It’s couture, not-a-porter

October 19, 2014

Shehla Chatoor chooses to remain exclusive and feels that the beauty of high end fashion is in the details and not its easy access

It’s couture, not-a-porter

Shehla Chatoor exudes sophisticated glamour, whether it’s in her personal grace, the clothes she designs or even in the high end, Balinese studio where she meets her clients. The wood-paneled room is an effigy to Shehla’s work over the years. Racks of luxe samples, ready to be recreated on order, including smatterings of last year’s Soigne, the older Spring Equinox and plenty of this year’s Samsara. There’s a shelf stacked high with the bespoke shoes Shehla often creates to go with her ensembles and a chest resplendent with her recently-launched line of statement jewelry.

The walls are dotted with images from Shehla Chatoor fashion shoots; a sultry Rabya Butt languishing on a yacht atop Karachi’s sea, an Anarkali-esque Mehreen Syed in bridal finery at Lahore’s Badshashi Mosque with pigeons flitting about her and Rabya Butt, again, in what looks like Africa but is actually a set created in Karachi’s dusty Korangi Industrial Area.

"The beauty is in the details," says Shehla, pointing out some of her favourite images while also describing her design philosophy. From the heavily-worked Eastern formals that most of her clients come for to the risqué, slinky gowns that have become a red carpet staple, Shehla’s creations are a blend of myriad tiny, unique details. Fine kamdani and marori embroideries are worked over rich silks and nets, there are blouses painstakingly created by sewing and winding golden metal chains together and especially created fabric and block-prints traversing a canvas where exotic birds mingle with florals and austere Buddhas. Tassels, buttons, belts, clutches and shoes customized by Shehla’s logo add finishing touches.

"There’s a lot of grit beneath the glamour," says Shehla as she leads Instep exclusively to her atelier, in the basement beneath her studio. Here, embroiderers, tailors and screen-printers are bent over swathes of fabric, ignoring the Karachi heat as they carefully put together the details that will eventually be created into bonafide designer-wear. A notice-board states the morning and night timings for the workshop.

"This is always a busy time for us, with the wedding season right around the corner," explains Shehla. "The workshop is functioning round-the-clock and I spend most of my day down here."

Yet, for all her hard work and loyal hotshot clientele, Lux Style Awards (LSA’s) nominations and rave reviews at fashion weeks, Shehla’s lately been criticized for not being retail-savvy. While standalone designer stores pop up one after the other and some of the country’s most renowned couturiers extend their feelers into retail, Shehla’s designs remain ensconced within her studio, unavailable even at local multi-labels and only created for clients on the basis of orders.

Shehla’s retail acumen - or lack of it

"For most of my designs, achieving the right fit is imperative," explains Shehla. "Sari blouses or backless gowns can’t be hung from racks in generic sizes. They can only look good if they are engineered according to precise measurements."

Still, hasn’t she ever considered translating her aesthetics to retail-friendly silhouettes? It’s something designers do the world over. Closer to home, designers like Sania Maskatiya and Sana Safinaz create structured, detailed luxury-pret on order while maintaining prêt line-ups with more simplified silhouettes. One would have expected Shehla to have made a beeline for retail - she’s got access to the high-street right within her home, with husband Salim Chatoor spearheading mass-brand Threads and Motifs.

Salim, in fact, is deeply involved in his wife’s business - the astute business head to her designer sensibilities and the PR miracle-worker who’ll work alongside her to create fabulous fashion week giveaways and create standout photo shoots. Considering how well they work together hasn’t creating a capsule ‘Shehla Chatoor for Threads and Motifs’ collection ever occurred to the couple? Surprisingly, Salim begs to differ.

"Shehla’s target market is very different from that of Threads and Motif’s. Her business relies on exclusivity and this is, right now, the best way for her to cater to clients."

Shehla Chatoor’s Samsara collection from this year’s PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week marked the debut of her bespoke jewellery line. Photo Courtesy: Faisal Farooqui
Shehla Chatoor’s Samsara collection from this year’s PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week marked the debut of her bespoke jewellery line. Photo Courtesy: Faisal Farooqui

Mass-retail, says Shehla, simply doesn’t appeal to her. "Every designer doesn’t have to follow the same business model," she observes. "I don’t delve into machine embroideries or digital prints and I don’t like the simplified embroideries and general sizes that form the basis of mass-retail apparel. I’d rather work long and hard on creating an outfit that is utterly unique."

