Destiny’s Child

August 29, 2021

Celebrating 20 successful years in the business of fashion, designer extraordinaire Kamiar Rokni talks about the life and lineage that helped define who he is today.

Destiny’s Child

Rokni is extraordinary. He’s the unexpected genius who stepped out of design school and straight into the curious, creative world of fashion with the eccentricity of an upscale couturier. With good taste and pride for indigenous aesthetic tucked into his belt, he evolved as an anomaly in the seemingly superficial wonderland of fashion, especially as was seen in Lahore’s social circles back in the day.

A 20-something Kami, whose brilliance was defined by his multi-ethnic lineage, started out as fashion brand Karma’s blue-eyed boy. From Karma he moved into the House of Kamiar Rokni with a clearer vision of what he expected of himself. Aligning with cousins Tia Noon and Rehan Bashir Jalwana, it was family tradition that then rolled into creating the USP that would go on to win recognition and acclaim.

“We’re very indigenous people,” Kamiar Rokni laughs with characteristic quirk as we talk about all and sundry associated with his success. “Ethnic diversity runs in the family; that is why we are who we are. There’s Shiraz, Bahawalpur, Jalwana,a bit of Persia, a bit of England…” and he rattles off town names from interior Punjab that I have trouble catching. Kahror Pakka and Joiyastick.

“I think peasants have the best aesthetic,” he says, responding to where exactly his fashion finesse is rooted. “You just have to drive out of the congestion. I definitely relate more to the land than to the city; there’s more style in the interior than in the nouveau city life. You’ll find a man in a pink shalwar kameez and a gorgeous silver ring in a village and not in a city.”

Bahawalpur isn’t exactly a village but it is where he heads every weekend these days. This is the new Kamiar Rokni, the man who drives four hours to get away from the flash of city life to connect with the soil and sand of his roots. The Bahawalpur House is where he turns to farmland and palatial, thickly-walled rooms with high ceilings that are lined with books.

“I grew up in a small town and I read everything from floor to ceiling,” says the voracious reader, another quality that helps set him apart. We observe a minute of silence for a generation that does not read. “I’ll read everything. I don’t have a problem with attention span. In fact that’s how I cope with the digital age.”

Catching him after his morning exercise (yoga and meditation or cardio, his other coping mechanisms), and before he sets foot into the full throttle of work, I ask Kami how easy or tough it has been to build a brand in Pakistan. He has experimented with just about all genres of fashion, from the unassuming yet insanely popular lawn to the highest order of bridal couture.

Even when hes making a statement, Kamiar Rokni is still elegant and understated, letting the nuances of design speak for themselves.
Even when he's making a statement, Kamiar Rokni is still elegant and understated, letting the nuances of design speak for themselves.

“Creating a business path is both tough and easy,” he replies. “It’s tough because quality is a difficult thing in terms of manufacturing; you have to be very meticulous. However, it’s literally still a country where you can hire two embroiderers, two tailors and one master and start your own business. So it’s not that difficult if you have the vision and the drive.”

It isn’t that simple either, I insist, especially for young graduates who are taken in by the glamour of the industry without ever realizing the worth of putting in the hard work.

“When you’re young you don’t know how to run a business and even I didn’t align myself with the right people, from a business point of view,” he says. “One of the toughest things was to learn that lesson, move on and start my own thing, which I did with minimum equity. If you don’t make vanity based decisions, things are not that difficult. Stay steady, keep private and dance to the beat of your own drum. Take feedback with a pinch of salt because it’s not necessarily in line with the consistency of your business. Personally, my clients are very consistent; I’ve gone into third generation now.”

Kamiar Rokni’s popularity speaks for itself; there’s hardly a high profile wedding that doesn’t feature some of his acclaimed designs, which are distinct and standout. He talks about landmarks in his career being The Orientalist, his first solo show, starting Karma (with Maheen Kardar) and the first Karma show at the PC; every Lux Style Award win has been a landmark, he says. “And when brides look beautiful at their weddings…that is a landmark moment; a happy client is a landmark moment.”

“I’ve been very fortunate in terms of family support,” he is quick to credit the people who have helped him along. “My mother, my cousin Tia, my cousin Rehan. My mother was the person who bought me my first sewing machine when I graduated, to encourage me to start a business. Cousin Tia was very supportive and offered that I start in the back of her house and cousin Rehan followed. I’ve been very fortunate that things have come easy to me, even though the perception may be otherwise.”

How does he feel Pakistan’s fashion industry figures in the global market, I ask him? Is there any recognition at all, especially beyond the South Asian diaspora?

“I don’t think there’s enough recognition for the Pakistani garment and creation in the international market, yet,” he says. “I feel now, with young designers like Rastah and jewellery designers like Zohra Rehman, we’re getting there. I think the millennials will really take us forward and I’m thinking of a couple of things myself, which are yet to be revealed.”

Responsible fashion is a big buzzword these days. How responsible has his brand managed to be over the years?

An eccentric moment with friend and muse Zara Peerzada
An eccentric moment with friend and muse Zara Peerzada

“I think my business has always been responsible because I’ve never thought of showing off when it comes to real estates or space,” Kami replies. “Real estate usually has overheads and is not eco-friendly. We recycle all our fabric and give it to charity or design students who are working on their thesis. So no fabric is ever wasted. We have minimal plastic use. I think this is important to do as a global citizen and these are the right values to have. It’s very important that there’s no wastage. I feel that hysterical capitalism has destroyed the world, and businesses need to think about how much money they really want to make. There needs to be some modesty to the amount of money that you actually want to make. Gordon Gekko may have said that ‘greed is good’ but too much greed is potentially disastrous.”

It’s that sense of restraint that keeps a check and balance on the Kamiar Rokni brand. Rather than jump from sense to sensibility, he has settled down with an affirmative nod to bridal couture. And his bridal couture has been a constant thing of beauty, a joy forever and whenever he has brought it to Pakistan’s fashion week runways. I remember the beginning and continuum of fashion weeks in Pakistan; no schedule would be complete without the House of Kamiar Rokni featuring on it. Fortunately, he was a committed regular.

Kami’s east-to-west appreciation, his sense of proportion and understanding of colour; the way he incorporates craft and mixes diverse elements, combined with his precise control of structure makes him the designer he is. He’s the quintessential all-rounder, the jack of all trades who went on to become master of one: bridals.

“Bridals suited my business model,” he explains the genre he has settled down with.“I can keep it simple; I don’t have to invest in shops, I don’t have to get into supply and demand. I never found the right partner to start a high street brand in Pakistan with, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there with whom I can work. So I decided that unless I can do it myself…what I could do is bridal.”

What does he hope to achieve in the next two decades? “In the words of Madonna,‘World Domination’,” he replies, not entirely jokingly. He does, on the road to world domination, intend to revitalize his pret-a-porter, launch a jewellery line and work on a western line. I have no doubt that his western line too will stay true to his vision and help put Bahawalpur on the global map.

“I feel that hysterical capitalism has destroyed the world and businesses need to think about how much money they really want to make. There needs to be some modesty to the amount of money that you actually want to make. Gordon Gekko may have said that ‘greed is good’ but too much greed is potentially disastrous.” – Kamiar Rokni

Destiny’s Child