“I don’t get scared coming up with new collections. I used to initially. I didn’t realise the power a brand has and how much people follow it blindly,” shares 34-year-old Khadijah Shah, the Creative Head of both Elan and Sapphire. “I know now if we do something, it will be a trend. If no one has seen a shalwar for 10 years and I put it in a shoot, it will be followed and other brands will follow that trend. But obviously, I have to think that through as it comes with responsibility. Today, I think, ‘Do I want this to be a trend’, rather than whether or not this will work, because our ideas mostly do.”
Khadijah Shah is a quintessential workaholic. She generally turns down most social invitations to focus on work and her family and on a daily basis, she is usually dressed in “comfort clothing,” such as loose knits, airy silhouettes and loungewear during the day. She works so hard, her two children regularly come to the office to see her and to eat dinner together.
“People who know me would say I’m a workaholic,” admits the award-winning designer. “I am very involved and dedicated to Elan. I’m also a perfectionist and nothing escapes my eye. Even when I delegate, I can never fully let go; it’s a never-ending journey, constantly changing and evolving and I think that keeps people interested. I’ve also got amazing teams of people working with me. My husband Jehanzeb runs the business side and has made it grow by leaps and bounds.”
Her couture label Elan – originally the brainchild of her mother – has built a name for itself as one of the most cutting edge and coveted Pakistani formal wear brands. A French word that means energy or flair, Elan is a high-end luxury brand that consists of evening wear, bridal and luxury pret. If that was not enough, she is also the designer behind Sapphire – the nation’s top high street brand.
“With Sapphire, every single day you have to look at designs and overlook productions. 100 designs per month with price points starting at 1,200 rupees!,” explains the brown-eyed brunette. “So, now, with Elan and Sapphire, I’m pretty stretched at all times.”
“Both brands have my design aesthetic and sometimes you see something similar, but it would be a diffused trend,” explains the Creative Director. “It would not be possible for the products to be the same because of price limitation per piece at Sapphire.”
Just a year old, Sapphire’s unquestionable success and the way women fight – literally, for joras at its sales – is without a doubt due to Khadijah’s Midas touch for fashion. “My design philosophy is largely underpinned on my personal style. I love elegant, clean-cut, impeccably stitched clothes. I have a definite predilection for softer tones and colours and for order and symmetry in my designs,” shares Khadijah. “I’m an artist at heart and I painstakingly develop patterns for all my collections, there is detail and precision involved at every stage of the garments’ development and I think that’s what sets my brand apart and has made it so covetable.”
“Being a design house based in Pakistan naturally defines the Pakistani market as my core clientele,” shares Khadijah. “Collections are created with that in mind. However, there is no limit to inspiration or innovation in design. I explore all international trends and can use anything from anywhere as my source of inspiration. My patterns, motif development, cut and silhouette are not ethnic or traditional but lean towards western design philosophy.”
“I love fashion,” the Sagittarian adds, “because it’s an instant way of self-expression. It has us salivating, our hearts racing and our pulse beating, it makes women feel good! You can choose fashion and anyone can have it, you don’t have to be beautiful or fair or dark or tall or short – everyone can have their own fashion story and be the star of it.”
Although there is a lot of work involved in running two top brands, Khadijah loves what she does. “I sit in the middle of an office with more or less 60 very creative people and we are constantly bouncing ideas, we’re up to date with everything going on with fashion and we are developing trends. I love being part of producing something creative.”
So, how did this trendsetter reach this pinnacle of success. Was she a born fashionista? “I started off doing something different. I studied International Relations and Politics at London School of Economics. I am very keen on politics and it’s one of my passions still,” she states, “but by chance, I discovered I had this penchant for fashion.”
“My mother had founded Elan and initially I was just helping her. I had returned from college. Starting off as her apprentice, I quickly learnt the trade and started experimenting on my own. I got a great response from her clients and that’s when I decided that I could make something out of it,” she continues. Her mother still has her own fashion label that she runs but now Khadijah runs Elan independently.
“The first ever comprehensive collection I did was for the first fashion week in Pakistan, the PFDC show,” recalls the designer. “It was a wedding wear collection and I used digital printing extensively which was the first time it was done by any Pakistani design house. I took inspiration from celebrated artist Saeed Akhtar’s work and was thrilled when he gave me access to all his artwork.”
“I did my first lawn with Kamal textiles and I started with them and it ended up doing fantastically well,” continues Khadijah. “The next year, Hussain Textiles. Then, Sapphire approached a year later in 2014. They wanted to do something similar and I really like the group and the people. I met with them and then we discussed the idea of this fashion brand and we were on the same page – Nadeem Abdullah (of Sapphire Group) and myself. He handles business and I look at the creative side of it.”
