How did Khaadi become Pakistani fashion's biggest success story? Shamoon Sultan spills all

Published 04 Jan, 2021 10:52am

Maliha Rehman

The designer gets candid about collaborating with Esra Bilgic, weathering a pandemic as a workaholic and the rise of e-commerce

Photography: Shabaz Shazi | Design by Saad Arifi
Photography: Shabaz Shazi | Design by Saad Arifi

Shamoon Sultan has always been hard to pin down.

His life moves at a hectic pace, with him scuttling from store visits to meetings to, what I imagine to be, massive masterminding sessions, where he devises new ways of ruling the high street. He doesn’t take days off, arrives diligently early everywhere and even confesses to working through weekends.

He’s been doing so for 22-odd years, punctilious to the core, weaving together his design acumen with his knack for business to build a passion project that is now Pakistani fashion’s biggest success story: Khaadi.

It’s admirable — although, on a personal note, it makes coordinating for an interview with him extremely difficult. In the past few months, however, there was a time when I was surprisingly able to reach out to Shamoon more easily, cornering him for an astute quote on the changing ways of the fashion world, or simply a candid phone conversation.

In those early weeks of a countrywide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, when life as we knew it had come to a complete halt, I had laughingly told him that he was finally behaving like a star!

Shamoon, of course, is one of Pakistani fashion’s biggest stars. He can be credited for shaping the Pakistani high street to what it is today and in fashion schools, his particular take on design and business is put forward as a benchmark. Admired — and behind his back, envied — by his peers, Shamoon is right at the top of fashion’s most coveted A-list.

But you wouldn’t know it, if you were to see his regimented work ethic. Stuck at home due to the Covid-19 lockdown, he was finally living the celebrity lifestyle: waking up late, staying up late, maybe brooding a bit. He even ended up watching Netflix.

Shamoon Sultan’s love for challenges has made him one of Pakistani fashion’s biggest stars, with Khaadi right at the top of fashion’s most coveted A-list. But you wouldn’t know it if you were to see Shamoon’s regimented work ethic

“It was a very tough time for me. What kept me going was that just Khaadi wasn’t suffering, the whole world was,” he recalls.

Some months later, having weathered the initial months of the Covid-19-induced terror, life has returned to some semblance of normalcy, and Shamoon’s hectic routine too has resumed.

Malls are open, albeit in socially distanced ways, and Khaadi is launching new collections with great gusto: the usual seasonal line-ups and a special collaboration with Turkish actress Esra Bilgic, the very popular leading lady in the series Dirilis: Ertugrul.

The Esra connection

I ask him the first thing that comes to my mind: why collaborate with Esra when Khaadi has never taken the celebrity route before?

“This could be the beginning of more collaborations with celebrities,” he says. “We didn’t just opt for a famous face. We built an entire collection based on Esra’s personality, and invested a lot of effort into devising the marketing campaign. Working with her at this point in time made a lot of sense. People all over Pakistan have loved the Dirilis: Ertugrul series. The hype has been phenomenal, and even the Prime Minister extended his support to the show.”

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The Esra x Khaadi collection has done very well and the actress looks beautiful, photographed against the backdrop of the Turkish landscape.

Nevertheless, doesn’t he think that the campaign has released a bit too late? The initial Ertugrul frenzy has subsided and, even though Khaadi is the only fashion brand that Esra is working with, she has already been seen multiple times endorsing other local products, including a mobile phone and a housing project.

“It isn’t too late,” he says, adding, “and this was the right time for us. We were creating a special collection dedicated to her and that takes time. Then, we wanted the images to be shot just right, and I could only allow our team to travel to Turkey once it was safe to do so.

“People have loved the collection,” he observes, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a standout line; funky, young, worked with the ethnic details and vibrant colours that are quintessentially Khaadi.

However, I wonder if people are always telling Shamoon that his collections are fabulous, even when they are not quite as successful as Esra x Khaadi…

Being Sultan

“It doesn’t matter what people tell me because I’m always second-guessing myself,” he answers my question. “My team and I discuss everything at length and, when something does well, it only challenges me into figuring out how I can do it even better next time.

