Speaking of the business of fashion

March 8, 2020

Zainab Chottani talks about the mechanics and economics of lawn campaigns and the added value celebrities bring to the business of fashion.

Zainab Chottani with Hira Mani, the face of ZC Luxury Lawn 2020.

We’re almost three months into a new year and while we’ve been arguing over the number of seasons Pakistan has in one year, there’s no disputing the number of seasons fashion has. Two. There are two very distinct fashion seasons in Pakistan – wedding and summer – and Zainab Chottani is one of those few designers who successfully sails through both. Her wedding atelier is just as popular a destination as the archipelago of Maldivian islands; she has a concrete data base of South Asian clients all over the world and she’s the designer of choice for umpteen celebrities in Pakistan. And as summer reins in, we see her turn from luxury to lawn, releasing fabric that gets sold out in pre-booking.

Let’s talk about lawn

It’s the season for all things bright and beautiful, all creatures big and small and they all find their way to nestle into the warp and weave of the fabric that makes summer heat tolerable. Lawn. Love it or hate it, no woman in Pakistan is immune to the wiles of this variation of voile and designers like Zainab Chottani are one in a handful that certify sold out collections. While a layman would tell you that all lawn prints look the same, the one thing that makes a collection distinct is the campaign it arrives with. Designers spend months on design and then equal time on planning the campaign, which often revolves around an exotic location.

Zainab has shot her lawn campaigns in Rome, Venice, Cameron Highlands, Thailand and Bali before taking the road less traveled to Maldives this year. We’re looking over the whitest stretch of sand, into an endlessly blue ocean beyond, as we sit down to talk; I’m in Maldives with her team to get an insight into what goes into the making of a lawn campaign and it’s all turning out to be very insightful.

What goes into the choice of location for each campaign and why doesn’t she shoot, as frequently, in Pakistan, I ask her.

“Destination shoots are just much easier,” she says, contrary to what one would have thought. “I would love to do a shoot in Pakistan and it is of course breathtakingly beautiful but the problem is infrastructure. I’ve wanted to shoot in Hunza or Skardu; once we started looking into a beautiful beach near Baluchistan. When we enquired, the tourist company said that it’s underwater right now and would be fine to shoot in April. That’s too late for lawn. These kinds of hazards can happen anytime, all over Pakistan. Most of the times flights don’t go to Skardu. If you have gone with a crew you might get stuck for a week or so and you don’t know when the next flight is available. Models don’t agree taking that risk. I wanted to shoot in interior Sindh as well but there were security issues and we’d have to take a vanity van because there were no guest houses or proper facilities at the spot. That said, I have shot extensively in Pakistan as well. Lawn is just one of the many campaigns we shoot each year.”

Hira Mani poses in a mid-sea hammock while Shabaz Shazi balances himself for the shot on a speedboat and Zainab looks on.

“Then obviously, we need an exotic backdrop to the annual lawn collection,” she adds. “We choose the destination according to the collection too; like this time the colours were more pastel and gentle so I thought that white sand and a beach would be aspirational.”

I’m doing some mental math as Zainab continues to talk about Maldives as her choice of location this year. With 12 people on the cast and crew, including one celebrity model – Hira Mani – and Shahbaz Shazi as the photographer, in-house stylists, make-up artist, videographers and PR team, the cost of shooting just the campaign runs into several million. Do the economics make sense?

“They do,” Zainab smiles. “We’ve just put out a few teasers of the shoot and already have queries about the Maldives collection. These are our loyal customers and they don’t even know what is coming out. In fact, there are a few clients who have asked for entire sets (that would be 12 prints in 2 colour each way) without even seeing the prints. I think it’s a great way to engage with the customers. They feel that they are with us on the journey because we keep posting stories. It gets a lot more engaging.”

Responding to concerns that expensive shoots contribute to the rising price of lawn, Zainab clarifies that they really don’t. The price of a three-piece lawn jora every year depends on the price of fabric, printing, finishing and the add-ons that come with every print.

