The first time I interviewed designer Mohsin Naveed Ranjha, he had just collaborated on a menswear shoot with Bollywood superstar Ranveer Singh.
This was about three years ago, the actor had just married Deepika Padukone and Indo-Pak relations were still somewhat cordial. Suddenly, this shoot surfaced, hot off the streets of London, on the cover of the popular Indian film magazine Filmfare. Who was this Pakistani designer, everyone wondered, as did I, who had invested so heavily into working with Bollywood’s reigning hero?
It turned out that he was a fledgling in the field, operating from Gujranwala and intent on dreaming big. He had made his catwalk debut some time ago at Hum TV’s Bridal Couture Week (BCW), following it up with more shows and campaigns.
Following that last interview, Mohsin continued to hone his fashion game. Relations with India soured and ‘MNR’, his label, sought out collaborations with local stars, everyone from a Mahira Khan to a Maya Ali. He advertised, took part in more shows and set up a swanky, glamorous store at a prime location in Lahore.
He burst on to the fashion scene only about three years ago, in a burst of Punjabi bling and Bollywood. But Mohsin Naveed Ranjha has only gone from strength to strength professionally. Some established names may still snicker behind his back, but the boy from Gujranwala who dreams of opening shop in the UK hardly has time to worry about them anymore
“How about a story on the boy from Gujranwala who made it big?” PR people would sometimes suggest to me as MNR came increasingly into focus. I just thought that it was a rather predictable peg. Eight years into his career, there is a lot more to be discussed with Mohsin Naveed Ranjha than merely the city he started out from.
My last recollection of his work, for instance, is from two years ago, when he had put out a whopping 65-piece collection on to the ramp at the PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Couture Week. His wedding entourage of models had swirled out in clouds of bling to the tune of upbeat Punjabi music, some even breaking out into a bhangra. The show had wrapped up with celebrities Maya Ali and Sheheryar Munawar walking together.
“Such a tamasha,” a senior designer had snickered.
I had wondered whether the disdain stemmed from a puritanical love for fashion or whether there was a semblance of insecurity at play. The tamasha, I knew, had been a huge hit on social media and possibly hauled in sales for MNR. Commercially, the brand was beginning to cut deep and wide into the lucrative bridal fashion pie.
Mohsin observes to me, “The commercial aspect to business cannot be ignored. No artist can survive without commercial success. If my business is growing, I don’t need an award to substantiate my success.”
I’m talking to Mohsin in the evening, after he has wrapped up work at his atelier. With the wedding season swinging in, notwithstanding the omnipresent Covid-19, he tells me that his studio is ‘fully booked’. Is your clientele primarily from your hometown Gujranwala, I ask him. “It’s mostly from Lahore. We’re a bit too fashionable for most of Gujranwala,” he says.
He tells me that, in a usual work week, he ricochets between Lahore, where he has his flagship store, and Gujranwala, the location for his manufacturing unit. Scanning the time between our last interview and this one, does he feel that his business has grown by virtue of social media advertising?
“I think that it has been more via word of mouth,” says Mohsin. “I cater to many of my customers personally, I listen to their requirements and suggestions and I’m very scared of delivering late. I try my very best to make sure that, if I have an order for a bridal design, it gets delivered right on time.”
Ideally this should be a no-brainer. Obviously, a bridal design ordered for a wedding needs to be delivered well in time for the bride to try it on and then wear it on her big day. Lately, though, social media has been rife with complaints regarding certain top-tier local brands that have ruined customers’ weddings because of their inefficiencies. Mohsin names some of them — although we shall not be mentioning them in print — and laughs.
“I’m thankful to them for delaying orders so much, making so many of their customers come to us! On a more serious note, brides are under so much pressure. There have frequently been times when a girl has come to me several months before her wedding and placed an order. She is excited, talkative and very friendly. Sometime later, when the wedding date is closer and she has to come in for fittings, she is a different person.
“She is more quiet and evidently stressed out. Perhaps the boy’s family is acting up or she’s just distressed by the notion of her life about to go through such a huge change. I don’t want to add to her tension by delaying the outfit for her big day.
