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Fashion’s stylist monopoly

Fashion’s stylist monopoly

Cacophony reigns backstage at local fashion weeks. Models, make-up artistes and designers rush through a jigsaw of illuminated mirrors, trying on clothes, working out accessories and getting ready for a back-to-back line-up of fashion shows. Time and again, the stylists are seen consulting reference sheets, with details on eye make-up, hairstyles and the like.

Sometimes, a designer has a change of heart before his or her show, wanting the models’ looks to be changed. The backstage team quickly improvises. In recent times, they have also often relied on the efficient powers of WhatsApp in order to overcome technical glitches. Images are clicked and forwarded on to their head honcho, Nabila, who may be sitting several oceans away but is online to make sure things go smoothly.

Drifting onwards, one veers into the alleyways of androon Lahore where Ahsan Rahim’s upcoming Teefa in Trouble is currently being shot, starring Ali Zafar and Maya Ali. Technology, once again, comes into play when creating the actors’ looks. “Smear the kohl around Maya’s eyes a bit more,” Nabila advises to her team via Skype from her vantage point in Dubai.

Nabila’s make-up team, apparently, is omnipresent in every major project, regardless of whether the stylist herself is in the country or not. Geography has been deemed negligible in this age of science. It is the major factor that enables Nabila, on the verge of expanding internationally, to devise hair and make-up looks for an increasingly clustered fashion calendar and film projects.

“Before an event or any other project, I decide upon different looks for each segment and my team sits through detailed sessions with me,” she explains. “It is for the purpose of catering to mainstream events that I maintain a big team and have trained them so that they can efficiently get 36 models ready for multiple fashion shows. I have invested into a huge stock of wigs, shoes and wardrobe that help enhance the looks of the models and the celebrities that I style. Ways are devised to make changes to hairpieces within 30 seconds and to get 16 models ready within six minutes. This is, simply, a passion for me. If I am there in the country, I am working with my team backstage. If I am not, we still have everything worked down to a science.”

Where art thou, stylists?

The effort shows in the looks created on the catwalk; sophisticated and even-toned. And yet, with Nabila’s N-Pro styling the lion’s share of major events, it makes one wonder why other stylists aren’t taking things forward.

Fashion and film are rapidly mushrooming in Pakistan and a single team of stylists, no matter how efficient, can’t possibly continue to mastermind every possible project. Also, while N-Pro’s creative talents are evident, shouldn’t we be seeing more aesthetics in the spotlight put forward by a versatile milieu of experts?

It isn’t even as if Pakistan has a dearth of stylists. Depilex, with its montage of 51 salons nationwide, occasionally takes part in fashion events. Sabs used to feature quite often at local fashion weeks. Tariq Amin, once constantly in the public eye, now rarely emerges to style the odd event or two.

Saima Rashid Bargfrede was often involved in events in the past and continues to style mainstream shoots. Ather Shahzad are old pros at fashion shoots and Shammal Qureshi of Toni & Guy North and Saeeda Mandviwala of Toni & Guy South Pakistan flit back and forth into the limelight. Young stylists such as Omayr Waqar and Hannan Siddique are increasingly being noticed for their work with well-known stars such as Mahira Khan and Humaima Malick.

There’s no doubt that an association with the lacquer of fashion and show business generates great mileage for a salon. Why aren’t more stylists, then, coming on board mainstream fashion weeks, awards shows and film projects?

“Everybody has a different business model and a three- or four-day-long fashion week isn’t viable for us,” observes Redah Misbah, Creative Head at Depilex. “We would want to put our best foot forward at such a mainstream event and that would mean taking our most artistic, creative staff out of our salons to work backstage. The salons would inevitably suffer.”

“Shorter events work better for us,” she continues. “We have been part of the trends shows in the Hum Network Bridal Couture Week series and back when the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) enlisted separate designers per day for their fashion weeks, we would come on board. Even now, we often take part in solo shows. Recently, we styled solo shows for Studio S and Fabbit and I felt that our work truly got noticed. On a fashion week pass, our logo may be one amongst many and may not be truly visible. At a solo show, our logo is right there, next to the designer’s name.”