“Besides, we are all aware of our own flaws, regardless of what people tell us,” he points out.

So, despite being regarded as a paragon of success in Pakistani fashion, his ego hasn’t gotten bloated out of control?

“No, and there are so many times when I make mistakes, and have to make changes. There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake, as long as we realise it and fix it before things get worse.”

I’m curious about these mistakes made on Khaadi’s road to success, a path that seems to be fairly smooth from my vantage point. I try to guess: was putting an end to the Khaadi Man line of traditional kurtas a mistake?

“The menswear was always a niche product that particularly did well during Eid and wedding season, and halting production was a decision that made sense at that point in time. We had been working on a five-year expansion plan which would have been in motion had the coronavirus pandemic not come along.

“Now, though, I realise that we missed out on a chunk of our market by ending the menswear. The women who come to our stores used to buy clothes for themselves and then, often, they would end up making purchases for their children or the men in their homes. We need to capture that market again.”

Has it been a mistake to open so many colossal stores across Pakistan as well as internationally? The huge rents must make breaking even difficult at times.

“No, I don’t consider it a mistake at all,” says Shamoon. Referring to the 22,000 square feet store in Karachi’s Dolmen City Mall, which opened back in 2016, followed by many more huge retail points, he says, “With that store, we changed the retail experience in Pakistan. Everything cannot be measured in terms of profit and the Khaadi stores have been instrumental in building a brand image.

“Customers come to us not just to shop but also because they identify with the same décor and ambience implemented in every Khaadi store. Even with our international branches, I have never believed in compromising on the location or interiors. We have about 15 or 16 international stores, and I would one day love to add a ‘zero’ to these numbers.”

We didn’t just opt for a famous face. We built an entire collection based on Esra’s personality, and invested a lot of effort into devising the marketing campaign. Working with her at this point in time made a lot of sense. People all over Pakistan have loved the Dirilis: Ertugrul series. The hype has been phenomenal.”

There are 62 Khaadi stores across Pakistan right now. Is he planning to open more?

“Of course, it’s my dream that there should be a Khaadi store in every city in Pakistan. When the coronavirus lockdown took place, 12 Khaadi stores were in the process of getting built in different parts of the country.”

And does this expansion make sense even if demand is low in a certain area?

“A single store is never perceived as a major earner,” Shamoon points out. “The business should be doing well, overall. We can’t really make decisions based on the profits generated in a year or two. In the long run, properly planned out retail outlets are essential for growth, as well as for brand equity.

“The one thing that I’m focusing on right now is to have greater control over the infrastructure of e-retail,” he continues. “The Covid-19 lockdown particularly highlighted how e-commerce is growing in Pakistan, and a significant customer base is now inclined towards shopping online.

“We rely on technology partners to sustain the heavy traffic we get on our e-store and the next step for us is to make the online delivery process more efficient. If food can be ordered online and delivered promptly, then a purchase from Khaadi should also be deliverable within two hours. Our staff should be able to access the Khaadi store nearest to where the online customer is living, identify the products purchased and send them out. From this perspective, the big stores make even more sense, since they are our ‘fulfillment centres’, not just for physical customers but also for those who are online.”

A particularly huge Khaadi store that is opening soon is going to be in the Dolmen City Mall in Karachi, relocating from one extensive retail space to an even larger one.

“We’re hoping to reinvent the wheel with this new store. Every brand has started imitating the classic Khaadi interior, to the point that sometimes I’m unable to tell the difference if I walk into a random store. So now, we’re simply changing our own look, creating a completely different customer experience. I’m very excited about it. In fact, the store would have opened by now had it not been for the coronavirus.”

Weathering the Covid-19 storm

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, put a spanner in the works of most businesses, including the business of fashion. Did Shamoon make changes in stock, reducing certain product lines in order to break even during the initial weeks of lockdown?

