Fashion weeks, cover page stories and networking at all the ‘it’ events — many in the Pakistani fashion industry assume that these are the stepping stones that ultimately lead to fame and fortune. A look at designer Maria B.’s career trajectory indicates otherwise.

All that glitters isn’t gold and, sometimes, the most celebrated faces are merely glamorous figureheads, barely managing to stay afloat with their businesses. The coronavirus pandemic particularly made this observation ring true, with many famous labels struggling to survive when business was shut off for a few months. The Maria B. empire — as I discover, it certainly is one — weathered the economic turmoil with relative ease.

Maria stepped away from fashion weeks some years ago, doesn’t have much of an interest in getting mileage from critics and you’ll hardly ever see her at a major awards ceremony or a swinging, star-studded after-party. Her focus, instead, has been on building her customer-base and it has worked well for her.

There are some 40 Maria B. stores across Pakistan right now. The label’s repertoire extends from multiple collections of unstitched suits to pret, formal-wear, bridal-wear priced lower than what most designers charge, accessories and a just-launched jewellery line. She’s just returned from a trip to Turkey, latching on to Pakistan’s Ertugrul fever by shooting with some of the stars from the show.

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“When I started out 21 years ago, there was a point when I felt very disheartened,” recounts Maria. “I felt that fashion critics were constantly overlooking my work and refusing to acknowledge me. It was also a tough time for me personally. I was a young mother and had just gone through a divorce. My mother told me back then that I had to focus just on what I loved to do and ignore everything else. That’s what I have done.”

Business 101

Twenty-one years later, her mother’s sound advice has led Maria into becoming one of Pakistani fashion’s biggest success stories. In fact, for new designers hoping to make it big, there are facets to her career that can serve as a guidance manual on how to work the business of fashion.

For instance, a particular phenomenon that I find riveting is how a random search on Facebook or Instagram reveals hundreds of ‘Maria B. resale’ accounts. Evidently, there are women around the world who buy Maria B. unstitched suits and then sell them online at a profit. Some of them also give the option of getting the suits stitched according to customers’ requirements.

“I know that a lot of these women buy suits from us in bulk, at wholesale rates,” says Maria. “Then, they either sell them at the usual price that we charge and earn some profit or sometimes, if it’s a popular print, they’ll charge extra.”

Doesn’t she mind?

“Not at all. We’re empowering women, many of whom are earning from these small businesses while managing their homes and children. They are buying the suits from us, fair and square.”

And why would she mind? Maria B. may not have expanded to international retail outlets — she hopes to, soon — but these hundreds of women, around the world, have virtually become her international stockists, with access to the niche market that buys Pakistani unstitched suits. In addition to the official e-store, the brand is simply becoming accessible to a much wider online customer base. What could be better?

Many years of hard work have been invested into making the brand so popular. “I still create all the designs of my unstitched suits myself,” Maria tells me. “There is so much competition in the market, I have to make sure that every collection stands out.”

This is quite an effort on her part, considering that her label churns out an endless procession of unstitched collections, running the gamut from summer lawn to Eid formals, winter linens and luxury wedding-wear. My interview with Maria, in fact, is taking place on a weekend, which is when she stays at home and sketches out designs for upcoming unstitched collections.

“I remember taking out my first lawn some 15 odd years ago,” she says. “I had just one designer assisting me with the collection. We painted all the patterns ourselves and then took the designs to Faisalabad for printing. From one collection to now so many, a lot has changed since then. I’m training a team of designers who will eventually take on more responsibility for the unstitched lines. I already have a very capable team handling the pret collections. My eventual goal is to train teams and then delegate work to them. The brand cannot die with me, it has to go on even after I’m not in this world.”

She is now at a point where she is thinking of passing on her legacy but, earlier, Maria B. started out just like many of her peers, a fresh graduate from the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design (PIFD), opening up her first retail store, showing at fashion weeks and visiting exhibits around the world, selling clothes right out of a suitcase.

“That was when I was establishing my brand and was primarily creating East-West fusion-wear,” she says. “I would pack entire collections and visit mainstream exhibits such as the Asiana Bridal Show in London and the annual APNA conference in the US.

“I don’t go anymore because I feel that the brand is established. If anyone from outside of Pakistan wants to buy from us, they can easily access our online store. To date, we have a very strong overseas clientele.”