"Also, Pakistani fashion works very differently from the international market. Here, designer creations get copied within days, trickling down not just to local high-street stores but also to the humdrum ateliers of tailors. They may not do it with finesse but, still, these tailors copy a design to the point that it loses its originality."

Operating from within her studio dissuades copycat tailors to some extent - it also allows her to keep an eye out for possible thefts. Shehla recalls how, some years ago, a group of women managed to steal away a number of her outfits, hiding them underneath their burqas.

"Ever since, we closely monitor our studio," she says. "This doesn’t mean, though, that I am inaccessible. My studio is open twice in a week. People from all over the country take appointments and fly in. Many of them place orders while some also buy clothes right off-the-rack, having them altered according to size, if needed."

"Besides, a standalone store can’t be considered a benchmark for success," she continues. "Not all apparel stores in a mall can qualify as ‘designer-wear’ and not all designers are doing well in retail. The pressure to continuously churn out new collections for retail has put a dent in many designers’ businesses. They are forced to use cheaper forms of production, imitate and take inspirations. I also take inspirations but I add my own design signature to them. It’s what makes my clothes distinctive - something that my clients appreciate."

In Shehla’s studio basement, embroiderers carefully craft the details that will eventually become Shehla’s bonafide designer-wear.
In Shehla’s studio basement, embroiderers carefully craft the details that will eventually become Shehla’s bonafide designer-wear.

To draw in potential clients, Shehla relies on advertising, regular fashion week showcases and the all-encompassing powers of Facebook.

"We have a huge number of followers on Facebook and it’s fairly easy for people to place orders, provide their preferred measurements and make their payments via money transfer. We subsequently ship their clothes to them. Internationally, we get the most orders from India, then Dubai and then, the U.S.A. and UK. The business of fashion involves designing, producing and retailing. Right now, my production units are constantly busy. In fact, Salim and I have calculated exactly how much work I can take on right now. After that, I will be refusing clients because I won’t be able to fulfill their orders. I am running my business my way and am quite satisfied with my progress."

Here, there, everywhere.

Shehla’s particular ‘way’, then, may not have her enjoying a vantage point at a mall but her designs are certainly a regular feature at fashion events, exclusive soirees, awards ceremonies and high-flying society weddings. In fact, her apparel dominated last year’s LSA’s to the extent that she was criticized for over-working the red carpet with too many repetitive designs.

"It’s not my fault that people want me to dress them for events," she defends herself. "And my designs are not repetitive but they do emulate my signature."

As a case in point, she draws out her latest line, inspired by vintage florals. While slinky glamour and a deep, rich colour palette have dominated Shehla’s last few lines, the current work-in-progress collection romanticizes nets, florals and pearly embellishments in light pastels. There’s a jewelry line and gorgeous box clutches covered with embroidered net and print that go with the clothes. "I’ve never worked with this colour palette before," admits Shehla. "But my customers are loving the change."

Why then her new take on Eastern formals didn’t feature at the PFDC’s bridal week this month?

"I’ve never showcased my bridal and trousseau-lines at a fashion week because I want them to remain exclusive. They’re also embellished with delicate embroideries and I am afraid that they may get damaged. I do want to take part in Fashion Pakistan Week, tentatively scheduled for later this year, and perhaps, next year I’ll even create a line even for bridal week."

Also later this year are the LSA’s. Shehla is nominated in the ‘Luxury-pret’ category - does she expect to win?

"It would, of course, be exciting if I won but I am not really mulling over it right now," she says. "We’ll see when the time comes."

For now, she’s busy keeping up with her madcap schedule and preparing to leave for Dubai for a pre-Diwali exhibit. "My Indian clients love my color palette and embellishments," she says. As do her clients in Pakistan. It would be wonderful, though, if the luxurious Shehla Chatoor aesthetic was also available to the random unknowing customer who could walk into a store and simply get floored. Shehla may certainly be accessible to her masses of clients but by staying exclusive, she is unable to reach out to the many women who may not religiously follow fashion weeks or be Facebook-savvy but who enjoy beautiful, exquisite fashion - and have the money to buy it.

Business is great for Shehla Chatoor but a designer with her capabilities could become a nationwide sensation. She doesn’t want to, though. Shehla, with her love for details, drama and luxury, has the heart of a couturier and doesn’t want to dabble elsewhere right now. For now, she’s ahead in the game but will her love for exclusivity weaken her market, faced by designers with greater retail presence? Or will she just evolve as her market does? She always has, thus far.

It’s couture, not-a-porter