'Lack of individuality brings in mediocrity', says Pakistani fashion designer Iqbal Hussain

He says that finding one's USP is key to thriving in the business

By Sadiq Saleem

Published: Thu 6 Apr 2023, 3:03 PM

A few years ago, there was a rumour doing the rounds that Iqbal Hussain is into black magic. This was perhaps the only way to explain the ‘sudden’ rise of his brand. Of course, those who were feeding the rumour mills had not seen any of his work. They were clearly not aware of his struggles over the years and that it did not happen overnight. He has been into the business of fashion for over a decade and is steadily serving his loyal clientele, which mostly resides outside Pakistan.

It was only when he altered his social media presence, the socialites, Pakistani celebrities, and Bollywood stylists took notice and with each new post, he attracted them like bees to hive. It is said that each of his new collection is so different from the previous one that it is hard to believe that the same person conceived it. There may be a notion in the market about his brand being unaffordable; but the high-heeled fashionistas view spending on this brand as an investment. They believe that getting their hands on even a single piece from this atelier would assure them a top spot in the best dressed lists. And he has always proved them right.

Being an introvert, he firmly believes that his work should do the talking, which is why there are still many people out there who have not seen the man behind the brand Iqbal Hussain. We caught up with him in Dubai where he exhibited his latest collection and traced his journey which is structured and asymmetrical at the same time. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Let’s address the elephant in the room. You have been in the business for over 15 years, but your name caught the buzz only a few years ago. What took you so long to embrace the limelight?

Let’s say, I never wanted to rush things: I wanted to do it the right way and at the right time. I have always preferred exclusivity over mass appeal. As a brand, I had set some goals and I was happy that they were being achieved as I went along. Also, I started with limited resources and funds and tried to achieve the growth as organically as possible. My loyal clients would keep me engaged throughout the year and I never really felt the need to work on my visibility. But now that we have expanded significantly in the past few years, I believe it is time.

Who, according to you, has had a major influence on your craft?

I would say the women in my home have had a major influence on me in my growing years. My eldest sister has always been extremely fashionable and kept herself updated with the latest trends. My mother was fond of saris and ghararas, and she had collected and cherished some exquisite pieces over the years. I used to look up to them and eventually started taking note of their fashion sense. While growing up, I always wanted to become a hairstylist or a makeup artist. Unfortunately, my family disapproved of that choice. Another influence was television, especially MTV: it had a vibe of a funky, rebellious teen and I remember I would watch the shows and the stylish VJs for hours. Movie stars and their images in magazines had an everlasting impact on my generation. In the late 90s when I got my first computer, I learnt photoshopping and reinvented the looks of models, though I had zero training in fashion. As I got more involved into the fashion industry, I started observing the creations of Jean Paul Gautier, John Galliano and Christian Lacroix and took great inspiration from their work.

But did you not start as a menswear designer? What made you shift to women’s wear when that market was already saturated?

The year was 2004 and I started with a humble tailoring set-up in my home. I had also taken up a part-time job to fund my design house. I had started with menswear, but there were very few men who were ready to experiment with colours and cuts. I ended up doing the standard shalwar kameez in wash-n-wear to cater to everyday needs of working males and that became very frustrating. It's only when I dabbled in women’s wear that things began to get exciting, and soon I figured that this is where I belonged. I did not opt for the machine embroidery rather I deployed the traditional craftsmanship and handwork such as marodi, kaamdani, vasli etc. in my work and that I believe struck the chord with those who understood its value.

Your brand is known to be an expensive one. Does it not bother you that only a segment of the society can afford your creations and will thus have limited interest in your work?

I am selling luxury, and my clothes guarantee serious levels of style and pride. I do not go for mass production and there are only limited pieces available in each design. I feel proud that an Iqbal Hussain piece is not easy to replicate because of its intricacy: we use multiple techniques on each piece, making it unique in its own way. And owning a unique piece is a luxury in itself.

You have been approached by several international celebrities, including stars from Bollywood. Do you see that as a mark of progress?

Of course, it is a mark of progress; these artists and stylists are working internationally, and it humbles me that they have reached out. But I am not jumping the gun. My main focus is to mark my brand’s presence and my client base stronger in Pakistan. My clothes have a very strong Pakistani stamp on them. It is for the women of Pakistan by the craftsmen of Pakistan. That is my immediate goal and everything else will fall in place in the due course.

What, according to you, is missing in Pakistani fashion scene? Why have only a few designers emerged in the last decade?

Aren’t designers dime-a-dozen? On a more serious note, I feel we have plenty of talented designers. Things only go wrong when everyone wants to clone each other’s work and think that the other person’s formula would work for them as well. Identifying the differentiator you bring onto the table and sticking to it is the key to success in this business. Lack of individuality brings in mediocrity.

One person you wish to design for, and why?

That would hands down be Pat Mcgrath: one of the world’s most influential makeup artists. She’s has been my inspiration throughout my journey: her obsession with beauty and fashion ignited my passion. I would also love to design for Malala Yousafzai. I feel she truly represents the progressive side of Pakistan

What is your take on celebrities wearing only a particular designer? Don’t you think it brings in monotony?

Honestly, I think it's a personal choice. The bond between a celebrity and a designer can be very personal. Understanding someone’s body, figuring out what works for them and then creating something specific is a long process that requires commitment and trust. The brainstorming sessions can form friendships and the parties involved find a level of comfort. This is why most stars work with a particular designer. However, I also feel, that celebrities sticking to a single designer can turn boring. A celebrity should ideally be brave enough to experiment with fashion.

Why do Asian designers prefer to stick to bridal wear?

I don’t blame them. Bridals have huge market and margins. Have you seen the kind of money people spend on weddings in Pakistan and India? The wedding business is probably the only business that is not affected by the economic crisis in the country. It’s ironic but sadly its true.

Sadiq Saleem is a Dubai-based entertainment writer.


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