Additionally, Shahzad Raza of Ather Shahzad points out the lack of creative satisfaction that comes from working in present-day fashion shows. “We have to adhere to designers’ requirements and can’t really experiment,” he explains. “There’s nothing very interesting about that. We would love to take part in a show where we can be more creative. In the past, we did get involved in fashion shows but I think the media mileage we now raise through campaigns is quite sufficient. Our salon and photographic work keeps us busy and it is very difficult to set aside several days in our schedule for an event. It also isn’t financially feasible and besides, we haven’t felt particularly inspired by recent fashion shows.”

Won’t the loss in salon business be balanced out by the money earned at fashion week? “Fashion councils pay very small amounts if anything at all,” points out Redah. “That doesn’t work for us.”

A case of economics

There is a general consensus of opinion amongst mainstream stylists that they would be eager to latch on to work at fashion shows should they be paid a suitable wage. “I am expensive,” admits Saima Rashid Bargfrede who is just about to be announced as the brand ambassador for L’Oreal Pakistan for 2017. “I have trained large teams of people and when I have a project, I hire them and pay them handsomely. I make sure that I deliver results but for the experience, expertise and hard work I invest into a business, I need to be paid accordingly.”

“Regardless of this, I have never had fashion week organisers approach me for work,” she says. “Matters have never proceeded to the point that we discuss pay.”

Similarly Saeeda Mandviwala of Toni & Guy South Pakistan points that she would be happy to extend her expertise should organisers be willing to afford her work.

Can’t stylists approach event organisers themselves, pitch their work and name a price? “I am sure they know that I exist,” says a sardonic Tariq Amin. “I refuse to get involved in politics and don’t want to force myself into it. Fashion weeks in Pakistan have become mere variety shows and I don’t think I’d feel particularly proud associating with it. They are like generic advertisements with no editorial voice and no distinctive content. I cater to a niche audience and I always deliver but my work comes with a price. I remember I was once offered the styling of the Veet show but then they decided they didn’t have the budget to afford me.”

Incidentally, recent seasons of the Veet Celebration of Beauty montage have been styled by Nabila’s N-Pro.

The styling monopoly

It doesn’t make sense, though. Why can’t major corporations and TV networks pay a suitable sum to stylists for the time, expertise and equipment that they bring with them? Moreover, how does Nabila manage to keep her business running if she is also being paid such meager sums?

“I consider it a brand-building exercise,” she observes. “We style multiple events, and consequently, my brand is associated with trendsetting fashion. It may mean that I am paid token sums but my work also gets showcased on a platform that generates clientele for me. My salons also suffer when half the team is busy at fashion week but it’s a financial sacrifice that I am willing to make.”

“My team may be dominating the industry at the moment but it doesn’t mean that I have gotten complacent. To the contrary, I feel that my work is particularly in the public eye now and I can’t make mistakes. I can’t copy any make-up trend because God forbid should I do so, I would immediately be caught out on social media! I also think that organisers opt for me because they know that I have a certain clout with models and designers. I understand their psyche, they listen to me and by working with them, I am able to come up with win-win solutions where they like the overall look and the styling still looks distinctive.”

Designer Kamiar Rokni, spokesperson for the PFDC, agrees. “The council has tried out many different formulae; of opting for separate makeup artistes for separate days or separate stylists for individual shows but in all fairness, Nabila trumps the competition with her efficiency and work ethics. Even if she isn’t around, she has built a team of professionals and a brand image and people buy into the brand and trust her aesthetics.”

Designer Rizwan Beyg, who is in the process of organising the three-day long Showcase for Hum Network, adds, “It’s logistically easier to have one stylist on board for all days. The backstage makeup equipment remains the same and designers don’t begin making demands about who they want to style their shows. It’s why we have enlisted N-Pro for our show.”

Ultimately, it results in multiple shows being represented by a single salon. “I agree that I should be mentoring more people right now,” admits Nabila. “I am doing what I do because I have built a team that is capable of taking on the workload. I am also willing to make financial sacrifices in order to build my brand image. More people should do the same. Competition only makes us strive to do better and really, the more the merrier.”

If not merrier, it would certainly allow more diversity on the catwalk. It’s a competitive field which may not make lucrative sense for all stylists. But could organisers of fashion weeks consider raising wages in an effort to present a greater variety of looks on their runways? And can stylists interested in fashion weeks actually make an effort to step up the game, get competitive and shake things up a bit?

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 12th, 2017

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