It’s a beautiful brisk and yet sunny January afternoon when I meet Hassan Sheheryar Yasin at his mansion in Karachi. Located in the cradle of the majestic Mohatta Palace, this mansion has character of its own and is ideal to host and harbor the man who calls himself king. HSY, the King of Couture. He dances at award shows wearing a tee shirt labeled ‘I am King’ in gold. His body guards, when on fashion week duty, are often seen in shirts with I love HSY emblazoned on the front. It does appear a narcissistic existence, one he is all too proud of.
“I don’t shy away from it because I don’t mind it,” he is quick to dismiss any hints of dishonesty or diplomacy that I fear may creep into the conversation. This is going to be as honest as it can get. “I’ve been referred as that by people so much that I have kind of embraced it. There’s no shame in my game. There’s no ‘Oh no, no, no, God, don’t call me that!’ It’s part of my personality.”
“I think, it also gives people a certain sense of hope,” he continues a little more seriously. “I can’t tell you how many people write to me and say they want to be like me. My story resonates. Here’s a boy, a single-parent kid, who started his business with 2500 rupees and created whatever he created, is where he is, has the fan base, the respect and the acknowledgement in a country of 200 million people. He has done it and has done it on his own, and has the power. Why should I shy away from that? It gives other kids hope and aspirations that they can do it too.”
Hassan’s past is known to everyone who has known him even a fraction of the two-plus decades that he’s been around. They know and remember his struggle to get to where he is today. And he is the same boy who stepped out of the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design with a love for fashion but no financial support to catapult him into orbit. Today he’s bigger, older – “Oh, don’t write my age, darling!” – he’s HSY, designer to the stars, owner of three swanky outlets – a store, a studio and a mansion – in Lahore and Karachi, where very few Lahore designers have been successful. He is host of popular talk show Tonite with HSY, now preparing for its upcoming fourth season. And he’s the first fashion brand in Pakistan to be ambassador for one of the largest selling phones in the world. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that HSY is the one man that brought the business of branding into the fashion industry and he has, most definitely, played a monumental role in shaping it into where it stands today. But he’s come full circle, it seems. As we talk, he confesses that he’s stepping back.
What exactly is he stepping away from and why, after so many years is there the need to change?
“I’m moving away from doing things that perhaps I feel I no longer need to do,” he replies. “Let’s see…directing shows, fashion weeks, FPW, PFDC. PFDC is truly my baby but I’ve been directing shows for the past 25 years and I know how difficult it is. I’m proud of it and it was great. But it started taking away so much of my time and also my effort that I felt I was spreading myself so thin that I had stopped focusing on the very thing that I was always excited about: my brand, HSY. I felt I was being benevolent in trying to save this industry but in the last eight to ten years my own business took a hit.
“I just want to focus on what I love,” he continues, closing his eyes and loving the melodic azaan resonating in the background, basking him in the kind of ‘clutter-free, inner peace’ he is now looking for. “I love being able to create things. I love being able to create the clothes that I love. For the first time I’ve said no to PFDC, BCW and FPW. I don’t want to direct them anymore.”
Fashion shows we see today are not the way he envisioned them a decade ago. The love for creativity and expression got lost somewhere in the rush for consumerism. He speaks about how shows were being copied, not created and how his role as creative director was constantly being minimized.
“A show director must be able to direct everything A to Z,” he says. “But gradually I wasn’t being included in the decision-making process. I realized that I didn’t want to stand up there and be the showcase anymore.”
“This is what’s exciting me right now,” he said, pointing towards the gorgeous, decadent exterior of the mansion. He is Lord of the Manor, an expression well reflected in his lifestyle; his staff is smartly dressed in HSY branded uniforms as it hovers around with fresh juice and a tea service. This is where he hosted an extremely high profile party a month ago; he shares how he had to ask certain people to leave as they had turned up, uninvited and were making his friends uncomfortable. He wants to maintain distance and establish exclusivity; he’s quite clear about that.
