Celebrated fashion designer, Ammar Belal is recognised worldwide for his eponymous menswear label. His journey abroad, translated into new challenges and opportunities towards a global identity in design. He returns to Pakistan to provide others with the same opportunities, trying to push the envelope and challenge Pakistan’s fashion industry
We speak to Ammar Belal about his journey abroad and what made him return to create opportunities for the Pakistani fashion industry
Ammar Belal is the first designer from the South Asia and Middle East region to be accepted into the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program at Parsons School of Design in New York. He is now a Professor at Parsons, teaching Design Management and Fashion Design. He has his own menswear collection in New York under the name of ‘Ammar Belal Menswear’ but initiated a program in Pakistan to give back to his country, and the world of fashion. “I really wanted to do something for fashion and design in Pakistan, from the day I graduated,” he says.
The vision for this program was to give students the ability to think outside the box and create something beyond one’s imagination. It all started last summer when Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design (PIFD) opened its doors. “I do this as a hobby, and to give back to my country, but PIFD takes care of all the finances involved and the professors that accompany me to teach this course,” Belal says with gratitude. Last summer, faculty from Parsons flew to Pakistan, and Belal and his fellow associates trained the teachers. “Unless the teachers know what to teach, the students will never learn, so it was important for us to train the teachers first and foremost,” he explains.
The summer of 2016 was the first workshop Belal and his colleague Anke Grüendel held with the students. The concept behind the workshop is to mentor students and churn a graduation collection out of them. “The program, and its narrative are to contribute to the fashion world abroad. We teach our students to contextualise the concept and ask, why?” Belal believes the workshop will open the world of fashion and design to many talented Pakistanis.
Why this is needed is very simple. Pakistani designers showcase fabulous collections, but their market is non-existent abroad. “I want to create global designers within Pakistan, and form a pathway for them to reach a global audience,” Belal elaborates. He believes that the work should speak for the designer, not the origin. He emphasises how proud he is of the Pakistani fashion industry, and that the workshop is not to change the industry, but to diversify it, and create options for people. When he was 22 years old, and wanted to be diverse he had no options, so he wants to create a platform where the next curious 22-year-old can easily make a mark for him or herself.
“The Pakistani fashion industry is growing rapidly and it is wonderful, but it’s geared to produce what works, it doesn’t challenge the norm. I want to work with Pakistani institutions to change that.” Essentially, this workshop is catered to a field beyond the basic concept of fashion and design. As Belal’s thesis was Design and Responsibility, he wants to instil those skills in the students. For him, it is important to dig deeper and find the meaning in one’s work as an artist. “I want my students to give me a reason beyond ‘because I liked it’, they need to back every part of their work.
Belal’s short-term goal is to see someone accepted at Parson’s MFA program, followed by a showcase at New York Fashion Week. His long-term goal is to create a platform where the world knows a Pakistani designer as well as European, English or American designers. He says: “I am confident that this graduating bunch will make a mark in the world, maybe not as designers but definitely as artists.”
We speak to Anke Grüendel, a German professor at Parsons, who has been with Belal for the last two summers to help him educate the teachers and the students, and create a platform for them to blossom
Interestingly, Grüendel’s approach is similar to Belal’s. ”It is important to open up to what fashion is and can be.” Grüendel explains that the environment is filled with many messages, be it social, political, ecological, or even emotional, and it is important to carry that on in fashion and art. She wants students to discover something about their context, that they hadn’t known previously, which they could then teach her. “I prohibited them from focusing on clothing because that would predetermine what the answer to their question could be. This made the process quite open and required the students to make decisions on their own without my guidance, which at first caused a good amount of confusion, but also made them feel quite proud when they were able to work through it on their own,” she says.