“I think that a lot of big brands today get so swept up in their egos that they cease to value their customers,” he says. “It’s so pointless. How will we move beyond Pakistan and extend our businesses internationally if we are unable to satisfy our markets here?”
Most of our senior designers like to make fun of new entrants rather than offer support. What they don’t realise is that they are so established that no one can take their place now. They don’t need to feel insecure. There is nothing wrong with giving someone genuine advice. If only someone had come to me when I debuted and told me that I shouldn’t worry and just design what I like, it would have helped me immensely.”
I observe to him that he, also, has often been a victim of the fashion fraternity’s egos.
MNR’s burgeoning clientele is undeniable and, yet, some of the top players from fashion’s ‘it’ circle are very haughty towards him. Designers he has asked for advice from have snickered behind his back. They have put down his work when he is not around. Mohsin is aware of this — but he says that he isn’t bothered.
“It doesn’t bother me, although it has made me determined that, when I have seniority status in the industry, I will be there to help out newcomers,” he says.
“Sometimes, all it takes is a pat on the back. I remember when I showcased for the first time at BCW, my collection was unbelievably bad. It was because I had tried to cram every sort of design into what I had created in a bid to please the media, customers and a few others.
“Most of our senior designers like to make fun of new entrants rather than offer support. What they don’t realise is that they are so established that no one can take their place now. They don’t need to feel insecure. There is nothing wrong with giving someone genuine advice. If only someone had come to me when I debuted and told me that I shouldn’t worry and just design what I like, it would have helped me immensely.”
Does he design what he likes now, at least? “Yes, only what I like!” he says. “My latest menswear range is exactly according to my taste, following a very Punjabi ethos. So many people have appreciated it.”
Bollywood and Beyond
Spiralling back in time, I recall him telling me that Ranveer Singh had been extremely professional, arriving on time and being very courteous. Are local celebrities just as professional?
“Some of them are. Others are on a high horse, trying to prove that they are better than anyone else,” Mohsin replies, proceeding to recount a horror story.
“I was once doing a shoot in Sri Lanka with two Indian models, Aimal Khan and Sadaf Kanwal from Pakistan. Sadaf took off my lehnga in the middle of the road and left it there, walking off once her work was done. She was wearing leggings underneath, but she did not need to be so careless with my designs. I think that she was just trying to prove that she was better than the others there. All the other models took off the clothes after the shoot, hung them in zippered bags and returned them to me.”
Does he think that the Ranveer Singh shoot particularly helped steamroll him into the spotlight? “It did,” he confirms, “but then people liked my clothes. Customers came to me and then recommended me to their friends. I now have so many clients in India and the UK who order from me because their friends have told them about me.
“I’m now about to launch an unstitched formals collection, which includes designs for shalwar qameez, peshwaz and even lehngas and ghararas, at a fraction of the price that we charge for our bespoke designs. I hope that it does well.”
If cross-border relations hadn’t waned, he says that he had had another colossal Bollywood collaboration in mind.
Why does he need to work with Indian actors, I ask him. Evidently, he feels that it ‘creates excitement’.
“It also puts us on the international map. I’m planning to open my store in the UK next year. I need to keep pushing my brand and my country forwards. Why shouldn’t international players like H&M collaborate with Pakistani designers the way they have started working with India?”
I’m surprised that Mohsin is considering setting up shop in the UK and not in Dubai, which is much more nearby, or even Karachi. “I will open in Karachi soon. I may have to modulate my aesthetic according to the Karachi clientele but, when I launch there, it’ll be to stay,” he says. “As for Dubai, it isn’t too far away. Customers come from there to my studio in Lahore all the time.”
Does he also participate in the multi-designer exhibits that sometimes take place in Dubai, collating brands from India and Pakistan on to clothing racks, in a single venue?
“No. I know that exhibits in Dubai do very well for a lot of Pakistani brands but I really don’t believe in packing my designs into a suitcase and hanging them on racks in an auditorium.
“I’d rather cater to clientele on my own, in my studio or online. And if I feel that my market needs to grow in a location, I’d rather set up my own shop there. It may take longer, but I’ll be doing it my way.”
That’s Mohsin Naveed Ranjha for you. Dreaming big, and doing it his own way.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 3rd, 2021