Maria B talks about the challenges of building a brand and striking the balance between what sells and looks good.
Criticism doesn’t bother Maria anymore. She has a clothing empire that speaks for her success – 26 outlets in Pakistan, a thriving export operation and eight lines manufacturing everything from embroidered fabrics, lawn to creating more exclusive evening and even wedding wear. She’s been in the business for exactly 15 years now, after graduating from the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design as valedictorian in 1998. And having worked through the ebb and flow of time, the one thing that never subsided was her business. She may never have been slotted in the top tier of Pakistan’s critically acclaimed designers but Maria says she’s passed being bothered about that trivia anymore.
“I’m very clear about that,” she says as we settle down for a conversation. “It used to bother me when I was younger. I have never won an award but I’ve gone beyond wanting awards now. I’ve had more than my fair share of critics but they have not stunted my growth. They criticized me when I had two stores; I have 26 now. I know my worth and a few opinions aren’t getting me down. If I had taken opinions seriously I would have broken down a long time. But it doesn’t’ matter in the long run.
What does matter, she continues, is her commitment to her business, which is impressive. What has been her biggest challenge in building the brand in fifteen years, I ask her, urging to reflect beyond the woes of gas and power crises.
“The hardest part has been finding the balance between what sells and what looks good,” she reflects. “Now I’m not just a designer but a brand as well. I have 25 people on the design team. We cater to thousands of women and know what sells. Our brand has lasted the test of time. We’ve made mistakes and are constantly learning. The biggest challenge has been to learn to accept that I’m wrong and correct myself time and time again.
“My brother, a LUMS graduate, told me that I had to go beyond the limitations of fashion and think like a brand,” she furthers. “He told me that I need to have my finger on the pulse. And I would think this is the fashion industry’s biggest challenge. The industry needs to look beyond itself; it needs to look beyond the 0.5 per cent (of us) that is fashion savvy.”
What does she think to be the strongest part of brand Maria B, I ask her?
“My cotton line, in terms of sales and revenue and feedback,” Maria replies without a moment’s hesitation. “Couture is such a small portion of what we do and it’s not even something I focus on anymore. Ready to wear is where the challenge is. Cotton and lawn is our biggest strength. And Khaadi, Generation, Threads and Motifs…these are brands we are up against.”
Fashion has become so competitive these days, who do you consider your biggest competition?
“ We don’t even come close to Gul Ahmed, Al Karam, Nishat or even Khaadi…they are huge and have huge operations. I think what inspires me is Khaadi as they are the ones who have made it. Other than that no one comes close to us. Even in terms of eveningwear there is hardly any competition because we do volumes. No one else does volume in eveningwear.”
Fabric, whether it is lawn, pashmina or linen is exactly what Maria is investing her time and energy in these days. For the past one year she has been working in collaboration with Sahiba Ltd to create customized capsules for the Indian market. I ask her what the experience has been like and whether there is potential in long-term development.
“I walked into this random country, India, which was nothing like Pakistan and of which I knew absolutely nothing about. I followed my instinct,” Maria says of her foray into India. “But we’re in our third collection of prints being produced in India now. The third collection is launching next month. This collaboration has been a great boost for me. A lot of people have ventured into India but I don’t envision a suitcase operation for Maria B. I can’t see myself carrying 20 bridals over to India. Sahiba Ltd is the brand we’re working with and they believe in us. So many designers have approached them since we started last year but they are more than happy with our output. It’s absolutely amazing.”
It’s surprising that despite having a market in India you did not participate in the Lifestyle Pakistan expo recently organized held in Delhi.
“We got invited to Aalishan and Lifestyle and I’m upset that we missed it,” she responds. “We’ve been preoccupied with lawn (summer 2015) but I regret it. Everything looked so good. We did participate in the first event and hope to do so in the next.”
As we round up our conversation, I bring the discussion to Maria’s Ladakh collection. Her best collection to date in terms of creativity, it was ironic that this should be the one that failed to make it to her 26 stores nationwide. Despite promises of delivery, it never retailed or trended the way it should have. How does Maria justify this massive runway to retail failing?
“It did make it to certain stores,” Maria replied. “You have to understand that many pieces were only for the show and I knew they had no commercial value. I knew they wouldn’t sell so I couldn’t reproduce them. But 20 percent of the collection went into stores as is and the rest was interpreted for the Eid collection two months ago.
There was a delay, caused by our digital printing, which had issues but we did launch the Ladakh prints. We did a lot of daywear and eveningwear. We’re fully in control of our printing now and we have learnt from the experience. Ladakh was delayed but between two Eids it has made it to stores. In fact, if you visit any Maria B store now you will find elements of Ladakh – from printed tops, jackets, daywear and even embroidered, unstitched fabric – in stores.”
– The story was published in Instep, Sunday September 28, 2014