“We’re creating history,” declared Shamoon Sultan on social media, just a few days before his mega-store launch in Karachi’s Dolmen City Mall.
Spanning 22,000 square feet of quintessentially earthy wooden interiors, the store is stated to be the first of its kind. Winding through widely-spaced partitions, it encompasses the many brands that together make up Khaadi: unstitched cottons, women’s prêt, luxury-pret, menswear, children’s wear and home accessories.
Shamoon may have created history with his new store but in actuality, he has been making it for a long time now. Starting off with a single store in Zamzama way back in 1998, he now has a retail phenomenon on his hands. Internationally, he has spread his feelers to the UK, Malaysia and the UAE. Within Pakistan, he has enamored quite a clientele, paving the way for high-street fashion and taking over a huge chunk of the market. Even in cyberspace, he’s cashing in big time with the web-store slowing down to a crawling pace due to an overload of visitors every time there is a sale or a new collection launch. Today, there are a whopping 39 stores dotted about the country. The most recent one opened a day after the launch of the mega-store, in Rahim Yar Khan.
“I’m exhausted. I had been working day and night to get the Karachi store up and running. It feels incredible to walk into it now and see it filled with customers. This is only the beginning, though,” he promises, helping himself to a slice of cake — he usually refrains from eating sweets but today, he says, is an exception.
Considering that there is a Khaadi outlet at every retail hotspot in the country, are these huge stores worth the building and overhead expenses? “Yes, it is the next step for us,” he says resolutely. “It is important for our growing customer-base and for the brand.”
In an industry where designers’ celebrity status often exceeds their business prowess, Shamoon stands out as a rare powerhouse. Still, he remains deliberately low-profile. You may spot him at the occasional fashion week or soiree but he’s hardly ever going to be on the cover of a glossy magazine or sit through one of those all-too-prevalent, utterly mundane TV interviews.
“It’s not necessary,” he observes. “One day I will die but the label has to live on. People don’t need to know about me; they need to know about my brand.”
Shamoon usually achieves whatever he sets out to do. “Khaadi will always retail under its own identity,” he had told me once. Today, he has outlets in regions where most fashion boutiques don’t venture; Mandi Bahauddin and Mirpur, for instance. Do the stores in smaller cities manage to make ends meet? “A lot of them do very well,” he says. “People have come and hugged me when I have set up a store in their city. There is a definite demand in smaller regions but it’s just that many retailers haven’t realised it yet. I don’t believe in flashy stores in urban centers and dingy store-rooms in other parts of the country. Our stores all over have similar interiors. However, we do modulate our stock. In bigger cities, prêt sells very well while in smaller regions, the demand for unstitched fabric is huge.”
People have come and hugged me when I have set up a store in their city. There is a definite demand in smaller regions but it’s just that many retailers haven’t realised it yet.
With lawn, he understands Pakistani women’s predilection for buying an unstitched suit and getting it stitched according to a design they like. It’s why he’s been placing great focus on unstitched fabric over the past few years.
To propel prêt sales, he sometimes used to hang full-sleeved tunics alongside a single sleeveless one, fashioned from the same fabric. “The full-sleeved ones sell really well,” he explains. “Most women don’t wear sleeveless but they do like the way it looks. They end up buying the full-sleeved version. It’s human nature to want something that you can’t have.”
What other plans does he have for the future? “I want to go back to retailing the hand loomed fabric that we started off with. I have retained our older store in Dolmen City Mall and plan to dedicate it to stitched and unstitched hand loomed cotton. I also want to place greater focus on variants for kids, men, home etc.”
In the days to come, Shamoon hopes that the luxury-wear line for women Khaadi Khaas will become more visible at red carpet affairs. “Integrating with cinema is also becoming very important,” he says.
Also, from now on, Khaas is going to be a regular in the fashion week spin-cycle. The brand is showcasing at the upcoming PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week as well as later, at Fashion Pakistan Week. What has made him such an avid fashion week enthusiast when earlier he had always been a sporadic attendee?
“There was a time when fashion weeks would lay emphasis on bringing in so-called international buyers. I found the notion ridiculous. We need to focus on selling to the 200 million people in our own country before we look elsewhere.”
“There was a time when fashion weeks would lay emphasis on bringing in so-called international buyers who were expected to miraculously place orders and improve export. I found the notion ridiculous. We need to focus on selling to the 200 million people in our own country before we look elsewhere. Now, at least, fashion weeks have become more business-oriented, following an intrinsic approach rather than looking outwards.”
He isn’t entirely satisfied though. “I hope to bring about changes so that there is just one fashion week per season. It could be divided into two days for Karachi and Lahore respectively, with different people handling the shows for either city. There should also be better content, with great fashion on the catwalk rather than the run-of-the-mill. Thirty days before the show, designers should be called in to share their collections and even if an established atelier presents something mundane, it should be rejected. At recent fashion weeks, I have sat through days when there are one or two line-ups that are great while the rest are barely tolerable.”
Testing the competition
Does he feel the same way about the burgeoning milieu of high-street brands, many of them keenly trying to replicate his brand’s desi-chic vibe? “There are some that are great. In the big cities, I think Sapphire and Sana Safinaz have made a promising start,” he says.
In the market for lawn, where his label has snowballed into a powerful force, he considers that his main competition comes from textile mills. “They are lawn pioneers and have decades of experience — although we’re doing pretty well too,” Shamoon smiles.
It is the label’s sheer output and sales that jostled the brand out of the ‘designer-wear’ bracket in the nominations at last year’s Lux Style Awards. It was a first for the brand that had won 10 years in a row in the ‘High Street’ category. “We’re not a mill at all,” he protests. “We source our fabric. My team comes from a design background. If one has to define us, I’d say that we’re entrepreneurs. I do think that we should have been nominated. The LSAs are important; for furthering the business of fashion and improving brand image.”
LSAs or not, the brand’s doing just fine. Homegrown, nationalistic, savvy to the core, it is Pakistani fashion’s greatest success story.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2016