“I’m now concentrating only and only on my brand. My brand is not just clothing; it’s my brand HSY. My television show. My brand is what I’m doing on stage or what I’m putting out on clothes; it has to be concentrated on what I want to do.”
What does branching out look for him in the next five years?
“Understanding and consolidating the production of art itself,” he replies. “I feel that the quality of clothing has been completely destroyed. There was a time when designers used to take great amount of pride in the way the clothes were made, the quality of the embroidery, the fabric, the merchandising and the production. I think that kind of took a hit, not just for me, but for everybody. A lot of people started going towards a more FMCG model and luxury goods, what we started out with, got left behind. Luxury got completely swaddled by new people who did not understand luxury but understood how to copy luxury. You have to understand what your main stay is: are you an FMCG or are you a luxury brand? You can’t be both. It doesn’t work that way, anywhere in the world. Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy…except for Armani, no luxury brand has an FMCG division.”
He now wants to focus on luxury, on his menswear and gradually bring accessories in as well. He says he will direct bespoke shows, whenever he’s needed and when he’s put in charge of everything. He doesn’t want to deal with ‘behenjis,’ who “can never be me” and treat him with disdain and disrespect and misbehave with his crew and throw tantrums backstage. He’s done pandering to them.
Do you ever feel that people in the industry resent you; is there anyone you don’t like, I ask, sensing his annoyance accumulated over years of having to deal with underwhelming ‘designers’ who feel they’re as good as him. But he has genuinely, never in my memory at least, ever badmouthed anyone. He’s someone who has even taken the harshest of criticism very well.
“I can’t think of any single person in the design industry that I don’t like or who I have an issue with,” he says in what I can vouch for as honestly. Hassan generally does have great karma. “I’m not saying I’m universally likeable, but once you get to know me you’ll realize I’m not universally threatening.”
“Yes I’m very demanding, I’m demanding of the people in my life, I’m demanding of my team, and I’m demanding of those who I work with, I expect them to be better,” he begins to explain where the resentment comes from.
“Just yesterday I was shooting the fourth season of Tonite with HSY and I yelled at everyone so much that I thought everyone was going to kill me. I think everyone must hold themselves up to higher expectations, higher demands, higher and better than what they were yesterday. If they don’t there’s no point. And then don’t work with me, don’t work with me and expect me to be that sweet guy. This is the industry of fashion; it’s a very sharp climbing pyramid and has very few on top. You want to sit on top, you play the game like people on top do. You come with your complete game plan. You don’t come and say ‘Oh God, I was partying last night.’ I don’t care! You were partying at my house, you’re here now! Get your act on. I brought my A-game, where is your A-game? And that’s where the bitching and the khuss phuss starts.”
And it has started, beginning with the fact that HSY has been ‘replaced’ as Show Director by Sadia Siddiqui and consequently, he’s pulled out of Fashion Parade.
“I hadn’t signed anything,” he said. “You can write anything on the lineup. I was asked to do it but each show must deliver, like you said. It must deliver something for me. BCW delivers for me commercialism. PFDC delivers for me authenticity, right? We did one Fashion Parade in London and I wish them all the best but what did it deliver for me? Did it create a market for me in London? It did not. If anything, we put it on the map. We brought attention to it with our name. Suddenly press was more interested in writing about them because I was there. What did it give me?”
It’s the ‘me’ that Hassan Sheheryar Yasin wants to bring back to his game. He wants to detox and cleanse his system of “noise, clutter and kachra” that has been collecting over the years. He wants to invest his time and energy in his brand, his business and the mentorship and philanthropic programs that he has been working on in Karachi, Lahore and Shergarh. He may not be in the director’s seat but he will most definitely show at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week; he also wants to show in Karachi but while dismissing FPW as a valid choice, he hints at Showcase, HUM TV’s new venture. As for giving up the proverbial throne, he makes it very clear that there’s no chance of that. “A kingdom must be lead from the top,” he smiles, knowing very well that he plans to stay exactly there.