The buzz and the city
The hype in London was undeniable; Khaadi was opening its doors here and the Pakistani expats were over the moon! The biggest brand, indeed the most loved fashion brand, homegrown, homespun from the homeland would be available in London and that too not at a location in Southall, popularly known as ‘Little India’ where the bulk of Indians and Pakistanis live and which is not up market by any standard. With their first step in London, Shamoon Sultan and his team placed Khaadi right up there with the biggest and the best.
The Westfield shopping malls in Shepherds Bush and Stratford are the largest, most sought after prime shopping locations in London and arguably the UK. So when Pakistan’s own Khaadi opened (albeit without ceremony), in both these locations, the venue automatically catapulted the label to the attention of British shoppers. The two Westfield Malls are the newest, American style shopping malls in London, which cater to hundreds of thousands of shoppers, housing shops which are big household names such as House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, Debenhams and many others. The village area of Westfield, Shepherds Bush, boasts more up market shops, such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Dior, Jimmy Choo and others. With restaurants, casinos, cinemas and large parking areas, the malls are a central hub for shoppers. So for Khaadi to have opened strategically in both the East and West London, Westfield’s is a stroke of genius that bodes well for the future. It is also a huge feather in Pakistan’s cap; with this bold move, Pakistani fashion has gone global for the first time with Khaadi entering the mainstream market in the UK.
The low-key, high impact arrival
Naturally I wanted to catch up with the brainchild behind Khaadi, Shamoon Sultan who was a on a very tight schedule with much to do. Fortunately, the Pakistani High Commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hassan, who was supposed to be have lunch with Shamoon was running over an hour late, which enabled me to catch the man of the moment at the Khaadi shop at the Shepherds Bush location.
I stepped into a clean cut store, modernly designed with wooden panels and mirrors, which manages to stand out in a class of its own above its more famous (in the Western world) neighbouring shops in the Westfield Centre. The interior is designed by architect Arshad Shahid Abdulla, who says he modelled the store in line with the Khaadi shops in Pakistan, so it keeps a similar theme and style. One certainly steps into a spacious and beautifully designed shop, which oozes an ambience of luxury. For some strange reason it feels supremely exciting to step into Khaadi in London, and I’m obviously not the only one feeling the buzz.
One Pakistani lady enthusiastically gushes, "My life is complete – I’m in heaven!” I haven’t taken a proper look around yet, so I haven’t fully grasped just why she is so excited, but I do make a mental calculation that I won’t need to rely on relatives in Pakistan, who have no clue about my taste, parceling my Eid suits over next year, now that a piece of Pakistan is at my doorstep in London… and how!
Inside the Khaadi mastermind
Shamoon Sultan, Owner, CEO and Chief Designer of Khaadi, appears somewhat publicity shy, points me to Rehan Syed, also CEO, Khaadi hoping he will answer my flurry of questions. But I don’t let Shamoon off that lightly and soon both these brilliant business minds from Pakistani fashion are politely enlightening me as to their set up. Shamoon and Rehan are modest and understated, but clearly shrewdly ambitious. Rehan Syed, 41 years old, is responsible for Khaadi in Dubai and although based there himself, he seems confident that the UK stores can be successfully managed from Dubai. So that’s how they will do it, till it needs tweaking.
“Why no opening ceremony?”, I exclaim considering the buzz but Shamoon just laughs off this question, insisting they never have opening ceremonies and just open doors to the public. “No press invitations either?” I question. “Kamran Khan ran the story on Geo News, which was fine," smiles Shamoon.
Clearly this is a label, which talks for itself and sells itself, and they are big enough to not require publicity. Unlike other fashion retailers, they have not sought press publicity actively in the UK at all. “That’s fine for the Pakistani market and expats in the UK, but what about a launch for the local English market, how will they know about Khaadi?” I press on, telling them that I had to ask a security officer in Westfield where Khaadi was located and he informed me it hadn’t opened. I insisted that it had opened on Thursday. “Oh, I will have to go and take a look then,” he replied. But apparently it’s not Khaadi’s way of doing business.
It is Saturday and the busiest day of the shopping calendar, for Christmas is just a few days away. I ask whether the store was opened strategically in December, which is the busiest time of the year for shopping. Rehan Syed assures me that no, that is just a coincidence, as their vision is long-term and timing was not a relevant consideration. Shamoon adds, "The location is more important than timing and it was important to get that right."
