(Published in Herald, October 2012)
We’re in the ritzy fashion avenue of Dubai Mall and as we step into Tory Burch, two women – apparently Lebanese with distant South Asian genes – start gushing over Nomi Ansari and how much they love his clothes. Not only do they recognize the Pakistani designer, they know that his sister Faiza (also with us) is wearing one of his latest digital prints. They want to know where they can buy them in Dubai.
We’re in the United Arab Emirates for the opening of multi-label boutique Ensemble (that’s where they can buy the collection) and Nomi Ansari beams at the recognition he’s getting. He has a radiant personality, a youthfulness that is effortlessly reflected in his love for colour. He also has a delightful sense of humour that keeps erupting at the oddest of times. Nomi’s a great mimic, whether he’s poking a finger at a celebrity he’s worked with or a witch doctor he recently had the misfortune of dealing with when one of his cousins believed her bones could be hypnotized into elongating three inches.
He laughs at the memory and then reprises the role of ‘celebrity designer’ when some Pakistani fans approach in the mall. Nomi Ansari has been in the business for a little over ten years and he’s branded as one of Pakistan’s top bridal couturiers. A graduate of the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (class of 2001), he graduated with an incredible set of skills.
Frieha Altaf – who he has worked very closely with over the decade – remembers her first impression of the designer, then a young fashion student. She spotted Nomi (in 2000) in the college corridor as he was bent over an outfit he was stitching.
“I had gone to Lahore to see this new school (PIFD) and the whole class was there: HSY, Kami, and Nomi and all,” Frieha remembers fondly. “I saw Nomi stitching this complicated Red-Indian outfit. I was so impressed by his creativity and the fact that he could actually put it together. I was doing a Dupont show at that time and Lycra was coming into Pakistan for the first time. Since Nomi’s handle on western patterns was so strong, I asked him to do the show. He did a fabulous job; Iraj carried his clothes so well.”
“Some of Nomi’s collections have been amazing,” Frieha adds. “Nomi is all about colour and youthfulness. He can do a circus collection but at the same time he can do complete black just as easily. He can construct and style and visualize and he has ideas. I think he’s truly creative and I know how well he can construct because I wear his clothes a lot.”
A journey that had begun in the college corridor took Nomi to places he could only have imagined as a student. He went from strength to strength, evolving from the small and cramped, mezzanine floor studio in Tauheed Commercial Area of Karachi that he started out in to a double storey atelier in posh Clifton. His studio now preens time-tested success, vanity reflected in the light-shifting centre-desk, the dazzling mannequins, the dozens and dozens of embellished samples that have been photographed, coded and laminated for records. It is, very evidently, his pride and joy.
But why, one may wonder, did it take him so long to establish his business, considering Nomi’s family had the resources (meaning the investment) to put into the business from day one.
“I didn’t take money from my family,” he pondered over a cigarette in the hotel’s smoking zone. “I did it on my own and took my time.”
What does it take to make it big if you have the talent, I ask him?
“Firstly, a big investment always helps,” he replies. “I started from scratch and it took me a decade to get where I am today. I started with two sewing machines and worked myself up here. Now I see people crossing that distance overnight; they have heavy investment or funding that always helps.
We painstakingly train workers and then someone with the funding comes along and poaches them for just a couple of hundred more. It can get very frustrating, the growth for self made designers is painstakingly slow.”
Does that mean someone without the investment and/or social clout cannot make it to the finish line?
“A newcomer can make it big without money or clout but it’ll take a very long time. The competition is incredible these days; the market has changed and there is so much awareness.”
‘Awareness’ brings Nomi to his second obsession after designing: he’s a compulsive techie, a self-proclaimed Apple loyalist who uses windows only to tally colour palettes for his collections, which “all have to appear the same”. Apparently they differ in the Apple and Windows programs. The electronic media, he insists, has played an essential role in creating the fashion industry.
“E media is doing fashion justice and puts out a lot of information,” he expresses his adoration of technology as I put down my copy of Gulf News at the breakfast table. “Everyone likes to read blogs, facebook pages, tweets even if they’re no longer reading the newspapers. I don’t read the newspapers, but I’m logged onto several different things and websites at the same time. The e-awareness is at a peak and it’s helping fashion tremendously.”
