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The new trailblazers

on October 14 | in Fashion, Instep, Style | by | with No Comments

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In between Khaadi soaring to Khaadi Khaas and beyond and Sana Safinaz revving into retail, the one new brand that took everyone by storm was Sania Maskatiya. Instep gets up close and personal with the sister-brother act who shook up the fashion world…
By Maliha Rehman

Young, talented and raring to go, meet Sania Maskatiya and Umair Tabani. They’re brother and sister, friends and together, they epitomize the new generation of Pakistani fashion. As the brains behind the very successful eponymous ‘Sania Maskatiya’ label, Sania and Umair have managed to discern the all-imperative balance that makes fashion retail work.

Theirs is a fashion design house run with a solid business head: she’s the textile graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture with a miraculous knack for prints; he’s the finance major who may not know how to design but who certainly makes it his job to know which designs sell well. She is a multitasking mother of two who professes that she’s only managed to build her label by ‘going crazy at work’. He is already busy making extensive plans for the label to fly further in the future. It’s a clear, much-needed division of responsibilities that simplifies the process of running a business in fashion – or any business, for that matter.

And yet, whenever I meet Sania and Umair, they hardly strike me as the young guns who’ve trail blazed their way through fashion, teaching even local veterans a thing or two about how to spin a business. Rather, they’re a typical brother-sister duo, smiling, easygoing, hailing from a family deeply rooted in the garment export business. They finish each other’s sentences, disagree momentarily only to make amends a few seconds later and they’re friends with absolutely everybody – even with designers that are, in fact, their direct competition, such as Nida Azwer, Sanam Chaudhri and Maheen Karim. Work and friendship go separately, why be petty? One often sees them at fashion soirees and store launches in support of their friends. “A lot of our friends are incredibly talented designers and we’re happy that they’re stepping into retail,” claims Sania.

Meanwhile, miles ahead of most of their peers, Sania and Umair stepped into retail three years ago and have so far managed to dabble into as many facets of fashion as they possibly can. Luxury-pret and pret? Check. One-off couture creations for the red carpet? Check. A strong retail presence and clientele across the country? Check. A professional, business-centric approach that sets them in a niche of their own? Check. Lawn debut, complete with squabbles and long lines at the exhibition? Check. A Lux Style Award for Achievement in Fashion Design? Check. Bridals? Check – and Sania’s just about to showcase her bridals for the first time at the upcoming PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week.

When I visit the Sania Maskatiya flagship store in Karachi’s Khayaban-e-Bukhari, the bridal collection is still an intricate, all-consuming work in progress. “I started my career with bridals and they have always been a major part of my business. In the media, though, people tend to associate me more with luxury pret and lawn,” says Sania. “I now want to bring my bridals to the fore.”

The milleu of bridal samples hanging down the racks at Sania’s flagship Khayaban-e-Bukhari store in Karachi vary from traditional to Western fusion. Flowing long net shirts and angarkhas mingle with trailing embellished coats and the occasional off-shoulder gown, all replete with colors and multiple embellishments. Sequinned peacocks, twining filigrees of flora and shimmering bursts of kamdani are frequent in Sania’s bridal line. “All these clothes are created with such diligence and care. I hope the bridal collection at fashion week does well,” says Sania anxiously.

That’s typical Sania for you – always fretting before she delivers a sensational fashion week lineup or has a hit lawn exhibition. The anxiety has never stopped her from showing at multiple fashion weeks, ricocheting from one council – and one city – to the other. “Pakistani fashion weeks aren’t attended by any buyers who come and place bulk orders,” she explains. “For designers, the main revenue is from local customers. And customers are more inclined to make purchases when they see a collection showcased on the catwalks. This is why I think it’s important to show with both fashion councils – Fashion Pakistan (FP) in Karachi and the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) in Lahore.”

It’s a move that has worked well for the brand. Sania’s a board member of the recently reformed FP council, but she’s savvy enough to think business rather than unnecessary loyalty when it’s time to showcase her clothes. After all, it doesn’t matter which council you’re working with, as long as you work the catwalk right, get the critics raving and the glitterati vying for your designs? At this year’s pret-based PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week, The Telegraph’s illustrious Hilary Alexander lauded Sania’s collection as the best, more recently the brand’s sojourn to New York Fashion Week has resulted in great sales for Sania’s signature jackets and capes. The TDAP show last week in Karachi had foreign visitors raving about her pants. What’s even better is that should an international export deal come Sania’s way, she has the production capacity to fulfill the order. Why show when you can’t replicate the designs? Sania Maskatiya’s brand is a masterclass in simple business lessons that so many other designers are yet to learn.

Not one to rest on fashion week laurels alone, the Sania Maskatiya showcases have always been followed up by advertising and prompt stocking at mainstream multilabels and Sania’s standalone stores – there’s one in Lahore and two in Karachi, including the brand new pret outlet in the very ‘it’, ever-crowded Dolmen City Mall.