Sapphire turned one in December 2015. “We started working in 2014 on the concept. Nadeem had the idea of a mass retail brand and I had been doing lawn and liked this idea of giving affordable fashion to the masses.” The one year store celebratory sale inspired women to duke it out to get hold of outfits to buy and the pictures went viral. “People excited to buy the clothes and so many women wearing them – I enjoy that aspect. However, we don’t leak videos or encourage people to have fights,” clarifies Khadijah. “I don’t want to invade customers’ privacy. My first instinct was ‘Let’s get this video off.’ I don’t want people to think management is making videos in our store.”
The videos went viral so quickly – it was too late. So why does the Creative Director think there was such intense demand for Sapphire? “Probably the product,” she states. “Elan is aspirational and that makes Sapphire aspirational – anyone can walk into a Sapphire store and buy it. It’s got a good design aesthetic. Our high-end customers go to Sapphire too. When they see a sale, people go crazy because they want more of it.”
“We are setting trends and not following them. We have raised the standard for quality and innovation in design. People have come to expect international standards from local design houses because we set that bar,” states the entrepreneur proudly. “Our marketing campaigns and fashion shows similarly have set us apart from other design houses and have created a stir. I think in any industry there are a few trendsetters and many followers, Elan enjoys the reputation of being a trendsetting Pakistani fashion design house and that naturally sets us apart.”
The designer’s personal touch is in every detail of her work. “I am quite particular about models and photography. I feel really strongly about who can represent the brand,” states the 5’ 9.5 slim designer who herself looks fabulous in the clothes she designs. “I’ve worked with all the best photographers and models in Pakistan and continue to work with them according to what I think I need from a certain campaign. I have photographers slotted in my mind for the kind of work technique they have.”
“I always design collections based on my personal predilection,” she adds. “There is pretty much nothing that I make that I could never imagine myself wearing.”
When she goes out, she likes to wear sharp, structured looks mostly in black and neutral colours, accessorised with “statement pieces” to add a little oomph to her look.
So who is Khadijah’s favourite designer? “I think Raff Simons as head of Dior was exceptional. I also admire Giorgio Armani, Alber Elbaz and Elie Saab and labels like Rodarte and Marchesa,” she reveals. “Out of the contemporary brands, The Row, Victoria Beckham, Chalayan, Roksanda Ilincic, Kaufman Franco, Haider Ackermann, Acne, Rag and Bone, Carven are some I really like wearing.”
Ambitious, hard-working and on a roll, the designer, who is affectionately known as Dija or Deej, is determined to leave a legacy. “Last year, I got two awards – one from the Chamber and one from the Women’s Entrepreneurship Council. I felt really proud to have been in the company of such accomplished women, some of them decades older than myself,” she states. “I want to be remembered for changing the way design was conceptualised and perceived in Pakistan,” she adds. “I was recently approached by a girl who told me she loved what I had done, I looked at her wondering what she was referring to. Then, she said you’re the one who ‘invented’ silver worked bridals. I laughed, but I was happy to hear that.”
However, first, she wants to step back before going full throttle forward. “My daily career is really fast paced and ever changing. It has never plateaued since I started around nine years back,” she explains. “I manage different teams of people so there is a huge sense of responsibility. At work, I’m usually seen zipping around from one space to another having sometimes three to four different meetings simultaneously. My office is an open space. It’s a big desk in the middle of the design studio and I’m constantly surrounded by my team.”
“We have the same design team for both Sapphire and Elan. There are set timetables for both brands and everything is planned accordingly.” Timing and discipline are key to heading two high demand brands and those characteristics were instilled in this designer from a young age. “My maternal grandparents Nuzhat and Asif Nawaz raised me. I was excessively loved and pampered growing up but given my grandfather’s army background I was also extremely disciplined,” she recalls her youth. “My grandfather was a role model for me and that made me quite driven and authoritative.”
“My New Year’s resolution was to be more organised and to have time for myself in 2016. The last year was an aggressive year for me as far as work was concerned. I had a brand and started a second one and did a lot of work. I had no time for myself. I did nothing for myself. Out of 12 hours, I work 8-9 hours. My life has been frustrating. Every five seconds someone reaches out to me and wants something. I’m working on changing that.”
So what does “me” time look like to Khadijah? “I like to spend my Sundays in the winter lying curled up in front of a log fire with a good book and some chocolate.” Her favourite foods include crispy duck and pancakes, nihari and “good” Khao Suey anytime anywhere. Her favourite song is One by U2 and she is an avid volleyball player.
As a trendsetter renowned for leading change, it will be inspiring to see her transform her life to one where she works less and spends more time enjoying her other interests. Although, more likely, the talented multi-tasking designer might end up heading three brands at the same time! Either way, we can’t wait to see what she comes up with next!
INTERVIEW: T.U. DAWOOD
PHOTOGRAPHS: IRFAN YOUNAS