Her brand has seamlessly maintained their aesthetic by portraying stories from within the soil. The designer, Zara Shahjahan, is a woman who derives inspiration from only her surroundings as she continues to find story after story – from the resilient Mehrunnisa that birthed her bridal collection to the Maharani’s during British rule. An old soul who is attracted to ancient stories, attended NCA where she became a miniature painter. Since the start of her clothing line, Zara has carefully developed consistency within her brand and is continuing to pay tribute to all the magnificent art and stories Pakistan has to offer. We spoke to Zara about when she decided to become a designer and what it takes to maintain a brand aesthetic as well as her journey into becoming one of Pakistan’s household names. Check out the full interview below and have a look at her new collections that are in stores now!
What does a regular day hold for you?
I wake up with my kids and I come to work at 10 and from then onwards it’s madness. Especially now with lawn season, it’s incredibly busy in the workplace. I have separate teams who I work individually with- my bridal team, my textile team and my marketing team. The day starts with whatever is going on. I’m not involved in production as much, so I’ll talk to the teams and once a week we have a good puri team where we decide a direction and talk about what the brand stands for. I have a very set brand manual which is handed out to every team member, so they familiarise themselves with the aesthetic of the brand. So in a nutshell, work is always consisting of meeting after meeting. It’s good but also crazy!
Can you tell us about the time you decided with surety that you were going to be a designer?
I was always into sober and sophisticated color palettes. I went to NCA in Lahore and I learned a lot during my time there. I love developing things and my team is very focused. I’ve been considerate with my aesthetic. When I decided to go into clothes, I realized later on that the longevity of the brand matters a lot. Nowadays new designers show up and immediately design around an aesthetic that isn’t entirely flattering to their brand. In order to discover one’s aesthetic, they need to do and explore everything and decide on what feels right.
At the moment I’m playing around with bright colors. With designing, if you stick to doing the same thing, it becomes boring. I believe in pushing the boundaries. I started defrenfiating on what I love and what the market liked. Since the first day, I’ve always loved doing things a little differently.
How did it feel to debut your very first collection?
I was incredibly nervous. When I debut a collection now, it feels like a routine. However there’s always a slight amount of nerves!
Do you believe it’s easier or harder to launch a fashion brand now vs when you did?
I would say it’s definitely harder to start a brand nowadays. When I started there weren’t a lot of brands and subsequently not a lot of competition. My brand had personal meaning and that’s how and why I did it. We were the first ones who properly made a luxury brand commercial. During that time, luxury brands were looked upon with an elitist attitude. I was the first to start with proper pret collection which consisted of five outfits, each having a different theme. I’m in the habit of doing small capsule collections every two weeks.
You’re one of the few designers who derives their inspiration from historic tales and practices such as block printing etc. Can you describe the creative process?
I decided to look to old stories a long time ago. I’m very connected to the city of Lahore. I love every corner, especially the architecture.
I think what’s happened in Pakistan is a movement where the people and the youth have detached themselves from our history because of the link with India. Overtime the Shalwar Kameez has turned western, with the steady decline of wearing a dupatta. We’re driving ourselves further away from our culture, and it’s got a lot to do with Arab influence as well. We should look at the uniqueness we are surrounded with. Pakistani artisans have been making bridals for hundreds of years, and they aren’t available all over the world. Why are we letting that go? If Italians make the best shoes, they are proud of it and refuse to deviate from their claim to fame. We have techniques that have been developed over hundreds of years and I choose to build a brand from that. My team and I go back in time and research stories and practices. We’ve done incredible designs with indigo dye. Our lawn isn’t hand embroidered. We take a look back and see techniques that are similar. For example, my 2015 lawn Pulkari had balochi tunics.
This latest collection is inspired by block printing. Your previous collection was inspired by Frida Kahlo and your collection before that was inspired by the Persian Queen Schehrezade. What is it about ancient stories that inspires you?
The idea of reincarnation has always attracted me. I research a lot about how people used to dress back in the day, and that’s how I uncovered the poignent story of Mehrunissa who came from a Nawab family and taught Urdu. She is the inspiration behind my bridal collection. After Mehrunissa, I continued to research other Maharani’s after the British rule. I believe that time period was one of the most interesting times for the subcontinent, and the stories one finds can be extremely inspiring and telling. The Persian Queen Schehrezade who told a thousand and one stories to save her life and breath love into a hardened man inspired my bridal.
Frida Kahlo, being an artist inspired a more casual textile feel with floral velvets and bright colors.
Onto the subject of block printing, that is something that we’ll continue to do. It’ll be extremely hard as all the block printing is done in Karachi, and Lahore has very old block printing. We’re using colors – regular dyes which are fluorescent pink and yellow. We purchase imported powder imported by India and we developed our own collection.
You’ve had consistency with your brand’s aesthetic. How do you think you’ve been able to maintain it?
I feel it’s the culture of your design studio and the brand itself. If you are disconnected from your own culture and you aren’t apart of it then it won’t trickle down. One of the reasons our aesthetic hasn’t faltered is because we’ve remained true to what we are, and we’ve developed our own culture from within that dedication. All of us are in synch with the brand, and therefore we stay true to it.
Your lawns have an understated touch to them, and we’re curious with lawn season coming up, if you could share a few details about this year’s lawn?
We have 15 designs and two color makes that are divided into two. One half is sophisticated and the other half is boho ethnic. Wholisticly they represent ZS very well. The color palette is brighter than last year. I’m the kind of designer who never repeats the same thing!
With time, Zara Shahjahan has grown to become a household name in Pakistan. How does this make you feel?
To be honest, I’m disconnected from social media and all the content that’s buzzing around from yesterday to today to tomorrow. My day consists of designing and indulging in my passion. However it’s humbling when people recognize my work. But recognition isn’t everything! It’s just loving what you do and your passion.
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