“I decided that we needed to concentrate on our core strengths — women’s unstitched fabric and ready-to-wear — in order to survive. The other product lines, from Khaadi Kids to Chapter 2, Khaadi Home, Khaadi Khaas and Kanteen, were put on the backburner until we fully recovered, or at least had greater clarity on how things would be in the future. Now that things are better, we’ll be building up on the other lines again.”

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“It’s not like we hadn’t been through difficult times before,” he observes. “We faced setbacks when the world economy collapsed in 2008, and we endured the political turmoil of Benzair Bhutto’s death in 2007, but we were just a bigger business this time with extensive plans in motion, and at the brink of entering the summer season. So much of our stock was ready, a lot more had been ordered and we had festive collections lined up for Eid.”

Despite the setbacks in the initial months of lockdown, I recall that there were long queues of shoppers outside Khaadi once the market finally opened. Many of Shamoon’s competitors announced sales in order to entice customers but Khaadi, even without an ongoing sale, had crowds lining up.

“It gave me a huge confidence boost and I really had needed one at the time,” he admits.

“It was tempting to announce a sale because we had inventory piled up and there were cash constraints. Even malls were encouraging it because they felt that it would boost customers’ confidence to begin shopping again. However, I felt that it would be too risky for customers, as well as my own staff, if the stores got too crowded.”

What made customers come in droves, then?

“Maybe it was just that shops were allowed to open for just a limited time. Instead of window shopping through different brands before making a purchase, customers simply went and shopped at stores that they trusted.”

The fashion side to the business

The coronavirus pandemic also stalled Shamoon’s plans for fashion shows in 2019. Chapter 2 by Khaadi was scheduled to be part of the designer line-up for Hum Showcase, and the brand was also planning to put out its first ever solo show.

Why had he wanted to fly solo?

“We just wanted to plan out a show that would have Khaadi’s distinctive identity. I think that brands all over the world plan out solos for this reason. They want to showcase not just the clothes, but also their brand image. At fashion weeks, it is always good to be part of a show that features exciting designer names but, lately, there just seems to be no criteria as to who will be featured in the line-up.”

PFDC Fashion Week 2019
PFDC Fashion Week 2019

Many of his recent shows have been centered around Chapter 2, the spin-off that launched under the Khaadi umbrella about three years ago, bringing back the hand-woven fabric that had once formed the very essence of the brand. With its minimalistic trendy approach and relatively higher price points, due to the use of hand-woven fabric, how has the brand been faring compared to the much more commercial Khaadi?

“Chapter 2 will never be for the masses. It has its market but we need to work on it a lot more. The aim is to build a wider understanding and appreciation amongst customers for fabric that is created painstakingly on a handloom.

“I also want to get more creative with Chapter 2, build more diverse lines,” he continues.

I believe that he will be able to do so. In its fledgling years, the niche brand has already won its share of awards and has a loyal clientele. And Shamoon, as he had told me earlier, loves a challenge.

Sometime, in the course of our conversation, he also commented that figuring out how to make the business survive during the coronavirus lockdown had given him ‘one of the best experiences’ of his life.

Why did you not go to Turkey to shoot with Esra Bilgic, I ask him. Many of his contemporaries who had recently worked in collaboration with the Ertugrul actors for fashion shoots had made it a point to travel abroad to meet them — and had taken plenty of selfies in the process!

“I believe in delegating and have a lot of faith in my team,” he says. “One of the rules to business is that you don’t have to get involved unless there’s a crisis, or you need to be a part of strategising.”

There are many more rules to the business of fashion that I have come to know through my successive interviews with Shamoon Sultan over the years. There have been times when I have tried to steer him in other directions — his personal life, likes, dislikes — and yet, somehow, we have always ended up analysing the market, design, the nitty-gritties instead.

He’s passionate about it all but there has also always been a method to his madness, building Khaadi into the behemoth that it is today. Twenty-two years down the line, he’s still raring to go.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 3rd, 2021