One doesn’t get to see many break-out stars in the Pakistani fashion industry. Aside from the natural barriers for emerging talent, surnames and background checks are as essential to recognition as design capabilities, if not more. Fashion weeks across Pakistan do provide budding designers a platform to showcase their work but the front row is rarely kind and for aspirants, the ascent to fame is slow and arduous. Ali Xeeshan has defied this norm. Enigmatic, honest and aesthetically endowed, Ali has made his mark on the industry in four short years since his debut. He launched his eponymous label in 2011 and with it, Pakistan’s first theatre studio while expanding to Karachi earlier this year. Ali’s phenomenal success is intriguing; with none of the haute societe razzmatazz to back him, many wonder how he’s made it so far. To find out, I take a trip to Ali’s studio in Lahore to hear the story from the man himself.
"When I told my family I wanted to become a designer, the idea was very alien for them," Ali began narrating his story. "They viewed it as a hobby rather than a profession. My mother was perhaps the only person who believed in me at that time."
Hailing from a business family based in Lahore, Ali was born with no traceable fashion genes. But even as a teenager, appearing for his intermediate degree from Government College, theatre beckoned to him. As a member of the GC dramatic society it was acting and putting together a visual tale that captivated him and Ali felt he had found his calling. As the story goes, our designer’s decision to pursue fashion was not received with enthusiasm. Fast forward to Ali’s 2006 Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design graduation, which he completed with many accolades.
"After graduating I wanted experience and I wanted to learn from the best so I started a series of internships with different designers," he recalls. "From Nilofer Shahid to Karma (back when Kamiar Rokhni and Maheen Kardar were still partners), I think I must have interned with at least eight to ten designers. It was a fantastic experience."
One particular internship at a design house in Lahore, Ali shares, was a befitting tribute to his love for drama. Working for a senior wedding wear designer (with political connections) in Lahore turned into a dangerous liaison when he tried to resign. He narrates how he was kidnapped by henchmen who took him to an undisclosed location.
"I worked with her for two years and she was very impressed with my dedication. Initially when I informed her that I wanted to resign she was very polite and was willing to offer me the world in exchange for staying with her. I wanted to start my own label though and had to decline her generous offers. One day I was whisked away to an old house in DHA and was told that I had to sign a five year contract with her otherwise I’d be put behind bars on some bogus claim."
Luckily for Ali, his case was brought to the attention of higher officials within the police and he was released. "I was actually all set to leave for Spain at the time when all of this was transpiring. I had been offered a paid internship at the Zara headquarters but an email had been sent from this designer’s office, claiming that I had a criminal record which caused Zara to rescind their offer."
While Ali had no qualms mentioning who this mystery designer was, one will avoid and just say that this isn’t the first time she has been accused of hurling threats! It is astounding though that Ali speaks of the entire incident without any acrimony or anger. He even continues to refer to her as "Aunty" and never resorts to slander. His ability to forgive past wrongs and move on reflects the goodness of his character but also the joy he derives from thrills and theatrics of the kind. What’s fashion without a little excitement?
What sets the base for Ali’s remarkable success, though, is his meticulous nature and considerable business acumen. Everything he does is thoroughly researched and has a purpose, though it might not be evident to all. Even choosing pop Bollywood number "Jumaa, Chumma Dey Dey" to open his FPW 2014 Sufi-inspired collection had a reason.
"The basis of all love starts with a kiss and that’s what I wanted to portray," he explained.
Designing under the Libas umbrella for his premiere show, Ali had to first gain approval from the ultimate industry scion, Sehyr Saigol. For his meeting with Mrs. Saigol, Ali didn’t have a finished garment to show rather he had created a detailed moodboard on a single mannequin.
"Mrs. Saigol walked in and was definitely impressed by everything I had put together," he recalls with unabashed pride. His debut collection was acclaimed by critics and made it to the covers of several magazines, Libas included. And there’s been no looking back for Ali, especially with his new studio and expansion to Karachi. "I was a bit hesitant about Karachi because I had heard that people there prefer subtle, sophisticated designs and my work is loud and punchy. But I was pleasantly surprised by the response. People really appreciate that there’s nothing shy or subdued about my designs because most other couturiers in Karachi work with a lot of restraint."
Ali’s aesthetics can be described as fusion. He admits to borrowing heavily from our culture and heritage and blends Western silhouettes with Eastern embellishment adroitly. His latest spring summer collection, Trouble combines Dolce & Gabbana inspired cuts with heavy embroidery and beadwork. Ali’s creativity serves him well on the runway and luckily for him, his grasp of business takes him the extra mile. With Trouble featuring lots of dresses in varying lengths, which are impractical for a Pakistani audience by large, Ali converted some of his creations to wearable kurtas and kameezes for retail. He took colours and embellishment and transferred them on to tunics that will have a greater mass appeal at the multi-brand stores where he stocks. The Ali Xeeshan label may not be accessible as widely as one would hope but the designer’s enthusiasm and potential to grow grants him that concession.
Meanwhile, where most designers establish fashion houses, Ali’s fascination with drama pushed him to open Pakistan’s first and only theatre studio. "I opened a theatre studio because I couldn’t restrict myself to only designing clothes. When I imagine an outfit in my head it’s never an isolated piece. I plan everything in my mind; styling, make up, jewellery even down to lighting. If I’m making a bridal, I like to plan the stage according to the dress. I know that if I was just doing clothes I’d get bored really quickly. The theater studio allows me to explore my creativity and use it in different areas. Under the Ali Xeeshan Theatre Studio umbrella I do homes, events and even gardens and landscaping."
Ali has also (unsurprisingly) dabbled in costume design, having created the wardrobe for Aamina Sheikh starrer Arman. He is currently working on the looks for the remake of Arth, starring Shaan and Humaima Malick and this Eid Ali will join the lawn bandwagon.
What makes him shine brighter than his peers is his clarity of signature; he relentlessly remains true to himself, whether it’s in fashion or costume design or making an appearance on a red carpet.
From sporting dreadlocks at the 2013 Lux Style Awards, which won him Best Dressed, to wearing a black rhinestone piercing in the centre of his forehead, he always gives people something to talk about.
"I always wanted a mole and this is it, except with more bling," he explains mischievously. Ali never shies away from embracing any of his ideas or urges, no matter how outlandish they are. Finally, here is a designer utterly comfortable in his skin, embracing his loud Punjabi heritage and personal brand of crazy with as much aplomb as he does international trends. No matter how garish his costume or theatrical his runway presentation may be, beneath the display is a man strongly grounded in reality with goals and a clear idea on how to achieve them. He may not have been born with a socially heavy surname, but four years of hard work and vision have placed him amongst the movers and shakers of the fashion world. Merely five years into the field he is an integral part of the industry he works in, lending it an exciting dose of drama with high production value. Ali works hard and parties even harder but never loses sight of who he is. And that integrity is what makes him sell.