The Dolmen City shop, incidentally, is one amongst a motley crew of designer shops that have opened up in the mall, placing Sania in direct competition with fashion heavyweights like Sana Safinaz, Deepak Perwani  and Khaadi. How has her new shop fared with such established contenders just a few paces away?

“I don’t consider myself in the same league as so many of the other designers that have stores in the mall,” professes Sania. “They’re people who have been in the business for years while my brand is still new. My older store in Khayaban-e-Bukhari still brings in better profits than the Dolmen City one – customers make the extra effort to visit it only if they’re sure they want to buy something. The Dolmen City outlet has managed to create more awareness about my brand but I have observed that people at the mall usually just drift in to window-shop.”

This may be because, in comparison, Sania’s prices are definitely higher than those at other designer stores. At the Sana Safinaz prêt store, prices for basic tunics begin at Rs 3500 – at Sania Maskatiya, while the clothes may be in a league of their own, prices for prêt flit around Rs 6000 and above. Perhaps if the pricing was more competitive, the Sania Maskatiya apparel could blaze ahead?

“We do try to price as economically as we can,” says Umair, who has the unenviable task of managing the design house’s numbers. “Still, our overheads are high because almost all our prints and embellishments are created completely in-house. This is about as price effective as we can get right now.”

“We hope to bring down our prices in the future,” adds in Sania. “I have only just begun to delve into casual ready-to-wear and need time to design and cut down costs simultaneously.”

For now, then, it’s Sania’s delectable luxury-pret that sells like hot cakes; silken and digitally-printed chiffon tunics, embroideries complemented by pretty finishings, unique lowers and above all, a vibrant mix and match of print with bold eclectic hues. Textile remains Sania’s forte and she plays with it well, blending prints with flirty hemlines, short tunics, drop-shoulder shirts and the inevitable long, flowing kameez.

“Women just don’t want to let go of long shirts and they keep asking me to make them,” explains Sania. It’s the diversity – coupled with the fact that many of these clothes are hot-off-the-ramp – that attracts in Sania’s varied clientele. On a normal day, her flagship stores see a flow of customers; socialites, celebrities, Sania’s cousins and aunts, women in veils and young girls and mothers with a penchant for fashion. “We try to cater to everybody. Women often ask for sleeves to be added or a fitted shirt to be loosened and these facilities are quickly provided by the tailors in our workshop.”

This ‘workshop’ is conveniently located in the floors above the Khayaban-e-Bukhari store. It is a beehive of energy with one office space dedicated to Sania’s design team of young textile graduates and the rest of the area occupied by tailors, embroiderers, dyers, rolls upon rolls of cloth and racks filled with samples. The recent ‘Naqsh’ and last Eid’s release ‘Irtiqa’ are apparently huge hits as I keep seeing complete and incomplete versions of them lying amidst the sewing machines. Also, lying in silky swathes are finished and unfinished versions of the upcoming Eid’s ‘Hazan’ collection, the clothes that bowled over foreigners at the TDAP show recently.

The bridal atelier is in the building next door – another space buzzing with embroiderers peering over screens as they dabble with dabka, zari, kadani, et al. Umair is also looking into expanding to a larger space to accommodate the business. “We started off with this one shop where I even put in all the light fittings by myself,” he reminisces. “Now, we have managers, design teams and supervisors to help us out. It’s still hard work, though. Every time we think of opening a new shop or stocking at a multi-label, I have to make sure months beforehand that we have the workers, raw materials and machinery to accommodate this expansion.”

In both workshops, I also see some of Sania’s older designs being recreated; for instance, last year’s gorgeous scripted ‘Lokum’. “Some of our oldest designs keep getting reordered,” says Umair. “We are able to make them available for our customers since all prints are created in-house. Of course, the latest collections are the most profitable. ‘Irtiqa’ is currently very popular and so is ‘Aahgaaz’, that we showed at this year’s PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week. Some of our regular customers actually saw it on the catwalk and ordered it right there and then, before it had even been stocked in the stores!”

But while fashion weeks may have brought in their share of accolades and revenue, they’ve also pitched in their share of criticism. This year, Sania showcased two collections of luxury pret within the span of a month at fashion week in Karachi and then, Lahore. The resemblances were uncannily similar, the silhouettes the same, the play of textiles, as always, brilliant. Hilary Alexander, on viewing Sania’s work for the first time, may have been in raptures but the rest of us have seem similar designs before. Doesn’t Sania think that it’s about time she ventures into newer territory?

“I think so,” she admits. “I have a certain design philosophy that is emulated in my work and so far, people have loved it. Now, I do want to experiment with newer silhouettes and techniques – by next fashion week, hopefully.”

Knowing Sania and Umair and their dedication to their work, they’re bound to come up with a brilliant, unique line-up by next fashion week. Retail-savvy, clever, with a deep understanding of textile and the constant desire to do even better, Sania Maskatia’s a designer label that’s going places. Fashion’s old guard, take note.

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