Elegant, cosmopolitan and oh-so-pretty – Shamaeel Ansari’s designer wear is a class apart. Despite being one of the pioneers of Pakistani fashion, Ansari is a relatively unsung hero. Her exquisite pieces wow at fashion weeks but are perceived as not being widely available. While relatively new designers are forging ahead with retail outlets and multiple lines, the Shamaeel brand has taken a more low profile route. This has led some to believe that designing is merely a hobby for Ansari and that she is not serious about the business of fashion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Shamaeel label chooses to be a niche, premium brand. Its price points are high because of the pure fabrics used and detailing. “Shamaeel never was and never will be a mass market brand. I could churn out lawn kurtas for Rs4,000 but my design philosophy is about more value-added pieces,” says Ansari.
Known for her silhouettes, detailing and craftsmanship, Ansari’s design sense is rooted in a love of historical culture and textiles. Her love of tradition is balanced by a fashion-forward mindset inherited from her mother who spearheaded one of Pakistan’s first women’s magazines.
“I grew up seeing my mother organise shoots and fashion shows. She always loved fashion and beautiful clothes. The maternal side of my family pioneered hand-spun silk in Mysore. You could say fashion and textiles are in my blood,” she explains
Ansari’s career path to being a designer was, however, an unusual one. A star student of finance at Berkeley, Ansari’s thesis was on Oil Industry Mergers and Acquisitions. Despite job offers in the US, she decided to return to Pakistan where her grandfather encouraged her to join the family business. Fate intervened in the form of a charity benefit by Imran Khan at the Café Royal in London.
At the time, Ansari was spending two months in London with her family and was doing a diploma at the London School of Fashion to keep herself busy. One of the designers for the event’s fashion show backed out. At the personal request of Imran Khan, the young student Ansari stepped in with her few diploma pieces. They were a resounding success.
“People descended on me backstage, wanting the outfits and I think I was so overwhelmed that I actually gave them away for free,” she says.
It was the start of a stellar journey. This was back in 1987 when the fashion scene in Pakistan was just nascent. Mrs Kazmi, Faiza Samee and Maheen Khan were perhaps the only designers in the scene.
Within 10 years, Shamaeel had become one of the stars of the Pakistan fashion world. She became known for her intricate bridals and chic couture. From the outset, customers appreciated her ability to marry Eastern sensibilities with a cosmopolitan look. She quickly developed a strong signature based on history and craft with a modern twist. This design strength is still visible in her pieces 25 years later. She was also responsible for some of the most creative fashion shows in Pakistan’s history. She showed a Moghul-themed collection at the Ismaili Gymkhana and an Orientalism collection at the Hindu Gymkhana. Her Orient Express show at Karachi City Railway station was perhaps the most memorable fashion show ever in Pakistan.
Ansari’s work is less known to the younger generation because she took a seven-year hiatus during which she entirely closed down her brand. However, this break was no holiday. She was working in the international fashion arena with the likes of Donna Karan as part of the design team, producing home fashions and textiles. The experience she gained was invaluable, teaching her volumes about outsourcing and in-time deliveries. It was a heady, challenging time which Ansari enjoyed greatly but she eventually decided that the constant travelling was becoming an issue. She then decided to focus once more on the Shamaeel label, although she continues a pared down version of her international work.
Although the older generation can remember Ansari’s heyday, her sabbatical meant that she had to prove herself all over again to a new generation of fashion lovers. She has shown at every Fashion Pakistan Council fashion week since she re-launched the Shamaeel brand. Pakistan’s fashion scene has changed in the interim and Ansari has adapted accordingly.
She continues to see her couture and bridal clients by appointment only but she has also developed pret and luxury pret lines. The luxury pret is sold through exhibitions every two months in Lahore and Karachi. She also exhibits in Dubai, Singapore and Istanbul, where she has regular clients. Shamaeel is also stocked by resellers in the UK and US, who buy the clothes outright and add their own margins. Ansari also stocks her pret at Melange in Islamabad, Showstopper in Karachi, Labels estore and Ensemble in Karachi and Dubai.
This is a brand that is serious about the business of fashion. Ansari has the flair and design nous to appeal to a sophisticated clientele. Shamaeel is perfectly poised to go from strength to strength as one of Pakistan’s premier design houses.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2013.