Kamiar Rokni's wedding-wear oozes careless glamour that isn't for everyone

Published 27 Dec, 2021 11:46am

Maliha Rehman

The designer recently commemorated 20 years in fashion and his designs continue to beat their own singular drum.

Photo: PFDC Fashion Week
Photo: PFDC Fashion Week

The chilly Lahore night sky glittered, and so did the fashionable crowd gathered under it. Sequestered into sporadic hibernation over the past two years, this was Lahore’s night out.

The shawls came out, as did the jackets, the scarves, the designer bags and shoes — when Kamiar Rokni decides to stage a solo show, even the fashion statements off-the-ramp have to be impactful.

Kamiar — Kami, to Pakistan’s fashion fraternity at large — has always catered to the discerning savant. Far from the madding crowd of relentless, pointless bling, his wedding-wear has always beaten its own singular fashion drum.

The florals burst out differently, kaleidoscopic dragons have flared fiery tongues on his canvas, phoenixes have spread their wings, exuberant new colourways have been explored, rilli has merged with colour blocks and the forgiving, baggy domains of a kurta or a lehnga have led on to jumpsuits, haute dresses and tunics worked with risqué cut-outs.

Kamiar Rokni just held a solo show to commemorate completing 20 years in fashion. The show was evidence that, two decades on, the designer’s wedding-wear continues to beat its own singular drum. He accepts that his clothes are not for everyone. So who does he design for?

The niche crowd of friends, family and media forming the audience understood and appreciated this ethos very well. In fact, they comprised a major chunk of the designer’s clientele and, gamely, they braved the cold and a delay of several hours in order to celebrate ‘20 years of Kamiar Rokni’.

Over these past 20 years, I have had the fortune to observe and review many of Kami’s best collections on the catwalk. I recall a collection called ‘The Orientalist’, where he had described to me that Tia Noon, one of his co-designers at the House of Kamiar Rokni at the time, had ‘dreamt’ one of the patterns.

I remember flights of fancy taking off on the catwalk, telling stories that varied from the magic of the Arabian Nights to the splendour of the Mughals to retro Hollywood glamour. It was all encapsulated into a 34-piece line-up, where all the familiar Kamiar Rokni leitmotifs came together on a single catwalk.

This present evening, the catwalk itself had an easy elegance; a path winding through benches laid out on a terrace in a residence in Lahore, bordered by drooping amaltas trees. A very varied cocktail of music played out and the designs began streaming out — and you thought, this was what local fashion had been missing.

“I hate it when a runway collection looks like a catalogue of commercial, wearable clothes,” Kami told me after the show. “It’s important to innovate and then tweak the designs for customised orders.”

And certainly, the Kamiar Rokni solo gave a wide berth to the all-catering catalogue. It was tongue-in-cheek bona fide design that oozed careless glamour, individualistic and unapologetic.

Photos: Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly
Photos: Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly

A salmon pink, fitted, long gown was ornamented at the hem with sharp cut-outs at the waist; a layered lehnga was paired with a cape and an empire line shirt; an off-the-shoulder white gown twinkled with multi-coloured embellishment and a cheeky bow at the shoulder; and the sleeves of a diaphanous black top twinkled with sequins and came paired with vibrant flared pants.

There was a column shirt in pink worked with tribal embroideries, a white sari with a dragon curling up at the hem, another white one which simply sparkled with sequins, an old-world lehnga in yellow and turquoise, patterns that spoke of art and originality rather than merely getting splattered on to fabric in a flood of bling. It was fashion, it was fabulous. It was also reminiscent of Kamiar Rokni’s various collections over the years.

“I started referencing myself and the collection just kept growing, until I ended up with a line-up that is twice the size of what is shown at fashion week,” says Kami. “I had to pay homage to so many different collections over the years, while updating them for the present and the future.”

The inspirations were clearly visible, running the gamut from the designer’s early designing days as part of the brand Karma to the many times that he had ruled the runway at the Pakistan Fashion Design Counci’s (PFDC) fashion weeks.

The cherry blossoms and sparrows were a throwback to the glorious ‘The Orientalist’, the black which came sprinkled liberally with stardust was an ode to the unforgettable ‘Moonrise’, the blacks set off by orange reminded me of ‘Alchemy’, the multicolours were takeaways from ‘Golestan’, the rilli from ‘Neo-folk’ and the classic lehnga and tunic, in turquoise and yellow, was classic Karma.

It all came together this time in a collection dubbed ‘The Optimist’ and, true to its name, it did trigger a glimmer of optimism within the audience. Firmly squashing the oft-repeated argument that bridals in Pakistan had to be beautiful at the risk of being repetitive in order to appeal to customers, Kami exemplified how the creative envelope could push even wedding-wear’s restrictive boundaries.

A sleeve could cascade in shimmering layers, a buttercup yellow lehnga could be embellished by a wide border in pink worked with floral embroideries, silken bows could add quirky anglicised touches and there could be innovations within motifs and patterns, amping up even the most conventional silhouettes.

Scrutinised up-close, the winding path was often part of the ornamentation, representative of the designer’s 20 years-long journey. But why didn’t this celebration of 20 years also offer something completely new? Kami’s skill as a designer ensured that a ‘best of’ collection couldn’t possibly go wrong, but why did he also not include a selection of new designs?

It all came together this time in a collection dubbed ‘The Optimist’ and, true to its name, it did trigger a glimmer of optimism within the audience. Firmly squashing the oft-repeated argument that bridals in Pakistan had to be beautiful at the risk of being repetitive in order to appeal to customers, Kami exemplified how the creative envelope could push even wedding-wear’s restrictive boundaries.

