Something magical happens when old architectural sites are reclaimed to celebrate modern art. It’s a happy union of the past and present, united with respect and anticipation of an enlightened future. This sentiment was reflected in Aks, Shehla Chatoor’s fashion show held at the Old Custom House in Karachi last weekend. The delicately lit building served as backdrop to one of the most glorious collections of bridal couture that one could have hoped for; dusky blends of sandstone merged into the ivory and gold on the catwalk, a mirrored runway that truly reflected the prettiest of them all.
"I was looking for a backdrop as regal as the collection," Shehla spoke about the joy of putting the show together. "Karachi is my city and ever since I saw this part of town I’d wanted to shoot here. So I naturally also wanted to do the show here. It was tough to acquire it as a show venue but when they (authorities) heard that we wanted to portray it as part of Karachi’s history and culture, they agreed."
Held a couple of days before the heat wave passed through the city, last Sunday wasn’t exactly breezy or cool and yet a well- planned set up ensured open air temperature control, allowing fashionistas from all across town to flaunt their finery without melting. A buzzing lounge adorned with strands of fragrant motia buds and white flowers welcomed guests before they entered the show area; cool refreshments kept them happily hydrated as they waited. Anisa and Amina Rashid Khan of RAKA events really have mastered their game.
Aks was preluded by a segment devoted to L’Oreal, collaborating on the evening to announce Shehla Chatoor as L’Oreal Paris Excellence Creme’s Ambassador of Fashion for 2019.
Dressed in white and gold, Sadaf Kanwal, Zara Abid and the relatively new but equally gorgeous Alicia Khan walked out in dresses fit for the red carpet. The focus was on the combination of perfect hair and couture, and it was picture perfect.
The collection, when it eventually unraveled, was quintessential Shehla Chatoor. It’s considered next to impossible to create a signature in bridal couture; there are just so many styles one can create and experimentation is limited as brides generally prefer to play it safe. And yet Shehla has perfected the art of reviving handcrafted tradition to suit the modern bride. There is intricate detailing and a palette that she almost now owns: the whites and ivories, the ivories and garnet, the dusky blue and black blends and of course in preparation of summer, the lovely ribbons of pastels and salmon pinks, set off on fusions of white. And then there is also the contemporary silhouette; the backless tunics, the harness straps keeping the bodice together, the accordion sleeves fluttering dramatically over bare arms. It all came together very well.
"Bridals are a very, very strong part of my work and they are timeless," Shehla later spoke about the collection and the fact that she has - in over two decades - emerged as one of the top bridal couturiers in the country. "Bridals are like heirlooms so there’s only so much experimentation that you can do with bridals but I do one bridal collection a year and try to introduce new elements in each one. This one also had little unique elements."
These unique elements were evident in the layering and the diversity of shapes and silhouettes. The layers served as part of one grand ensemble and could be taken apart as separates. One of the most standout pieces from Aks was the garnet and gold jacket Mushk wore. Heavily worked, it was worn with an embellished bralet and a light, crushed silk lehnga, thus lending an aesthetic balance to the overall look. Layering did feature significantly in the collection, obviously with the modern bride in mind, especially one heading out for a destination wedding. Shehla’s bridals could be deconstructed into lighter, more versatile separates.
‘Aks’ literally translates to ‘reflection’ and working within that theme was a lot of delicate, subtle mirror-work in the collection. But it was mirror work combined with Swarovski crystals to ensure the final look was more contemporary than cultural. "We cater to a lot of destination weddings so we kept the look very contemporary," Shehla said. The traditional element, however, came with the multiple dupattas, an element very new to Shehla’s designs. And there were pouches and embroidered bags and batwas instead of the clutches that she usually makes.
Another key feature in this collection was the formal introduction of Shehla Chatoor’s menswear, designed primarily for grooms. The designer explained how the increasing demand for menswear had motivated her to think seriously on those lines. So a 10-piece capsule for men was created with that in mind; even the shoes were customized accordingly. Accessories and attention to these little details is what makes Shehla Chatoor’s brand stand out and these details - from the shoes to the customized fabric to the handmade buttons – were definitely outstanding.
"Wedding wear is meant to be special," Shehla reiterated. "And we do everything to make a bride and groom’s experience as special as possible."
Adding to the experience and making the show extra special was the styling and (one must admit) the selection of models. It’s not every day that you see such a perfect pool of fashion models in one show; it also points at the importance of solo shows when curating elements to hit that level of perfection. For all fashion weeks are worth, designers are pretty much stuck with a predetermined pool of models, which often compromises on the impact their clothes have. In this case the models - both upcoming and experienced - looked absolutely gorgeous.
While the show gave us established runway stars like Fauzia Aman, Sadaf Kanwal, Zara Abid, Sunita Marshal, Sabeeka Imam, Anam Malik and Alyzeh Gabol, it also put the spotlight on the relatively newer but striking models Fahmeen Ansari, Rubab Ali, Mushk Kaleem, Roshanay Afridi, Javeria Hanif and Alicia Khan, who was also one of the three L’Oreal faces. The men did initially appear to be accessories to the women, but then held their own, with Hasnain Lehri, Aimal Khan and Champ Immi standing out on the catwalk.
The styling, hair and makeup was another level as well. One saw Nabila’s creative team execute a level of excellence that is honestly not always achievable at the fast paced fashion week showings. Solo shows just establish a designer’s creative expression much more effectively and they also manage to display the finesse of the supporting crew, in this case Nabila, who executed 36 flawless looks.
Did this all mean that Shehla will now opt for solo shows and stay away from fashion weeks in Karachi and Lahore?
"This is how I want my bridal couture to come across," she explained. "It doesn’t mean I won’t do fashion weeks. I will, when the timing is right. But I felt the grandness of this collection needed a solo; this is the only way I could have expressed myself the way I wanted to. I’m very open to fashion weeks but my bridals would have been lost at fashion week."
Photography: Faisal Farooqui