We ask Grüendel about the curriculum’s evolution from its initiation last summer. “The curriculum reminded me of my education in Germany, which I attribute to PIFD’s French origin. In many ways, I saw it as a traditional education and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. I am grateful to my school for providing me with a solid base. That said a solid base could coexist with a research-focused approach. Once design stops being so narrowly defined (either as fashion, graphic, jewellery or industrial), in terms of its material-economic productivity, and becomes a new field in which one does not give answers (the new trend is ‘x’!) but rather asks questions (what is the relationship between my understanding of beauty and the beauty industry?) then designers will draw from various domains — like literature, sociology, philosophy, religion, art theory, craft, folk wisdom, etc.”
Naturally, the beginning of a start up in any industry is overwhelming, so those feelings were present too, but the intimidation soon disappeared when Grüendel was in the classroom. “For me this back and forth of knowledge is what makes teaching so exciting. It should always be, to some extent, a two way street, at least as far as design is concerned,” she says.
Grüendel thinks that, fashion and an open fashion education, could result in students working in a variety of fields. “I personally find it tremendously liberating to imagine that my education can accommodate a shift in my interests later on.” She hopes the program continues and that ultimately Pakistani fashion, art and design is visible in European or US markets.
The student that are to enter the world of fashion and design in Pakistan, and perhaps with this workshop, even globally, share their thoughts on the workshop and their final display
An inquiry into fashion as space, body, and habits
The assignment began with a survey of essential items inside my bag that included cigarettes. The next step was to describe the items and for me, the adjective for ‘cigarettes’ happened to be ‘companion’, as they are always with me. Upon evaluating the value of this word in my life, I realised that my ultimate companion has always been my mother. I then realised I didn’t know much about my mother, so I spoke to her about her past which unveiled that she would conceal cooking mistakes rather well in her early married life! Her experiments in the kitchen inspired my design assignment and to add the connection between my mom, her life, and me, I incorporated her current interest of floral art in my work.
How zero has no value, but zero has a lot of value
My initial inspiration came from my ID card which made me realise the value of the person who’s name gave me my identity — my deceased father. I discovered his likes, dislikes, and habits. When I found out that he was an avid newsreader, I obtained newspapers from his time to decipher this aspect of his personality. After discovering details about my father, I realised that he still doesn’t exist. I associated my father’s personality with a dark room in which objects exist, but cannot be seen. Therefore, I drew his sketches in a dark room. I designed fabrics printed with newspapers excerpts and sketches layered on top of one another to show how comprehensive identification of anything, is always ambiguous.
Pieces of meat
The workshop made us think about what our designs will be, and why we were making them. It’s easy to make pretty designs, but what we need is to make designs that are meaningful as well. We weren’t forced to design clothes; instead, we explored different mediums of expression that suited our research. For example, my work was on the unnecessary amount of chicken consumption, which leads to miserable living conditions for these birds. It would have trivialised my concept to create garments out of it, so Anke Grüendel and Ammar Belal allowed me to work on an illustrated book instead, told from the perspective of a girl being taken to slaughter.
An ode to Lahore
When I embarked on the journey to explore the Walled City of Lahore I had no idea how many unexplored surprises awaited me. There was inspiration at every corner, so many untold stories waiting to be told. We as designers often look elsewhere for inspiration to be ‘exotic’, however if we look around us and take inspiration from the elements that make us who we are, I believe that, not only will we be able to learn and rediscover new aspects of ourselves and our society, but we will also be able to develop a deeper connection with our audience.
I am her, I feel the same
My journey at the workshop began with mirroring my mother’s behaviour unconsciously since childhood. This developed from the accumulation of my memories of her and the residues from her past. Furthermore, detailed studies of my mother’s postures from her old photographs and video recordings along with impressions on clay from her belongings helped me design innovative textures. The intensive research I did during this workshop will help me fill the gaps in the fashion industry through logic and reasoning in the future.
Monotony — a break
My journey began from being a calculated person to someone who monitors her calculations through visual and performing arts. Through this project I pushed my limits and challenged myself by distorting my daily routine and breaking monotony. I got to see my life from someone else’s perspective and got an overview of my personality, realising my strengths and weaknesses. This intensive workshop trained me to work under pressure and find the meaning in every day things.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