February Issue 2011

By | People | Profile | Published 13 years ago

“Once I was doing yoga, I saw myself in the mirror and I promised myself I would either be skinny or dead. I am that vain. I live in the moment and I want the best possible,” says the uber-cool and chic Nabila, stylist, beautician and image consultant.

Nabila has never needed to shout out to be heard — her work speaks volumes for her. Never needed to advertise — her clients are walking advertisements. Never battled dogmatic conventions with swords drawn — she merely proved by example what the independent Pakistani woman is capable of. Only recently Nabila launched her coffee table book Nabila Changes, a collection of biographical memorabilia featuring her best work, and I was keen to meet the style icon behind some of the best makeovers of Pakistan’s glitterati.

Remembering a snippet from her book, where Nabila talks about how she “would send back important clients for being even a few minutes late,” I arrived well in time for my interview at her salon at Park Towers. A short while later I was shown to Nabila’s office where I was greeted by a warm, smiling woman and my inhibitions melted away. She looked like someone in her 20s (so all the recent talk about her looking very, very young was true). Dressed in an understated red polo neck and checkered pants with short textured hair, Nabila looked very un-Nabila like. Her usual white shirt and black pants were missing — but more on that later.

Nabila and her family arrived in Karachi from Dhaka in ’71, following the Bangladesh war of liberation, with nothing but the clothes on their back — and from these humble beginnings sprung a set of astute over-achievers. “The least ambitious of us went to Harvard to pursue medicine,” she laughs, but the undertone is clear. As for herself, Nabila recalls how, despite resounding professional success, she had to go through years of therapy to “unlearn the over-achievement instinct. My light switched on after 18,” she says, and that is because she had just tied the knot and discovered freedom, away from her disciplinarian parents. Her journey, though, had just begun. “I was wacko from the beginning,” confesses Nabila, “and my sister always encouraged me to move to Paris,” but she met with the same stubborn retort every time — “I will bring Paris to Pakistan” — and she did.

“My paradigm is all about me and what I need today! I opened a spa because there were no spas in the country; I opened a nail bar because I needed to get my nails done; I started cutting hair because nobody could cut my hair like I could. I perfect the art and then it becomes a business, and since it is the need of the hour, others follow,” says Nabila. Somehow her confidence, bordering on narcissism, does not appear to be misplaced — it is befitting of her status as a style icon with an enviable portfolio to her credit. Nabila “has a penchant for risk,” says Musharaf Hai, managing director, L’Oreal Pakistan in the book. According to Nabila, the most daring step that she took early on in her career was getting her wedding diamond set out of the locker, “one that I would never wear again,” selling it and boarding a plane for a 35-week course at Vidal Sassoon in London, leaving her two sons behind, in the care of her husband and sister. This was a course that eventually defined her career.

Nabila Changes documents her own transformation from a girl with rebellious bobs, followed by a phase of discovering her feminine side, to sporting unruly hair and putting on weight for a while and eventually slipping into the “mercurial” state that defines her today. She points to herself and says, “You would rarely see me dressed in colour, but here I am. Even I don’t know what it means yet!”

Three images, of models Bibi, Iraj and Aaminah Haq in her book stand out. Bibi, with her hair cropped and dyed silver, is one of them. Nabila remembers that day well — the shoot was at Clifton beach and Zain Mustafa’s reconstructed shirt was Bibi’s attire. “That one day changed me, because I discovered that I was capable of anything,” reminisces Nabila. Describing Iraj as “another one of those bold ones,” she says, the model came in asking for a short hairdo and Nabila proposed six different cuts for a calendar. Aaminah Haq’s “morning-after look” was conceived when one day Aaminah arrived at Nabila’s hotel room imploring Nabila to do a shoot for her since she had lost weight. Since the stylist had no designer on-board, they worked with bedsheets and nothing else! “I take my cues from the client, and each one of them came to me looking for change.” Nabila has risen above the hairdresser and stylist nomenclature to become Pakistan’s first image consultant. She has done total makeovers of celebs like Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar and Meera.

“When you walk through the door, statistics say people form an opinion of you in the first four seconds,” remarks the stylist. In her view “the whole country needs a makeover.” Nabila now works closely with a panel of plastic surgeons to reinvent people. Her new TV programme out next year, with the same title as her book, will host candidates who have gone or are going under the knife in what she terms as “extreme makeovers.” However, she sounds a note of caution: “We go only as far as is absolutely needed. Pakistanis are scared of change — and change is my surname. They live for others in self-made shackles — too scared to break free, as that takes hard work.” But Nabila is her life’s own “actor, director and producer.” She sees a mind coach “religiously for 10 hours a month and he keeps me on track, engaging my genius and circulating the right energy and message.”

Her book starts with an image of Bori Bazaar in Karachi — a reminder of the context we live in and how it impacts our sense of style. “My style though, is not limited by geography or time zone, but this is my address.” And it was from this address that Nabila rose to fame, breaking boundaries and challenging the norm, but never indulging in petty politics or letting the tumultuous volatility of the political context interrupt her work. “I don’t discuss politics. I am not interested in democracies or dictatorships. They can do their job and I’ll do mine.”

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.