The electronic media has its benefits, making designers cyber stars, but it also has its downside. Nomi Ansari knows that he’s one of the most plagiarized designers in Pakistan. Pictures from his shows and editorial shoots end up on websites; faux designers claim to make his original outfits for a lesser price.
He grumbles about the copycats but then moves on, knowing it’s a lost cause.
What he can’t just as easily accept is that he has to compromise his skills and craft to make clothes that sell. It’s his pet peeve, to make clothes from his mind and not his heart and soul.
“I’m very happy with the signature I have created for myself,” he explains, “but I still think my forte is couture, pattern based avant garde silhouettes. I can show those at fashion weeks, even though they will never sell unless I modify them into wearable options. The creative, cutting edge clothes cannot be my bread and butter. What I want to do it pattern, silhouette and edgy clothing. I miss my pattern making and draping days.”
A designer at heart, there’s style in everything around Nomi. Neatness is his weakness and his life is neat and tidy, as organized as cutlery laid out in a five star restaurant. He doesn’t employ a driver, for the fear of another man sitting (and sweating) in the driving seat. His studio restroom is kept under lock and key, the dark floral wallpaper and spotless ambience off anyone else’s limits. And he’s quite the collector, picking up novelty inching tapes, wall clocks and placards (fashion related) and even hand sanitizer dispensers from his various travels. The sanitizer is his latest find, and he cleans his hands every time he leaves his office.
It’s in his office that he designs. And edgy clothing, as the kind he got a standing ovation for at the first PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week, is what makes this designer tick. The Circus Collection and the way it had been stylized got people talking about his skills. He took the same collection to Singapore later that year, where renowned fashion commentator Colin McDowell gave it a stamp of approval:
“A stimulating day started with a breath of fresh air blown in from Pakistan. Four very different talents under the umbrella title of Fashion Asia came together to show in Singapore. They made me realise yet again how vibrant and original clothes from this part of the world can be when they are not too linked to a stereotype of a national costume. They are absolutely not to be compared with the tired western copies put out by designers who have had an exotic holiday somewhere, and return with surface ideas they’ve nicked. The point such western designers so often miss is that, just as in the west, good eastern fashion is based on a philosophy of life, not a few pretty primary colours and some beading.
After all, we are all conscious of the fact that all creativity stems from a culture – and often a mix of more than one. In fact, the clothes shown by Maheen Khan, Shamaeel Ansari, Deepak Perwani, and Nomi Ansari with Fashion Asia were far too sophisticated to have the tag of ethnic stuck on them. These were clothes that could fit in many sophisticated women’s wardrobes. Not all; not every wardrobe; and probably not in their entirety – but, then, who ever buys a total wardrobe from one label, in any case?”
(Colin McDowell’s blog at http://www.colinmcdowell.com/blog/page7.html)
While Nomi now stocks all over the world – his most lucrative markets being in Canada and the UAE – he says that he enjoys sending clothes to Singapore the most.
“We send clothes to Singapore, Dubai, Canada and the USA,” he reiterates as we walk around the mall in search of a specific brand of macaroons. Contrary to his slim frame, Nomi Ansari loves his food and can walk miles to find it. Having a sweet tooth that one can only envy, he saves a serving of Crispy Crème minibites to enjoy after his meal on the flight.
“We only stock at proper, multi-brand stores,” he picks the conversation up before macaroons and donuts popped up, “and never work with drawing room exhibitors and auntie operators. We stock at Carma in India, Canada has a huge Ismaili community that buys our clothes from stores there and of course, we cater to the desis in Chicago all too happily. We’ll be stocking three of our lines (bridal, formal and Bubbles for little girls) with Ensemble in Dubai now.
“But Singapore is what excites me most. Singapore has a more western clientele; the women are willing to wear experimental clothes. Would you believe that my Circus Collection sold in Singapore. Every region has different demands but I personally prefer the Singapore market because I get to be creative. I enjoy my work but I’m majorly missing my forte these days.”