The words ‘Maison Élan’ may give you ideas of overstated grandeur and the kind of gilded opulence that you expect from royalty; that is the kind of high end fashion that Khadijah Shah designs for Élan. Maison Élan, however, opened its doors and delivered a bit of a shock to the system as it is nothing close to a glorified bridal studio but rather a quirky and unconventional space marked by florescent bar signs and artistic installations (in the guise of furniture) that are more kitsch than conventional couture. You walk in expecting embroidered bridal carriages drawn by white steeds but bump into a black and white, striped life-size cow (or was it a reindeer?) wearing a gold crown. It’s fascinating to say the least…and regal just the same!
The flagship store, called Maison Élan, opened its doors to Karachi this weekend and unveiled a world akin to Alice’s Wonderland thanks to Yousaf Shahbaz’s idea of an interior. Maison Élan has ranges of Élan clothes, starting from Élan Vital to Élan ready couture; it also has an array of sparkling jewels courtesy Sherezad Rahimtoola and the razzle dazzle she creates with her glorious pieces. The Alice in Wonderland effect, however, comes with Yousaf’s Strata, his line of furniture that has just found its way to Karachi. You’ll find serpents on sofas, monkeys on lamps and multi-colour canaries on chandeliers. A coffee table with a black and white swirl is held up by gold squirrels, which is actually very Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If ‘understated’ is your mantra then Strata is not your style. This is where exhibitionism comes to celebrate.
Luckily, Maison Élan is neither as mythical or as unreal as Alice’s Wonderland. It’s a solid space, with serious fashion for retail.
“This is a big step as we’ve given the brand its identity,” Khadijah Shah – who by the way is full term and expecting a baby next month – shared. “We’ll be creating and moving into a similar space for Élan in Lahore as well.”
The fashion aesthetic in Karachi is very different from Lahore; also, logistical issues have historically made it very difficult for Lahore based designers to sustain businesses in Karachi. Was there a specific reason why Khadijah felt this would work, I asked her.
“We opened today,” the designer said when we met on Saturday, “and we’ve opened with luxury pret and Vital. The couture studio will take another two weeks. But since the morning we’ve had people who I know as well as people who I don’t know and I think it’s because over the years – with the lawn and high street clothing and bridal wear – the brand has gotten that recognition. So it’s more than a designer label and is accessible to everyone. It’s aspirational. The major difference between Élan and other designer labels is that Élan has been able to make a name for itself across a cross section of society. We’re not confined to high end, expensive clothing.”
Maison Élan would not be treated impersonally, she added. One major problem designers had in maintaining stores in multiple cities was employing staff that was disconnected with the ethos and aesthetic of the brand. It led to lack of ownership and eventual distress. Members from Élan’s very own team would spend time in Karachi, at the boutique to upkeep it. The price points, she elaborated, began from PKR 5000 for Élan Essentials and went up to PKR 200,000 for ready couture so attracted a wide range of loyalists. The best news: the boutique would be open 7 days a week, even on Sundays.
“I would want to treat Karachi as our main sector as opposed to an auxiliary space,” she furthered.
The blue prints for Maison Élan justify the plans Khadijah has for the space, which is a work in progress. Yousaf Shahbaz – the brain behind the interior as well as creative head of Strata Designs – explained his vision of the glass entrance that would lead to the main door as well as the staircase to couture heaven. Maison Élan would also have a living space for the team, for whoever was in town.
“We all have the same design ethos,” he explained how his quirky designs gelled in with Élan chic. Khadijah and Sherezad are a natural fit, I pointed out, but his aesthetic was quite left of centre. How did he fit in? What was the common denominator?
“I think the common denominator is that although my designs look different, the process is very much the same as Sherezad and Khadijah. We all really like to take old crafts and traditions and recreate them in a completely different way. All three of us are inspired by lots of different things.”
Sherezad Rahimtoola, who has partnered with Khadijah Shah for all her collections and showcases, echoed the thought.
“Khadijah and I are very old friends with close family ties, also we share the same design sense and have always worked together,” she said. “At times I have custom made jewellery to work synonymously with her collections.”