Sania Maskatiya and Umair Tabani sit down with Instep to talk about a new phase in their creative lives, inspired by New York Fashion Week, and what it all means for the brand.
It’s been a busy month for Sania Maskatiya; one that revolved around her brother and CEO Sania Maskatiya, Umair Tabani’s wedding that almost clashed with the biggest opportunity of her professional life: New York Fashion Week. Sania had to take a flight out the very same night the wedding ended in order to make it in time. Designing the NYFW collection alongside a wedding wardrobe for the entire family (Umair says it was fashion a week in its own) wasn’t easy but she managed, as Sania always does. She then took off on a well-earned family vacation and returned a day before we were scheduled to meet.
Nothing in Sania’s home indicated that she had been away so long; the tall plants were just as hale and the fresh flower arrangements just as hearty as you’d expect them to be. Everything in Sania’s house, however, did indicate her love for art, colour, texture and style that reflects in the way that she designs. One always looks for manifestation of a designer’s persona in what he or she designs and through Sania’s home, one could see that her ethos was very sincere. The interior was young and edgy yet classic and colourful; words that also describe her design aesthetic perfectly.
Sania, Umair and I sat down to discuss fashion, primarily the business of fashion, and our conversation, obviously, began with the NYFW experience and what it had contributed to their lives.
"Let me tell you how this all happened," Umair began. I wanted to know because, while many designers have shown at various fashion weeks all over the world, NYFW is the ultimate destination for anyone. This was the first for any designer from Pakistan. "Our original idea was to expand to the UK market," Umair said. "We were working with Wolf and Badger (a multi-retail store) for a year and our aim was to get into London Fashion Week. It was ironic because we sent two or three applications to London Fashion Week, but didn’t get in.
"Then, out of the blue, this year in May, we got a random email from our PR person in London, saying that the CFDA had seen our brand. They said they really liked it and would like us to participate as one of the aspiring designers at New York Fashion Week. They asked us to send in our portfolio but also said that we’re pretty much in already."
"The way it happened was also amazing," Sania pitched in. "We were approached (as opposed to approaching them) and that made it all the more exciting. It was really good for our brand, for ourselves, because this kind of encouragement pushes you, motivates you. Over here, we’re kind of complacent. Obviously, we keep making new collections and our work excites us, but it’s also kind of the same. We’re catering to the same needs and market. This was completely different. It was out of our comfort zone."
To push one’s self out of a comfort zone is necessary, but it’s also something only the most confident and successful designers do; the rest prefer to stay within the safety net of making what’ll sell. Sania anticipated this expansion, which is why she introduced Sania Studio, an entirely new line of clothing at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week last year. It was all part of her vision, as was the expansion to wedding wear, men’s wear and the constant evolution of her luxury pret. Unstitched fabric, lawn, to be precise, is something she’s not willing to get into right now. What she’s looking at now is international expansion.
How did showing at NYFW help?
"It was a learning experience," Sania responded. "It’s not like here; we didn’t know anyone in New York. People in the audience clapped and the committee said it loved the collection, which is what we’re going with. Things are very systematic there and we need to have proper PR and agents to begin with. We’re talking to people and we’re looking at opportunities; somebody who can get us into the right stores and stuff - take this forward."
The success of the show is confirmed in the fact that Sania will be showing at NYFW again in February, she shared nervously, with a smile, as if not wanting to jinx it. But that’s not where the growth stops.
In another few months Sania Maskatiya will also be moving from her flagship store in Bokhari Commercial to a brand new concept store in Clifton, which will set a new standard in fashion retail.
What, I asked both Sania and Umair - who is backbone of the brand’s flawless operations - do they count as reasons for their success?"There’s a lot of passion and heart involved in our work," Sania spoke of the creative side. "It’s never just ‘going to work’."
"Everything is looked into, paid attention to…from the procurement, fabric selection, fabric development, design development, quality control and then of course, customer service. It all needs to come together," Umair added.
Did they feel that the market is saturated now and fashion retail is on a decline all over the country?
"No, not really," Umair clarified. "Ours is a niche product and falls under high to medium end luxury fashion. Mashallah, we have a steady stream of clients that keep coming back. The high street is very different and that I feel is very saturated."
They still feel that they have a limited workforce, Umair explained, which is why won’t consider expanding to high street. In fact, Sania added very honestly, their structure kind of collapsed when they expanded, which is why they downsized again. She felt it was better this way. But all said and done, despite what we keep hearing and reading, the market for fashion retail was good; 80 per cent of their market was still in Pakistan and while ecommerce was growing, it still constituted a small fraction of their sales.
What kind of obstacles did they face in the business? Was there any way the government needed to help in facilitating the fashion industry?
"We’ve been facing a lot of fabric issue," Umair said. "A lot of fabric/raw material comes from abroad - the government needs to clear that policy. It’s very haphazard. Even the stuff you think might be local is being imported. Like cotton, net and organza. Thread comes from China or India. The prices have gone up by 30% so people generally don’t want to make good quality fabric and we do not want to use bad quality fabric. Also, very limited kind of fabric is available here. We import from Dubai or make our own fabric. We do not even get nice velvet here."
Plagiarism is another issue that plagues the fashion industry. Sania Maskatiya was one of the first mainstream brands to begin digital printing on a big scale; the kind of detailing she’d add to her tunics (especially the customized buttons) was a signature that started getting copied all too soon. Now everything gets copied, she feels, and there are no checks or balances. Fashion councils, which should be monitoring as well as regulating designers, allow copycats to show at fashion weeks, that too alongside the brands they are copying. This leads to a lot of discontent in the design community.
"There’s no accountability here," a horrified Sania shared. "Any forum, if they’re getting paid, will promote you one day and then they will promote people who are plagiarizing you the next day. There are some blatant copies that are very apparent. A certain brand (which shall go unnamed) copied so many of our collections. Like exact. And their creative director wore one of them herself at the exhibition. We didn’t sue but our publicists sent a notice to them and had the replicas removed. But there are thousands of such examples we do not even know about. A client once came to me and said she had bought her outfit from me and had a replica made for her daughter. I was horrified."
"But let me tell you what our biggest challenge is," Sania continued. "Our biggest challenge is that as a Pakistani woman, there’s a limit to what I will wear. I’m not talking about celebrities, parties and award shows but everyday clothes. We can’t show skin; we can’t go dramatic. People want to buy clothes that are comfortable, that they can feel good in. They want to dress modestly. They want a dupatta and a little bit of embellishment. And that’s us. So you can’t really do much. For our e-store we shoot pictures of clothes with sleeves because so many women have complained that they can’t envision what a sleeveless shirt will look like with sleeves; almost everyone has sleeves added on. So we focus a lot on fabric development and prints. It’s not like the western market. Sometimes even we get really bored of doing the same thing. Work is a fun, creative process so we constantly need to find ways to excite us. So, women want to dress the same way but they also want something new every week."
It’s that challenge of stocking her stores with ‘something new’ every week that keeps Sania going. She creates and Umair makes sure that the system keeps working. Together they are the most apolitical, practical and pleasant people to know from the fashion industry. All this adds up to a lot of good will, loyalty and admiration for their brand.
Almost ten years ago, when Sania Maskatiya opened her flagship store in Karachi, one knew that she was opening doors to something big. More than the scale of her business or the prominence of her collections was her vision. It was a ‘can do’ approach; nothing was impossible for her as a designer and for the client who wanted a certain outfit a certain way. That attitude and that vision has enabled Sania Maskatiya to become one of the biggest, most consistently growing and definitely most stable fashion brand in the country.