Photos: Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly
Photos: Faisal Farooqui@Dragonfly

“How many more colourways would you want me to introduce?” he quipped, adding, “Perhaps the one design that I feel was a step into what I will be doing in the future was a sari worn by model Trinette Lucas. It had a laidback glamour to it, an ease in wearability, simple yet so elegant.”

I was also curious to know why a smattering of silk gowns had been placed splat in the middle of the collection. The embroideries and shimmer had suddenly given way to gowns and they had seemed out of place. Personally, they hadn’t appealed to me, except for an off-the-shoulder, deep blue, fitted design worn by model Amna Babar, which was quintessential old-school Hollywood.

“The gowns were supposed to be palette cleansers, in between the embroidered designs,” says the designer. “In fact, the design worn by Amna Babar is called ‘Palette Cleanser’!”

Still, why include them at all in a predominantly bridal and trousseau collection? Even if Kami wanted to highlight his finesse at cutting a gown, he could have dressed the models, gotten them photographed at the venue and placed them within the audience. The designer had his reasons.

“The gowns are targeted towards the parties that take place before and after a wedding. Every season, I get orders for gowns that girls are planning to wear at one of the wedding events, which is why I wanted to make them part of the collection.”

There were no celebrity showstoppers at the show, I observe. This was in stark contrast to the Bridal Couture Week which took place in Lahore two days later, where a flood of celebrities had been seen on the runway.

“There are never any celebrities in my shows,” Kami says firmly. “The drama and the beauty has to be within the clothes. Besides, my customers don’t tend to get smitten by star-power. To the contrary, they may squirm once the design is all over social media, seen on a popular actress, and cancel the order!” he laughs.

Now that he’s flown solo, I ask Kami to make a comparison as to what is better: a solo or a fashion week presentation? “A solo is great if you can afford it — it gives you the space to allow people to experience your brand, perhaps once every year,” he observes. “I know that I can’t afford to do so every year but that doesn’t mean that I’m not working on other forms of presentation. I think digital showcases and presentations have become very important too.”

And what about fashion weeks? Many say that they are withering away. “I don’t think that fashion weeks are dying at all. I think that they are just evolving because of the coronavirus pandemic, and they are going to come back with a bang. I think that the commercial new designers will want to come on to the fashion week runway and the content at fashion weeks will depend on what they want to put forward. I’m now categorised amongst the senior lot of designers, and it’s important that the new lot innovates.”

Kami continues: “Fashion weeks certainly will die if aesthetics continue to move in this ‘acceptable’, commercial vein, where the clothes are just okay, rather than fascinating.”

As opposed to the days of yore? “Yes, but also not ghastly. We have seen ghastly shows as well,” he points out. “I think we have now settled at a very mass-friendly ‘okay’ but we need to do better.”

I do think that the word ‘okay’ has never been used for Kamiar Rokni. He’s been called ‘cool’ plenty of times, though. And ‘fashion forward’, certainly. “Yes, I am that,” he smirks.

But by marching to his own beat, does he not feel that he is limiting his aesthetic to only a small fraction of the market for wedding-wear? Does the designer sometimes feel that he needs to toe more commercial lines in order to tap into the conventional but very lucrative clientele?

“I don’t pretend that my clothes are for everyone!” he laughs. “But seriously, a very varied clientele comes to me. I tweak designs according to their requirements and I invest time and effort. I’m the designer who wakes up in the morning and visits the studio and checks the way the designs are progressing and then meets customers. I deal with 70 percent of my clients personally, especially when it’s wedding-wear.

“Sometimes, a bride will come in with her mother’s jewellery and ask me to create designs that could complement it. Sometimes, a girl with her mother’s gharara or tissue dupatta, and I will collaborate with her while creating the final outfit. There is so much to consider — whether it’s a day or night wedding, the groom’s clothes, the décor.

“Wedding-wear is ceremonial, which is why there is an element of costume design to it. A customer may have to come in for two to three fittings before I feel that I have perfected the design. It’s a pace that I can manage without getting frazzled, and I’m not hungry for more.”

A single, long-overdue dose of the Kamiar Rokni aesthetic has, however, left the fashion diaspora hungry for more. Evidently, there’s a new collection coming up soon. “I am revisiting my drawings and putting together a pret collection that is going to be easy, in terms of cuts, wearability and affordability.”

When can we expect to see this collection? Evidently, it may surface in March next year at the PFDC fashion week in Lahore, should the pandemic allow it. “Let’s see, that’s the plan,” he affirms.

For now, though, Kamiar Rokni is convalescing from rushing through 34 fittings and putting together a solo show, all on his own. He’s giddy from all the critical acclaim but he’s also exhausted, and my conversation with him after the show has been spaced in between the long naps he has been taking. Is that what 20 years of Kamiar Rokni look like, I tease him.

“Yes, 20 years on, people may think that I am partying after my show but all I am doing is sleeping,” he laughs.

But he needs to wake up quickly and get going, now that he’s whetted an appetite for bona fide fashion, which had fallen dormant at the hands of boring, generic bling.

At one point in our conversation, Kami comments, “Twenty-five years down the line, I think I’m preserving hand-embroidered craft simply by doing it, and by not including multi-head machine-work in couture. I’m staying true to my signature and I think there’s a limit to how much more I can surprise you.”

Oh but I think you can keep surprising the world, I protest. “Yes,” he admits. “I think sometimes, as designers, we end up surprising ourselves with the new directions we take.”

That sounds promising. Now that he has made us optimistic, we do want more of the same Kamiar Rokni artistry seen on the catwalk recently — and also, some surprises, please!

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 26, 2021