Designer Ali Xeeshan recently set up a ‘Ladies Master’ shop — a yellow and green little nook with assistant tailors dressed in all-white, whirring away their sewing machines. Taking centre stage is the head ‘master sahab’ Ali Xeeshan himself. In pre-Covid times, the designer would probably have brought this shop onto the runway. Now, however, as the cobwebs are slowly swept off the catwalks, the shop has been rolled out onto social media’s extensive platform.
To the sounds of dhol and boisterous laughter, two of master sahab’s clients turn up at the store in shimmering lehngas and cholis. They both want master sahab’s attention first, and a brief squabble is feigned before a Punjabi rap battle of sorts ensues. It’s a rhyme that has been heard many times before — laden with fun and sarcastic jibes, it's chanted at Punjabi weddings as tradition.
Quirky and frivolous, the two-minute long video is the sort that you end up watching several times and herein lies Ali Xeeshan’s success.
The ‘Ladies Master’ collection is a tribute to Xeeshan's own long-standing master sahab who passed away last year. “He had always been such an essential part of every campaign, every show that I did,” he remembers. “I just wanted to dedicate this latest line to him.”
In doing so — and creating a peppy video and an eye-catching backdrop for the fashion shoot — Xeeshan managed to make his particular collection memorable amongst the many, many bridal wear campaigns that are churned out on a daily basis on social media. While design houses may dabble with new colour ranges and embellishment techniques, the bridal silhouette tends to keep to classic, consumer-friendly lines, sticking to the gharara, lehnga-choli or, at most, the sari. It all eventually merges into a forgettable cloud of bling that one scrolls through on their social media feed.
“We did push our own boundaries here and there,” says Xeeshan. “This is the first time that I included a pishwas in a couture line. The stark colour ranges dominating most of the collection are my signature.”
Most of the collection, in fact, is signature Ali Xeeshan with patterns and embellishment techniques that are reminiscent of previous collections. One outfit has an eye-popping green and black combo for the cutting-edge mehndi bride, another features multiple layers of scarlet and plum for one's wedding day. Perhaps you'd like the tangerine and black one with a burst of yellow added in, or an outfit with three-dimensional floral patterns created by swathes upon swathes of embellishment and screen-prints, worked with machine and further uplifted by threadwork by hand.
While all this is pretty, it has been seen in Ali Xeeshan’s shows before. It is also — according to the designer — what his customers like to see. “I think with bridal wear sometimes it’s important to innovate while making designs that people feel are wearable,” he says.
And once he’s spun his colour wheel to create these wearable clothes, Xeeshan wraps it up in memorable packaging. A show from a few years ago — agitating against the cultural phenomenon of child marriages — had models come out on the catwalk with their lips symbolically padlocked, holding cloth dolls in emulation of young brides. Last year at Bridal Couture Week in Lahore, a presentation was made against dowry mongering. A young girl dressed in cardinal red, walked out with her much older dulha, lugging a cart laden with her dowry behind her.
Another show at fashion week in Lahore was preceded by a fashion video where the bride and groom were far too occupied with filming themselves on social media to take note of their wedding rites, representing a world obsessed with the Internet.
It’s a great marketing mechanism guaranteed to catch attention but don’t the dramatics draw attention away from the clothes? The designer doesn’t think so. “The clothes are part of the narration. They are the frills and the feathers to the campaign and are part of the characterisation. Customers only buy something if they like it, and the clothes I create speak the same language as my campaigns. There is drama in the design as well, whether it is with a motif, contrasting colours or shirt lengths.”
“While shooting the ‘Master Sahab’ campaign, I was wearing a synthetic wig. It was extremely hot and I was very uncomfortable but I still kept dancing and laughing. It’s like I am the director of the show and the models and the clothes are my characters. Together, we tell a story that arrests customers’ attention.”
He continues: “There is so much visual clutter on the Internet these days that it has become extremely important that a collection makes a mark. We see international fashion campaigns shot in far-flung deserts or models stalking down airport runways. Themes help in building up a collection so that it doesn’t look run-of-the-mill. That’s my pet peeve — I never want to be run-of-the-mill.”
Run-of-the-mill — I do think that that’s an adjective that has ever been used for Ali Xeeshan personally or professionally, or for his clothes and campaigns. In fact, the designer has inspired many other aspiring contenders to add theatrics in order to amp up their shows. The ‘Master Sahab’ narrative is the latest narrative in the many that the designer has come to tell.