"Pakistan never accepted me; it confused me."

September 14, 2014

Ammar Belal talks about rediscovering his identity as a Pakistani and of course, being the first designer from Pakistan to show (to great acclaim) at New York Fashion Week

Ammar Belal just went from being Pakistan’s "token western wear designer" to one out of a select cadre of 11 Parsons graduates from the MFA Design and Society Program 2014 selected to show at New York Fashion Week. Having worked closely with Donna Karen, amongst others, in the last ten months as a student of this new and progressive program, he is now all set to infiltrate the international fashion arena with a deeper understanding of fashion’s role in bridging the gap between industry and global political economy. Simply put, what he designs will be the first sentence in a narrative that can possibly start meaningful dialogue about an issue close to his heart. For his first collection that issue was USA’s Afghan Occupation, the Bagram Detention Centre and the impact of drones in North Pakistan.

"In Pakistan I was so caught up with being different; that’s all I wanted to do," Ammar spoke from New York, a few hours after his show. "But I always had more to say. My collections were always about escape… to Africa, to my childhood, to the 70s. Now I know that I can be myself as an artiste, I want to speak to the world. I want to use fashion to tell narratives of stories that are not being told."

Why, I asked him, did he choose such a politically charged theme? What exactly does 1432 stand for?

"1432 (the name of the collection) is a prisoner number – Amanatullah Ali’s number to be exact," he replied passionately, "but it has evolved into much more than a number now. This collection took ten months to create and by the end it had developed such a deep sense of value. My sister Sarah runs a company called Justice Project Pakistan that now works in association with Reprieve London. Reprieve has been working with Vivienne Westwood for the rights and release of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Sarah has been representing the Pakistani prisoners in Bagram and the data was so moving that I decided to use it for my graduate collection. Drones are such an issue these days. Sarah gave me all the background info and we worked with Asim Rafiqui, a great photojournalist based in Sweden, who took those black and white images used in the prints. I just feel that we need to raise awareness and ask more questions."

The aesthetic of your collection is indisputably international and yet has a subtle relationship with the east too. How did you manage to achieve that since historically your collections have always been predominantly western?

"This entire collection is made in Pakistan," Ammar replied with pride. "It isn’t usually permitted but Parsons made an exception for me. I told them it has to be made in Pakistan. My people have to be in this collection. It is about representation and how to be accepted; I don’t want to sell ideas to Asians but to the world. I used cotton silk, banarsi weaves and textures that felt ethnic and then I printed on the fabric digitally, which was very difficult to do. It was very experimental. On top of that we embroidered the textured, printed fabric for a 3D impact. It’s not heavy embroidery, basically trims and finish. The collection wasn’t supposed to scream but be subtle."

The newsprint visible on tights, Ammar continued to explain, was actually partly articles on the Geneva Convention and the laws that are being bent and broken in Afghanistan. It was also the script of a letter that Amanatullah’s mother wrote to US authorities. The letter begins with the heart breaking words: "I bless the Americans, just give me back my son."

"Rarely can something so ugly be made as beautiful as it was in Ammar Belal’s handcrafted garments," Katharine K. Zarrella reviewed Ammar’s collection on Style.com. And while we may have missed the details and intricate nuances that one can only see up closely, his 12-piece tribute to the ravages of war in this region left an impact just as riveting.

"At the end of the day, all these pieces are just organza T-shirts and sportswear," Zarrella wrote in her detailed review of Ammar’s graduate collection. "Case in point: A translucent poppy-embellished top (a reference to Afghanistan’s heroin production) was shown over a shirt printed with the face of a grandmother killed by an inaccurate drone. Together, the pieces pack a loaded punch. On its own, that intricate poppy top would look great as a soft summer dress or worn with jeans. When asked about the course, Belal, who’s maintained a menswear business in Pakistan for the last ten years, said, ‘(Course director) Shelley (Fox) helped me find myself in a way I haven’t found myself in years. If there’s one thing I can say about the MFA, it’s that it helped me channel my identity.’ And a strong identity, at that."

What is this identity that Ammar was searching for?

"Pakistan never accepted me; it confused me," he spoke to me wistfully. "But being Pakistani means so much more, I understand that now. I always knew I wanted to touch upon Pakistan and this just happened."

What now? How does showing at NYFW change the course of your career for you now?

"There are three things," he was quick to respond. "I want to make sure I use this publicity to get my professors to Pakistan, to see young fashion students here and provide them an opportunity to learn what I did. They can get a full scholarship if their work is good. But they have to be sophomores, not graduates. I just need to link up with our council. I have to make that happen. I was clueless when I came here, despite my exposure. I speak another language now. 2: I have to sustain my living and want to work with a print and embroidery house at one of the labels like Ralph Lauren and Givenchy. That’s how I’ll bring business back home. Why are embroideries for D&G being done in India and not Pakistan? 3: I want to start my own label 1432 and pick up issues – Palestine, for example. It’s fashion for social issues. I want to turn clothes into canvases for a narrative."

Is there a market for this kind of clothing?

"There’s a market for anything that looks gorgeous. Remember when Imran Qureshi did artwork for the Met Museum? He painted bloodstains on the rooftop. I’d see people stand on top of those bloodstains in complete oblivion. Most people wearing these garments will also be in complete oblivion and that itself is such a statement. People need to wake up to what they’re wearing. Let people start thinking."

When asked what the future looked like and whether he had any plans of returning to hometown Lahore, Ammar responded with an instant "I haven’t left". He has been designing for his menswear label from New York and his brother has been managing the label very successfully. As for bringing this collection to Pakistan, Ammar feels it wouldn’t be relevant in Pakistan. "There would be no novelty of this collection in Pakistan. It’s what people watch on the news all day."

"Pakistan never accepted me; it confused me."