August issue 2002

By | Fashion | Life Style | People | Q & A | Published 20 years ago

“I don’t want to be typecast as a subcontinental designer”
– Maheen Karim


Q: How important is a degree in fashion in a country like Pakistan where even the top designers have no formal fashion education, but have learnt their skills on the job.

A: Though we have the raw material and the talent in Pakistan, we don’t know how to exploit its full potential. In Pakistan I have observed that clients go to designers and demand a certain look, colour cut etc. I believe designers have to sell their own concepts to their clients rather than compromising to please the client. So a degree does give a certain edge and confidence.

Q: Why did you choose fashion marketing as opposed to pure fashion design?

A: Well, it brings you out into the market as a single designer and teaches you marketing, PR, as well as practical work experience for a year with different ateliers which a degree in women’s wear doesn’t. So a lot of people who get a fashion degree come out as designers but don’t know how to go about applying their degree in the real world. I learnt how to package myself as a designer. The year that I spend working with Hussein Chalayan, Julian Macdonald at Givenchy and Armani was invaluable. I would never have been able to put together my thesis collection without that. It was a fantastic experience working with Chalayan. I helped put together his collection and actually worked with him as he let me in on his thought process. He sent me to Paris to work with buying houses so I learnt a lot that I would not have as a student. With him I learnt that nothing is impossible; but I also realised the effort that goes into the making of a garment. I learnt all the nitty gritty of production: I met with dyers, factory owners and specialised fabric producers. With Julian Macdonald and Armani I concentrated on PR and how that whole aspect works, what makes the public realise who you are and what you are. It was quite an eye-opener to see the difference in the business approaches of a global brand like Armani and the niche market of Julian Macdonald. And though I had a great time working on PR, basically I’m a design person.

Q: What are your plans now?

A: Right now I’m not confident enough to start designing in the real world so I want to work in a large fashion house or a design house and learn all I can about pattern cutting etc for a couple years. Though one starts with cutting other people’s designs as one progresses one is given the freedom to design a range of clothing once the designer is confident enough. My ideal designer is Galliano. I would love to work for him. In London it would be Vivienne Westwood. Unfortunately during my work placement year, she had no vacancies. She is a designers’ designer; she plays with things other designers would not think of.

Ultimately I would like to produce in Pakistan for a fashion house abroad or perhaps even bring an agency back. But to do that I have to learn about production, quality control etc and be confident that I could achieve that here. We have fantastic raw material in Pakistan which is just not being properly utilised.

Q: What was the inspiration behind your thesis collection?

A: Our brief was to put together a collection that we felt would show our best work. To begin with, the collection is called Kolachi, because it’s about me, where I come from. Apart from the plain black fabric which I bought, everything else I have designed, made and constructed myself. I limited the colours to black and grey so that all the different textures of lace, leather, suede and silk would come through. I made my own lace which was a nightmare, till I found a factory owner outside London with a laser machine and we worked together till we got it done. The cord I sewed on myself, for extra texture. I came to Pakistan in March to get fabric printed, using the same lace motif and I also had a lot of accessories made, like metal shoes from a wrought iron craftsman in Gizri, who translated my drawings accurately and on time.

My inspiration came from a piece of wrought iron that I saw at the Victoria and Albert museum and because I’ve always wanted to work with lace, it all sort of gelled. The clothes are very feminine, sexy and chic geared towards the affluent young woman.

Q: It seems you haven’t been influenced by subcontinental culture…

A: Most of the materials are from Pakistan but my treatment is totally western. The influence does come through in my designs in an oblique kind of way rather than an overt influence. I don’t want to be typecast as a subcontinental designer and as far as fashion goes, I personally don’t feel that the east meets west thing really works. For me both styles look beautiful in their own worlds, I’m not inspired to bring them together. However, I am quite certain that I will come back and work from Pakistan. I think we have fantastic fabrics: the silks, the woollen fabrics that are exported, they’re just phenomenal. I wouldn’t go for the jamavars etc. For me fusion just doesn’t work.

Q: What was the reaction from buyers and retailers?

A: A lot of people were very interested in the lace and the printed fabric. Some even wanted to place orders, but I don’t have any manufacturing units so I can’t reproduce anything right now. A couple of fashion magazines in London want to feature my work as well so I am quite excited about that. It is a very frustrating industry to break into. I would like to do a master’s degree eventually, but it’s not necessarily just talent that gets you recognition, it’s also the breaks and the financial help you can raise.

There is a ladder to success that one has to climb in the western fashion world, a certain process one has to follow. There are no shortcuts.