clothes. But even that collection sold out completely.”

His business acumen can be credited for this as much as his designing skills. Deepak’s pricing has always been very competitive, and based on his personal retail observations. “We see what’s selling well, what designs can be reproduced, how many more can be sold during a sale. We offer wedding-wear at different price points. Everyone has been struggling due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic but, fortunately, because of the systems we have in place, we have been managing to break even. We have also made changes in our designs according to the requirements of our customers. More lightly embellished wedding-wear is in greater demand because people are having small-scale events.”

And even though the Covid-19 pandemic persists, he is still making plans. The 10-year anniversary celebration of his Milan Fashion Show collection is in the offing, and he is going to be turning away, momentarily, from wedding-wear’s gilded cage towards funky fashion for men and women.

He has been enjoying posting a ‘century of style’ series on his social media, where he is pinpointing style icons from around the world. He has just joined the boards of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) and the National College of Arts (NCA), and is also busy resurrecting two centuries-old havelis that belong to his family, converting them into heritage sites.

In the past few years, the only times I have seen Deepak truly enjoying himself have been when he is free from the shackles of fashion council duties. Three years ago, he had launched his standalone bridal studio with a mini fashion presentation, styled by longtime friend Tariq Amin. His truck-arty ‘D-Philosophy’ mannequins had taken centre-stage in the décor as had framed images of his shows and fashion shoots from over the years. Then, last year, he chose to fly solo on the last day of Fashion Pakistan Week, with a glamorous catwalk at a private venue, showcased for a very select guest list. Deepak had been having fun that day.

“Solo shows are great because they allow a designer to play up his or her strengths,” Deepak tells me. “Now, I don’t see fashion weeks happening any time before Autumn/Winter 2021, but I’m planning a collection that may be showcased in a socially distanced, small-scale event.

“Twenty-six years ago, it wasn’t easy for a young Hindu boy to venture out into the spotlight,” he confesses. “Initially, I didn’t even put my name to my store, utilising just my logo. It’s only now that I have the confidence, having paid my dues, to do what I want to do.”

I’m hoping that what he wants to do is what he does best — go a little crazy, create memorable psychedelia, ruffle a few feathers, and be the rockstar that he’s always been.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 9th, 2020

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