There is no doubt that they could not have chosen better locations. The two shops service both East and West London and are bound to create a storm and this is just the beginning. Shamoon states that they are looking to open 20 shops in the UK and are already near to closing deals on the Manchester and Birmingham branches plus Khaadi has also opened at the Pavilion Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "It is important to choose the correct locations," he emphasises.
His is such an audaciously ambitious plan; you can palpably see a very shrewd business mind at work. The staff has been recruited locally and they employ both Pakistani and non Pakistanis. The UK shops are going to be managed from Dubai, which also has Khaadi outlets. Both Shamoon and Rehan will be overseeing the business and regularly travelling to the UK.
Today is the third day of its opening in the Shepherds Bush branch. They enthuse that the response has been better than they expected. There is a sure and steady stream of curious customers, both English, desis and Arabs. The range is fusion wear, targeted to the local British market. “What about more traditional shalwar kameez for the expats?” I ask. Shamoon replies that their vision is not just to sell, but to grow.
Khaadi through a Pakistani in London’s eyes
Finally, I get a chance to wander around and see for myself what all the fuss is about. The rails are full of freshly smelling crisp cottons and linens with hand embroidered thread and stitching. The stock will be updated weekly, which is good.
“Finally I can find clothes in my size, instead of relying on guesswork from Pakistan” says one Pakistani customer. But I’m far more curious to see what the English are making of it all.
I badger a few customers, for their view. “It’s lovely, I would wear it,” states one English lady in her forties. Another English couple making a purchase look surprised when told that all the clothes are hand embroidered and hand stitched.
The clothes may be fusion and targeted at the local purchasers, but there are many beautiful long kameezes, which I would argue are not fusion at all, but just what I need for Eid and desi parties.
There are plenty of long western shirts, in flowing, soft materials. The quality is well known in Pakistan, but if I compare it to a local high street shop in England, it could be argued that this is higher end quality, than that of the mainstream off the peg type clothing. It is also unique in its style. The fabrics are pure cottons and linens – I did not see any silks. The quality of the fabric is Khaadi’s biggest strength, with UK shoppers increasingly used to being sold cheaper mixed, polyester fabrics that allow for ease in machine washing in the quick pace of London life. Khaadi’s pure fabris feel much better but I have yet to figure out whether I must resort to the inconvenience of dry cleaning them or not.
However, the cuts flow flatteringly and the quality of the finish is high, the fabric seductive and the handmade thread work so authentic and precise that one overlooks the point that it is handmade.
There are many stores, copying from Asian influences, such as Monsoon and Phase Eight, both shops located close to Khaadi. However, their items are more glittery and seem to have come off a factory conveyor belt, when compared to the simple, elegant and unique styles offered by Khaadi. It may even be unfair to compare, as actually Khaadi is offering a very different product. It’s been a resounding success in Pakistan, but the big, indeed million dollar question now is, whether it will take off in the UK?
Positioning a Pakistani fashion brand in London
Shamoon conceded that the prices inevitably had to be higher than the price tag in Pakistan. After all this is a prime location in London and running costs are higher. So I rather tentatively check the price tags, but am presently surprised! They have pitched it just right. It is affordable and reasonably priced, which is just what is required in the current economic climate. The prices are perhaps 35-40 per cent higher than Pakistan. Most of the clothes are kept well under 100 pound price tags. Kameezes are priced from around 50 to 70 pounds for the more dressy Khaadi Khaas range. Shirts and tunic tops are priced at around 30 – 50 pounds. Leggings are just under 15 pounds. True, those expecting Pakistani prices may be disappointed, but it would be foolish to compare, given the higher outgoings involved in set up and running costs in the UK. And Khaadi is already offering discounts; there was a 30 per cent off sale for one day on Boxing Day. The ladies on the shop floor have been selected well, as they are enthusiastic and incredibly helpful.
The clothes are trademark Khaadi and a delight. The excitement of having a piece of Pakistani fashion, so accessible here, soon seduces me, and I end up taking a few dresses and shirts into the changing rooms. Another pleasant surprise, Mr Arshad Abdulla, the architect and uncle of Shamoon Sultan, has designed it superbly, as there is even an air of elegance stepping into the spacious mirrored changing rooms. In an age of small and pokey, where square feet is expensive in London, no corners are cut and I feel that this could be the changing room in a high end store. In fact I can think of no other changing rooms, quite so spacious and elegant in any of the Westfield shops.
