Rizwanullah recalls his perilous journey as he settles down to a crystalline new life at Fifth Element, the official distribution partner for Swarovski in Pakistan.
"I started taking all these chemicals: heroin, LSD, hash, weed, ecstasy, ice, crystal meth…you name it. I thought I could stop whenever I wanted to but I was wrong. My life had started slipping away."
Syed Mohammad Rizwanullah. It’s hardly the kind of name you associate with a fashion creature but that’s what he’s always been. The ten-inch Mohawk, spiked at the edges, and lace-up boots that said enfant terrible from the minute you set eyes on them. Give him a mirror and you’d see him preening; he was the proverbial peacock who reveled in the spotlight. He was the creative whiz that whipped up fascinating collections and then he’d prowl out to take a bow before disappearing in dark shadows until the next show. He was living the life, with lights, cameras and all sorts of action consuming his days and nights. That’s not all that was consuming him. Rizwanullah was on an uncontrollable path to self-destruction and he was addicted to everything that would ruin him. That was 2012 and his future looked bleak.
Three years later, things have taken a 180-degree turn. The young boy who confessed to washing his hair with beer and eating tissue to stay thin now sits, all cleaned up, in the sparkling new Swarovski studio on Zamzama as Creative Head. We meet over breakfast - something the old Rizwanullah would have happily traded for a cigarette had he been able to drag himself out of bed before noon - and he calls for coffee, cake and a sandwich from Espresso next door. He actually eats; a French fry has replaced the fag once stuck to his fingers. The transformation is unbelievable.
"I’ve gone from heroin to being a crystal hero," he smiles with his characteristically charming smile. Always courteous, even in his worst days, his manners are luckily the one thing he has carried forth. That and self-love; perhaps his obsession with himself has also been one of the saving graces in his life. The rest - all those destructive elements of a crisis - he says he has left behind.
"This office is my temple," he said, referring to the pristine, almost clinical transparency of the studio surrounded by ethereal dots of shimmering crystals. "These people have become my family, my support system; there is ethics, cleanliness, clarity and so much quality here."
What happened in the past three years, one wonders, and Rizwanullah is generous in sharing some details. Substance abuse and an equally damaging marriage was what crippled him; distancing himself from drugs and his wife is what salvaged him. There is bitterness under his calm façade but he is gentleman enough not to indulge and drag out the linen.
"No matter how good we looked together, we were killing each other," is all he offers on his marriage. "You can never make the right decision under the influence, be that the influence of drugs or love.""The fashion industry is ruthless," he added in retrospection, as if pulled back into time. "When someone falls there is a stampede. But there were people who cared - Deepak Perwani, Huma Adnan and Amir Adnan, who looked over me like a father and gave me a book with Holy Verses to read. It brought me peace."
His addiction lasted for three tumultuous years, 2010 to 2013, during which time he got married as well as divorced. The divorce came with a wake up call, several months in rehab and then almost a year bound at home. In this one year he was allowed only to create.
"Mahira came to meet me in rehab," he remembers fondly. Mahira Khan, Feeha Jamshed and Rizwanullah were inseparable until 2011, when they infamously fell out of his life after his marriage. "Feeha and I reconnected. I lost a wife but I got my best friend and sister back."
Moving on with a new lease on life, the new Rizwanullah is breathing a very different kind of energy these days. Appointed and working as the Creative Head at Fifth Element, Swarovski’s official distributor in Pakistan, he has been put in charge of several different lines of clothing and accessories that Fifth Element will be launching soon. How does a self-confessed junkie land a high profile position such as this one? There’s no denying Rizwanullah’s immense talent; his collections were always innovative and edgy if nothing else. But he was never very stable; given what he was going through that’s hardly surprising. With this deal, he got extraordinarily lucky. Swarovski contacted him for sales promotion in December 2014. They left after a two-hour brainstorming session and returned with a contract in hand. Since then he has been working on four different lines for Fifth Element as well as his own label. He doesn’t reveal much detail, except for the fact that there will be red carpet glamour as well as an Islamic resort line.
Talking of fashion, one wonders why Fifth Element and Rizwanullah didn’t participate in the recently held Crystal Couturiers show in Lahore. His former distaste for the Lahore-based Pakistan Fashion Design Council is no secret - he had once called his experience of showing there "the worst of his life", vowing to "never show in Lahore again". That stance has changed now that he has sobered up.
"That’s why I say, never say never!" he laughed when asked. "I did say I would never show (at the PFDC-led fashion week) but I am not a solo artist here; I represent Swarovski. And if these guys are in collaboration with the PFDC then I have to be too. As for the Crystal Couturiers event, it was PFDC initiative and for a very good cause. We at Swarovski didn’t want to impose ourselves on the council."
That said, he is all set to showcase at the upcoming FPW as well as the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week next month. One recently saw a teaser of what is to come when Rizwanullah put out a capsule collection at the TDAP showcase in Karachi. It wasn’t his best piece of work but pointed at better things to come, a reigniting of his passion for the craft. There is a sense of urgency in his attitude, as if he is eager to prove that he’s back in the game. And he has surrounded himself by the professional, pious people at Fifth Element, of which Rizwanullah is quick to mention Noman ul Haq, Yasir Fakhruddin and Omair Chhotani: "These guys have been my pillars, literally angels to me." He’s eager to detox his body further and get rid of all the bad karma that had been accumulating within. As always, creativity and fashion act as his core strength.
"Fashion is my art of living," he concluded with a philosophical twist. "I always say that you should do something like you have to do it; like you’d die if you didn’t. That’s how I feel about fashion."
Rizwanullah’s portraits by Kashif Rashid
Rizwanullah’s creative timeline
2009: Showcased a mehndi inscribed collection titled Hereafter at Fashion Pakistan Week
2010: At FPW showcased Depression Chic, a collection notorious for its applique of nude female figures. This is also when his substance abuse began.
2011: Married fashion model Fayeza Ansari and debuted at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week, showing a collection that he calls "the absolutely worse of my life. It was nameless and totally aimless."
2012: His substance abuse had turned into full-blown addiction.
2013: Showcased Love, Devotion and Separation at FPW. The yellow outfits symbolized heroin, red stood for love and the two black finale outfits represented separation and divorce. The couple divorced by the end of the year, after which he was admitted to rehab for several months.
2014: Back home, he was housebound for a year. Appointed Creative Head at Fifth Element, Swarovski Pakistan by the end of the year.