Who is Ali Xeeshan? Most people know him as the man with a bizarre taste in headgear.
You will see him wear a Chinese conical hat to a red carpet ceremony or, stranger still, a rooster and an egg on his head. Or he’ll just walk in with a pug in his hand; and if you ask him why, he’ll shrug his shoulders and say: “Just like that.”
But he’s also the man with a jet-setting lifestyle, a globetrotter who dresses the likes of Meesha Shafi, who’s seen at the right parties and who occasionally lands into trouble for losing his cool. He is someone who likes to have a dash of theatrics on the catwalk — accessories at his show have ranged from monkeys to peacocks and from embellished kites to Mickey and Minnie Mouse. And apart from all the hype, coquetry and utter nautanki, Ali is also a designer with a distinctive signature.
Many people don’t realise that. Ali creates a surrealistic atmosphere to get plenty of attention. It has a downside though: this often takes the focus away from the bridal designs that he creates.
In a mostly run-of-the-mill sartorial landscape, the fashion designer stands out. But he often allows his own dramatics to overshadow his work. And people often wonder why...
Why is he so obsessed with making eccentric statements instead of letting his designs do the talking? Six years into his career, he is a well-recognised face and doesn’t always need to make perplexing red carpet appearances. Why does he insist on doing so?
It’s apparently a question he is prepared for as we begin to talk and he instantly replies: “This is how I have always been. I have always loved dramatics. When I was in college, I would wear a scarf round my head like a bow. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it as long as I don’t offend anyone. People may not like it but I have never really bothered about people. The day I begin worrying about what people say, I will lose out on my creativity and begin churning out generic designs.”
In a mostly run-of-the-mill sartorial landscape weighed down by fashion ennui, Ali stands out. Opinions vary regarding his bold aesthetic, but it never goes unnoticed. A case in point was the collection he showed last year at the PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week. Titled Khamoshi, it was bridal design with individualistic verve: florals, horses, peacocks and birds flitting about a multi-coloured canvas and moulded on to unusual but wearable silhouettes. More significantly, it was a collection that highlighted the issue of child marriage with the models walking out in a baraat, clutching stuffed monkeys with locks placed on their lips. You can’t have an Ali Xeeshan collection without a bit of drama.
The unlikely feminist
“I think a fashion week collection needs to present more than merely clothes,” he says. “At this stage of my career, I feel that my clothes should have a social voice and tell a story. The models’ lips were padlocked to symbolise how women in our society are often robbed of their voices and forced to conform. Their personalities are quelled and their lips are shuttered. The stuffed toys hinted at the young age at which girls are sometimes forced to marry.”
“Young brides-to-be often come to my studio and I notice how they are constantly being put down by their families,” he continues. “I once suggested that a girl wear a choker with her bridal dress to which her future mother-in-law accompanying her commented that she wouldn’t look good because she had a frog-like neck."
"I have heard young girls being criticised about their weight, their complexion, for talking too much or even for their nail colours. These girls could go on to become high achievers and live out their dreams and, instead, they just succumb to the pressure. The worst thing is that we notice this happening all around us and, yet, most of us have become immune to it.”
Will his future collections be carrying social messages? “I hope so,” he responds. “I am a very observant person and whatever I see and feel, I try to depict it with my work. I want to give back to society however I can.”
In the same vein, Ali has recently aligned with the SEED Foundation and adopted 13 underprivileged schools in rural Sindh. He will train artists who will teach art to the students there. Eventually, he hopes to handpick students with promising skills and help build their artistic careers. “We are a very talented nation and a lot of us have an inherent talent for the arts. I want to help children hone their skills and take it further.”
The (monkey) business of fashion
Ali’s ideas are laudable, but reverting to his love for theatrics, I mention a recent wedding at which many eyebrows were raised when images from it came out on social media. The mehndi event had an Ali Xeeshan theme with the décor done up with colourful kites, and the bride and groom clutching stuffed monkeys. The couple also chose to walk in with Mickey and Minnie Mouse — the props that Ali had once used at a fashion show some years ago.
This is how I have always been. I’ve always loved dramatics. When I was in college, I’d wear a scarf round my head like a bow. People may not like it but I have never bothered about people. The day I begin worrying about what people say, I will lose out on my creativity.”
“It was very flattering,” Ali tries to laugh it off. “They chose to do it like that.”
He adds: “I have been lucky. There are people who understand my work and business is doing well. For instance, I work very hard on creating surface textures for my clothes. I’ll get fabric block-printed, then have embroideries done over it and layer it with patches, antique embroideries and strategically placed beads and pearls. People tend to associate my work with colours which is why my designs are often chosen to be worn on mehndis and sangeet parties.”
One such party was the much-publicised Urwa-Farhan union where Urwa Hocane wore his design at a celebration preceding the main event. The question that springs to mind: considering how the wedding trended on social media, did his clients, afterwards, come to him with orders for the outfit worn by the actress?
“I didn’t dress her in order to get orders. I truly like her and I didn’t find anything wrong with them getting married in a public way,” he says. “This is the way the world works now and both Urwa and Farhan are public figures. As for orders, my clients usually don’t want to wear clothes that have been seen before. They’d rather wear designs created exclusively for them.”
According to the designer, his burgeoning clientele appreciates the personal attention that he gives to them. “I make sure that I meet every client personally and find out precisely what they want. I like to find out about their backgrounds, the girls’ education and their particular preferences before making suggestions. I think it really helps. Also, my clients appreciate that I regularly show my stuff at fashion weeks. I feel that it has helped my brand grow and my clients now actually wait for fashion weeks before placing orders.”
"I didn’t dress Urwa in order to get orders. I truly like her and I didn’t find anything wrong with them getting married in a public way. This is the way the world works now and both Urwa and Farhan are public figures.”
Ali is a regular participant of the events organised by the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC). But, like many of his peers, is he also thinking of putting up a solo show? “I’d love to stage a solo show but the kind of show I’d want to have will require at least a year of planning. I really want to eventually get round to it.”
In the meantime, we’ll be seeing his latest collection in a few weeks at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week (in early March). And we know precisely what to expect: dramatics, a few incomprehensible statements and Ali’s unique brand of fashion.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 12th, 2017