I end up being quite unable to resist making a number of purchases, a couple of long kameezes, with the trademark thread embroidery and some well fitting, flowing shirts, perfect to wear with trousers, perhaps forgetting that this shop is here to stay and I need not clamber to stock up. There are a number of garments, which look tempting, but as I remember the sharp cold December weather outside, in London, I resist buying the loose, light cotton tops and white trousers. It’s surprising that there is so much summer wear on offer, in the wrong season. Some more thicker linens would be more inviting.
There are some teething problems, as their card machine didn’t work, and I and many others were directed towards a cash machine. I suggest gift vouchers to the cashier. I think my family and friends would love to receive Khaadi gift vouchers. Also the store seems a little bare. There are few accessories, only some handbags and shawls but none of the household items, such as bedding and all the extras enjoyed in Pakistan. The space is there, it could be better utilised. Also disappointingly, no items for men or children yet, it seems we women have been chosen as the privileged ones. There are ornately designed carrier bags, but Khaadi is clearly wishing to pay attention to detail, and little trinkets, such as Khaadi labelled stickers are being thought of to finish wrapping the clothes in tissue paper. It’s this kind of attention to detail, together with a quality product and beautifully designed shop premises, in prime location, which has the customers excited.
Million dollar questions
However, is this enough to crack the UK market? I felt that most of the fashion items on display were actually more geared for the expat market rather than the English. Shamoon says its fusion, and to an extent it is, but compare it to Phase Eight opposite or Monsoon, and the latter two, have more fitted long and shorter dresses. Khaadi does offer beautiful shirts and tops, which can certainly fit in mainstream, but their ‘dresses’ are really kameezes, long, loose and flowing. They wouldn’t fit into the category of cocktail or party dresses, except for the more daring Bohemian style European lady. This is not criticism, however, and if Khaadi’s fashion does convert the European wearer to a new style – kudos! However, I suspect Khaadi may have to adjust its cuts and go more mainstream yet to appeal to a wider market.
I wore one of my Khaadi outfits to a musical night by Humaira Channa at the Pakistani High Commission and it was instantly recognised by another guest, also wearing a similar styled Khaadi top. It is reassuring to be informed by Shamoon that the stock is to be updated weekly. However, when I venture back to Khaadi, a few days after Christmas, the shop is a lot quieter than the neighbouring ones, but that may be because unlike Khaadi, the January sales continued in the other stores. You have to cater to the weather and UK winter is harsh. That said, the expat community is certainly chattering about Khaadi – whether it is pronounced ‘Kudi” or “Khaadi” continues to be a raging debate!
I also venture into the Stratford Branch shortly after the New Year break. The shop is empty when I arrived but within a few minutes, customers started to trickle through. The range on offer is a little different to the Shepherds Bush shop. Most of the clothes are machine washable, but the more intricate embroidery requires dry cleaning. The shop was busy leading up to Christmas, but has gone a little quiet after, according to the sales staff. This may be because the January shoppers are out for sale bargains, but Khaadi has not joined in with sales, other than for one day on Boxing Day. Also it appears that so far most of the customers have been Asian, although, there have been sales of loose trousers and leggings that are popular with Caucasians. Time will tell, whether, once the sales frenzy has died down, whether Khaadi can establish itself in the British market, long term.
It is indeed a bold experiment to see whether the Khaadi stores will work in the UK. It will definitely sell to the Pakistanis and Indians hands down, but the proof will be in the pudding, as to whether the Europeans will take to this style. It may well be that the fusion styles will have to adjust further to cater to local taste and I suspect that these introductory prices are unsustainable and may need to be increased. But Shamoon Sultan is not a man who does things by half measures. He is ploughing ahead with other Khaadi outlets in the North of England, without first waiting to see how his flagship stores in London fare. He is a man with a vision to open 20 stores. If he succeeds, he would make Pakistan proud, as it will put a much loved brand on a global scale, and yes, there will be many lessons to be learned along the way but that’s just how it goes…
Aisha Jamil is a barrister based in London with a keen interest in fashion and all things desi there