Similarly, she has opted out from the fashion week rigmarole. For one, she feels that she doesn’t need the media mileage of a fashion show now that customers are well-acquainted with her work. “I think that I can get the same traction simply by pushing forward a creative fashion shoot on social media,” says Maria. “Also, I never enjoyed fashion weeks. I felt drained out by all the fakeness around me.

“What I did enjoy was getting creative with a fashion week collection. I have realised, however, that cutting-edge experimental designs may get critical acclaim but no one in Pakistan wears them. I now find it far more challenging and satisfying to reign in my creativity and work within boundaries, creating designs that will appeal to my particular clientele.”

Power player

We move on to another, very interesting aspect of her business. Even while she has been building her own brand, Maria has also kept a close eye on the competition — and simply partnered with it! Clustered within the Maria B. umbrella is her own production as well some of Pakistan’s most prestigious fashion brands — she did not allow me to name them — working in partnership with her. In some cases, her company is a business partner, owning a certain fraction of the fashion label’s shares and, at other times, Maria B. invests and is a business partner in a certain part of the brand, such as unstitched lawn.

“It’s not easy to survive in the fashion industry and there have been times when we have seen potential in a brand and decided to step in as investors,” explains Maria. “It is lucrative, but I believe that we also play a significant role by providing guidance to the brand on how to go about their business. My organisation has a lot of experience and market know-how and it can help other brands to also strengthen their positions.”

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Utilising this very market know-how, Maria has never opted to open an expansive, shiny store in a mall — she’d rather open a tasteful, sensibly-sized one. “What’s the point of increasing our overheads with a huge store?” she asks. “We just need a store that is big enough to stock our various lines.”

Did she end up decreasing production when the market went into lockdown due to Covid-19? “In some ways, yes,” says Maria. “We shifted the numbers, producing more of what we thought would sell better at the time and less of what we felt people would not want to buy right then. We didn’t launch a new unstitched collection that was in the pipeline and we also halted production of the new ‘Maria B. Jewellery’ line which is going to be releasing now. It is all locally crafted with lightweight pieces, as well as really formal ones that could be worn at a wedding, mostly under a 20,000 rupees price range.”

Coming back to the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, she continues, “We were lucky that even when our stores were shut down, our online sales were doing well. We don’t produce big volumes and our shops are also not huge and all this helped reduce our overheads. Perhaps the business didn’t grow the way it did last year but at the same time, it didn’t get sized down either.”

The Covid-19 controversy

Our discussion on Covid-19 reminds me of a controversy that went viral at a time when panic was particularly high. Maria was blamed for having sent home a cook working in her house who had tested positive. The controversy fizzled out when test reports later revealed that, on reaching his hometown, the cook had gotten himself tested again and the results came out negative.

By then, though, amidst much hue and cry, the police had temporarily held Maria’s husband in custody and she had released a video on social media, saying that they had been treated unfairly.

Read: Maria B's defence of letting corona positive cook flee may have made things worse

The controversy quickly swept through Twitter, the video getting shared through WhatsApp and it became the subject of multiple memes. There were plenty of observations regarding the glittering chandelier under which Maria had filmed her video. “Yes, that chandelier did get quite famous, didn’t it?” she laughs. “It was a tough time for us because we had genuinely been wanting to do what was right. I feel that I was particularly targeted, being a successful businesswoman. No one gave me the benefit of the doubt, or tried to understand what it’s like to be a mother with a young child in that situation.”

In retrospect, would she have done things differently? “Absolutely. I would have called up the lab or gotten him admitted in Lahore. But all this happened at a time when the coronavirus pandemic had just begun spreading through Pakistan. I didn’t know exactly what to do if someone tested positive. My husband and I just did what we thought was right.”

A ‘#banMariaB’ hashtag had also trended for a while, in the wake of the controversy. Were sales affected? “Not at all,” she claims. “I have a very loyal customer base and they all understand who I am.

“The entire episode was painful but it also made me stronger. It made me realise that all that mattered was my intention and that I couldn’t do anything about people defaming me, except stay rooted to my beliefs.”

She’s been through similar ordeals before. Some years ago, one of her stores was slandered for not taking anti-dengue precautions following a rainy night. “It was so baseless,” remembers Maria. There have been other times, in her earlier years, when she’s borne the brunt of bad reviews in fashion shows. Her label also tends to get ignored in awards nominations.

“I feel no need to tell awards committees about how good my brand is,” Maria points out. “All I need to do is convince my customers.”

On the face of it, they, at least, seem to be quite convinced.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 1st, 2020

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