Nomi Ansari takes Maya, his latest collection, to London for the India Pakistan London Fashion Show and paves a colourful path for cross-border collaborations in the city that already boasts incredible diversity.
October in London is lovely. It’s when the sun still shines while the temperature drops enough to allow a crisp, cool breeze to nudge you along as you walk around. It was such an idyllic day that transported us to Leicester Square’s infamous Café de Paris where the India Pakistan London Fashion (IPL Fashion) Show was being organized. Hosted by Gurbani Kaur, one of the city’s beautiful socialites who has taken it upon herself to promote South Asian fashion, IPL Fashion brought in two high profile names from Pakistan - Nomi Ansari and Ali Xeeshan - as well as several names from India. It was the Sikh community, headlined by King of Bhangra Malkit Singh, and their boisterous turbaned presence, warmth, song and dance that made the evening so memorable.
Café de Paris, I’d like to add, has featured in many Bollywood films; most prolifically in ‘Twist’ from the Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone starrer Love Aaj Kal.
"Let’s have some ronak shonak, let’s have some party now. Let’s have some rolla rappa…" Remember?
The party though hadn’t quite started when we got in, around midday that is, for fittings. I was travelling with Nomi Ansari and so got to watch and observe how this young designer, who everyone calls Pakistan’s King of Colour’ preps before a show. A diverse pool of models was getting hair and makeup done when we arrived and one by one, they were called up to try on the outfits. Foreign models are obviously not built the same as Pakistani models and so fittings weren’t simple; the girls were tall so had to be advised to pull out their smallest heels. Most of them were broad shouldered and flat chested so Nomi’s cholis needed a bit of maneuvering. A very competent in-house tailor just waved his needle over all clothes that needed alterations.
Nomi took his latest collection, Maya, which he had already shown at the PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week in Lahore, and now was about to woo London with. I could see the backstage helpers - girls whose ethnic origins it was impossible to determine (they could be Pakistani, Indian) - gushing over the intricacy of his clothes and their colours. One of them was even mentally check-boxing outfits for her wedding next year. The outfits weren’t your average, typical wedding clothes in fact the sartorial equivalent of Mr Magorium’s Emporium; magic flowed through them.
One thing you have to know about Nomi Ansari is that he has an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for neatness and is somewhat of a control freak when it comes to packing his clothes. I joked that he could actually take packing up as an alternate profession if he ever wanted to. The heavy, multi tiered ensembles came out of a suitcase as if they had just been steam pressed, let alone traveled nine hours across the globe from Karachi to London. The can-cans, which underlay every outfit, were compressed into little cushions and were simply shaken out and zipped into the lining of each skirt. It was quite a spectacle to see all 12 unravel and one could see what a big effort it was. But why make this effort to show in London, I asked him?
"There’s a huge market for our clothes in UK," Nomi replied, putting it very simply. "We showed this collection in Lahore and it’s already on social media but the images that go out today will add an international perspective to them. It’ll connect better with our clients outside of Pakistan. This effort is important to maintain that connection and for brand building."
Preparations for the show were underway when I managed to catch a few minutes backstage with Gurbani Kaur, Founder of IPL Fashion. Now in its second year, the show has become a regular on the calendar and Gurbani shared plans to take it further.
"I came up with the idea of IPL from a personal place," she explained how the show came around. "We live in a place where Pakistanis and Indians live as one, in harmony in London. We share cultural similarities and I wanted to create a platform that showcases that. The market for Pakistani and Indian fashion is always in demand in London as we are away from our home lands but we still are close to our roots. With over 700,00 Indians and Pakistanis in London, which make up around 9 per cent of London’s population, there is a huge market for Pakistani and Indian fashion."
How did she select the participating designers, I asked her?
"We search for designers with a wow factor, designers that show the best of both cultures in their collections," she replied. "Nomi Ansari, for example, is referred to as the king of colour. Too much colour is normally something that people shy away from, however Nomi has an amazing way of showcasing such a vast array of colours in an elegant and classy way that will appeal to the British Asian market perfectly."
Appeal they did. We went back to our hotel after fittings and returned to the venue at around 6:30pm, as the show was scheduled to begin around 7:30. By this time Ali Rehman Khan, Pakistan’s rising star, had joined us from Vienna; he was to be Nomi’s celebrity model of the evening. It was great to see how so many people, young girls especially, flocked around him for selfies. Pakistani dramas and now films, after all, also play a strong role in keeping the people connected.
Back at the venue, Nomi’s clothes were very neatly racked up with the glorious lehngas, cholis, dupattas and bejeweled belts grouped together and labeled for the right models. The jewellery from Deeya Jewellers was also laid out and neatly labelled. Surprisingly, the models needed no rehearsals and the show director just explained the instructions to them. Almost a hundred people had been working backstage - most of them models, makeup artists, light and stage technicians, helpers, volunteers - and they worked subliminally.
The kind of synergy one witnessed - and I have to share this - was evident in one incident that happened after the show when Nomi was supervising the packing away of the clothes. The clothes had to be put back with the same precision as they had come in and while packing, the designer noticed that one of his heavily embellished shirts had gone missing. It was late, the show had ended and most guests were either partying or had gone home and yet the helpers took up the task and didn’t give up until the lost shirt was found in another designer’s suitcase, where it had apparently accidentally landed.
"I’m so impressed by their level of commitment," Nomi appreciated the helpers’ efforts. "They could have easily given up and gone home an hour ago."
The other most impressive thing about the evening was the spirit of camaraderie in the community that was attending. First of all, there’s something very stately about men in turbans; you get a sense of being as close to the Mughals as you can get. There were a couple of artistes who performed between collections and it was heart warming to see them all stop for blessings from Malkit Singh who was seated in the front row. He came up to the stage to say a few words before the runway started.
"A few words always come to my mind when it comes to India and Pakistan," he began with this beautiful verse:
‘Ni Wagay diye sarhade
Ni tenu tati hawa na lagey,
Lagan phool gulab de ni arriye
Tere donon paasey vasde ni put Punjab dey’
(Translation: Oh boundary line of Wagah; Let the warm winds not disturb you. Let roses bloom my dear; As the sons of Punjab live on both sides.)
"We look alike, dress alive, talk alive and we need to do more so people on both sides of the border can connect more. I feel music brings people together."
In this case it was music and fashion that brought people together. IPL Fashion isn’t the only show that brings Pakistani fashion to the people in London, though. One has seen the Pakistan Fashion Week - London, happen over the past few years and another high end event, Fashion Parade has also brought top designers from Pakistan to London. I caught hold of Gurbani to ask what, in her opinion, set the IPL apart.
"I feel as though there are many fashion shows that take place in London and all of them are great within their own rights, but our show does not concentrate on a particular genre like bridal, nor does it limit its boundaries by only concentrating on one country," she explained the difference. "We celebrate fashion collections from the whole of south east Asia and the UK. Our show is about variety and collaboration, which is not something you see much of, and I feel that is important to show the world what can happen when you come together."
So, would one expect a bigger show next year?
"The future of IPLF is definitely a promising one," Gurbani agreed. "We are growing from strength to strength. I would really like to showcase more from other south east Asian countries in a way to expand the brand - as a way of furthering the theme of collaboration between the cultures of different countries. There are already great UK based Pakistani designers out there, we have showcased some within the last two seasons. I really wish, going forward, we can find some more to wow us so we can give them the platform on IPL Season 3 to showcase their designs."