“Marketing budgets for brand building are set aside at the beginning of the year and since lawn is the biggest campaign of the year, it gets a chunk of the budget,” she says.

Fashion and the celebrity angle

Another reason behind Zainab’s resounding mass appeal is her association with celebrities. So many of the wedding outfits you see in TV dramas come from her atelier. Sajal Aly’s red wedding dress in Yeh Dil Mera, Ayeza Khan’s silver Nikkah outfit in Mere Pass Tum Ho, a red anarkali Ushna Shah is wearing in her upcoming drama serial, Bandhay Aik Dor Sey. Hania Aamir and Asim Azhar walked for one of Zainab’s fashion week showcases; Mawra Hocane and Fahad Mustafa catwalked for another. And then hot on the heels of the success of Do Bol and Mere Paas Tum Ho, Zainab got Hira Mani onboard for Maldives.

Zainab, behind the scenes with Hira Mani and her team, in Maldives.

Doesn’t she feel that celebrities are taking away from the exclusivity of fashion?

“I am a very commercial designer and that is a known fact,” Zainab replies very humbly; her niceness is one of the reasons people find it so easy to work with her and I’m witness to it on this trip. “Lately I have been trying to focus on both aspects of design: critical and commercial. The celebrity angle is for the commercial aspect because no matter what we put into the designs and how much critical acclaim our creations get, for the clientele to look forward to a show and keep track on the social media, they do need that celebrity factor. The Fahad and Mawra or Hania Aamir and Asim show became viral. I think if these celebrities weren’t there, there wouldn’t be so much hype. Especially the expats living abroad, they follow these celebrities like crazy. I feel that is also important.”

Zainab’s association with television, and subsequently celebrities, started with Zindagi Gulzar Hai (2012) starring Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed. Sanam’s character, Kashaf was seen wearing a Zainab Chottani wedding dress when marrying Zaroon.

“Literally for a year people used to walk in our studio and ask for the bridal that Sanam’s character Kashaf wore in Zindagi Gulzar Hai,” Zainab smiles as she remembers. “Throughout the year we sold that ‘Kashaf wala bridal’. I think it started from there. Now we are in constant contact with production houses and cater clothes to them; we have a working relationship.”

Do they commission the clothes, buy them or borrow them free of cost?

“Now they are willing to pay rent. It’s often not possible for me to hold a bridal for them for two months, let’s say. So then there is a little price attached to it because I do have to hold the bridal for them. We keep it in our office and commit to not showing it to any client; it won’t be sent to the stores and it won’t be sold out.”

Do you design these outfits specifically for the drama or are they off the rack and improvised?

“We do improvise,” she explains. “They are off the rack but the styles are often modified and then obviously everyone is of a different size so we make those alterations too. In a drama, they have to walk around so they prefer the dupatta not being too heavy; like Ushna Shah told me that she didn’t want to carry a heavy dupatta so I made a different, lighter one for that specific outfit. We don’t mind because we end up getting so much mileage from it.”

Is there any celebrity you wished would wear your clothes and hasn’t yet?

“I do wish Mahira would,” she says. “I think she’s the only celebrity who hasn’t. The funniest thing is that Mahira and I have known each other since our school days but she never asked and neither have I. Our brothers have grown up together, they are extremely close friends.”

Close friends and a closely knit family support group is Zainab Chottani’s backbone as far as her brand goes. She chats about how her father wanted her to get into exports and apply to CBM for a business degree but she carved a path for herself in fashion design. It’s only after she did her first show and when she got into lawn that he started taking her career seriously. Needless to say, coming from a textile family does help; the knitwear, denim and garments units her family owns do bring their strengths to the table. Her lawn, for example, is manufactured in-house and it shows in the quality control. It’s all hard work and tireless efforts but at the end of the day it all adds up. For Zainab the business of fashion, she smiles, is going strong.

Speaking of the business of fashion: Zainab Chottani talks about mechanics, economics of lawn campaigns