February issue 2012

By | Fashion | Life Style | People | Q & A | Published 12 years ago

As a member of Chitral’s ancient ruling Kathur dynasty, Zainab Alam, a graphic designer from NCA, was repeatedly approached by the women of Chitral to help them better their circumstances. Her grandfather, Sir Shuja ul Mulk, ruled Chitral for over 40 years and most of her family members still live there, including her parents who run a hotel in Chitral called Hindukush Heights.

A chance meeting with her old school friend Nadia Malik, who also graduated from NCA with a degree in graphic design, led to the two of them coming together for Krizmah, a company that produces exquisite bags and wallets.

In this exclusive interview with Ayesha Nasir, Zainab Alam talks about the inspiration behind Krizmah and the future of the brand that has taken the Pakistani fashion world by storm.

Q: How did the idea of Krizmah come about?

A: The real credit goes to the women of Chitral who would badger me to give them designs to embroider, every time I visited the valley. Since I speak the native Chitrali language, Khowar, I spoke to them about their embroidery techniques and later Nadia and I came up with the idea of doing a line of bags and wallets that represented Chitral and its culture. The first embroidery designs were given out in the summer of 2010 and in April 2011 we had our first exhibition.

Q: Were you inspired by British designers Polly & Me?

A: The skilled women of Chitral have been embroidering for hundreds of years, and it is a misconception that wefollowed the Polly & Me template. We basically use the same embroidery stitch in our designs — it is a typically Chitrali stitch called kalami. For example, if clothes designers do similar embroidery, such as dabka, it doesn’t mean the designs are the same. Cross-stitch is another favourite in Chitral and the women make fully-embroidered caps using that stitch, which they wear at several occasions, weddings included.

Q: How has the Krizmah brand bags been perceived by the public? Do people view them as mere handicraft, or bags that make a fashion statement?

A: The Krizmah brand is definitely a fashion brand — with a social conscience. But I feel the design value of the bags is what is responsible for the tremendous response we have received both in Pakistan and abroad. The limited edition bag adds a touch of colour and oomph to any woman’s wardrobe.

Q: The women who produce your bags reside so far from where you live. How do you deal with this logistical hurdle?

A: The artisans who work on our bags come from all over Chitral. Since most Chitrali women are skilled in embroidery we work with groups of women and that makes it easier for them to follow colour templates and, additionally, they can help each other out. The embroidered fabric is then sent to Lahore where we supervise its transition from embroidered fabric to superior quality leather handbags and wallets.

There is a production house in Chitral called Mogh. Initially, we worked directly with the women but now we find it easier to give our designs to Mogh. This is a company in which a percentage of the shares are owned by the artisans themselves. The long-term plan is for Mogh to be owned entirely by the women artisans.

Q: How does Krizmah help the local village women/artisans ensure a better lifestyle for themselves?

A: Krizmah provides artisans with a generous supplementary income while allowing them the flexibility to continue with their daily work and chores. More than 800 women work for us and they are all paid per piece. I think Krizmah also makes the women feel financially independent as it’s difficult for them to make money in Chitral otherwise.

Apart from that, when the bags are sold we give back to the community by educating the girls of our artisans. When Krizmah decides to educate a child it is a life-time commitment. We promise to fund her education for as long as she wishes to study.

Q: Some of your bags take weeks to make and others, months. Why is that so?

A: The embroidered portion of the bag is completely hand-embellished. It is intricately woven, almost like a tapestry. The embroidery for the larger bags can take 6-8 weeks to finish.

Q: What inspires the stories you base your bags on? For instance the ‘Joshi’ bag is inspired by a festival in Chitral.

A: You will have to attend Joshi to know why we named a bag after it ! If you were to see the beautiful Kalash tribe in their glory and all their colors, you would understand where the inspiration comes from.

Q: The ‘Vanishing Podroom’ bag is based on the snow leopard. What compelled you to base a bag on this creature?

A: Unfortunately, not many people know about the extinction of the snow leopard which is why I felt that this is something we should talk about.

Q: Tell us about the love story that inspired the ‘Hashim Bag?’

A: It’s a folk tale — a princess from Gilgit is to marry the Prince of Chitral. While on the journey to Chitral, she keeps imagining what her future husband might look like — would he be like the man of her dreams? That’s as far as we left the story but the tale ends with him turning out to be nothing like that.

Q: The ‘Sikander’ bag is inspired by a polo player. Did the idea of doing a polo bag emerge from your association with the sport?

A: Well, both my husband and I come from a polo-playing family. The difference is that in Chitral, polo is played with no rules whatsoever. The bag is actually based on Sikander Ul Mulk, who is my father’s brother and the most popular polo player in Chitral. Chitralis are very passionate about the game of polo. Just like in Lahore and Karachi where we see children playing cricket on the streets, similarly in Chitral, it’s quite common to see kids playing polo on foot with their mallets made from the branch of a tree.

To begin slideshow click on any photo:

Photography and Styling: Deevees

Co-ordination: Voila PR

This interview was originally published in the February 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “If Bags Could Tell a Story.”