There was a dash of neon. Stripes in bright multi-colours. Colour-blocked strips of silk and organza joined up together to form long column shirts. Thick bunches of sequins forming eccentric floral patterns. Octopuses and psychedelic fish wading down from the shoulder to the sleeve.
Electric. New-age. Unapologetically stylish. You could delve deeper into the fashion lexicon to find more ways of describing Hussain Rehar’s initial work, back in 2017. It was such an anomaly compared to the pretty sartorial finery that dominated the fashion scene that it made people sit up and take notice.
Freshly graduated from the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD) and after a few months’ stint working with designer Khadijah Shah, Hussain launched on his own with an eponymous label. His aesthetic was so unique that it immediately caught the eye. Who is the designer, you wondered, as you saw some of the designs while scrolling down Instagram.
This query was quickly followed by a survey of his prices, where he stocked and whether his clothes could be purchased easily. “[He] could become one of fashion’s future trendsetters,” I wrote, in my very first review of his work.
Shortly afterwards — in March 2018 to be precise — Hussain made his catwalk debut at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week (PSFW) in Lahore. Walking out at the end of the show with a coterie of models, Hussain was quite as fashionable as the clothes that he created. Dressed in a striped jumpsuit with a zipper down the front, he grinned bashfully as he took a bow.
Since then, Hussain has become a permanent fixture in the Lahore fashion circuit, making waves back when fashion weeks were still functional and even riding out the pandemic with flair, rolling out successive collections online for his growing customer base.
To date, his personal fashion statements tend to be at par with the fashion that is his claim to fame: oversized blazers in eye-popping colours, power suits, loose kurta pajamas all complemented by a delectable array of accessories. It’s a wardrobe to die for — and it’s testament to how much this young boy from Gujranwala loves clothes.
Long before he made fashion design his raison d’etre, a young Hussain Rehar would mix and match his clothes and dress up for family gatherings. The relatives would be enthralled. Possibly, Gujranwala — city of sun-baked fields and wrestlers grappling in dusty akhaaras — hadn’t experienced such a fashion savant before!
“I have always loved putting an outfit together,” he tells me. “The wardrobes in my homes are chock full with clothes that I constantly buy and then wear in different ways. I love to dress up and go places!”
This admission makes me curious: what did he do during the coronavirus lockdown when no one was going anywhere? “I would dress up and go have dinner with my mother,” Hussain laughs.
The personal penchant for standing out has translated to creating clothes that stand out. Over a six-odd-years-long career, Hussain has honed his craft, worked on pattern and finishings and mastered the balancing act between design that is commercially viable and yet distinctive.
He’s won two awards — Designer of the Year Demi-Couture at 2019’s Hum Style Awards and Achievement in Fashion Design (Luxury Pret) at the Lux Style Awards last year — and put out a solo show in 2020 at a time when Covid-19 had temporarily been at bay.
Even though the coronavirus has generally brought down sales for luxury fashion-wear, Hussain’s business has continued to mushroom. His clothes are seen everywhere — at parties, weddings and worn by celebrities — and he has streamlined his business module, syncing it to the omnipresent demand for fast fashion. He has his many fans — and also, some critics.
“I haven’t been able to plan out a [second] solo show because business has been doing so well,” Hussain says. “Customers want to see new collections every few weeks. There’s a constant pressure to keep creating new designs and there hasn’t been enough time to conceptualise and create a collection for the catwalk.”
His debut solo show, which took place at a time when most designers were still trying to recover from losses incurred during the pandemic, had taken people by surprise. On a brisk winter afternoon, Hussain had transformed a backyard at a private home in Lahore into his catwalk. A tree, right at the centre, had formed the main focal point; the models walked around it and gathered underneath it for photographs.
There was dhol dhamaka and a whirl of colours, with the collection delving into the many festivities that comprise a traditional Pakistani wedding. Unlike most solo shows, the set-up had not been elaborate or over the top. Instead, it was simple and effective, a fledgling brand choosing to flex its fashion muscles all on its own, without the aid of fashion councils.
Did flying solo, when earlier he had only shown in collective fashion weeks, help Hussain’s brand? “It definitely helped build more awareness of the brand,” he says. “It showed that we were willing to stand in the spotlight on our own, without the hype generated by a collective designer show at fashion week. Nothing at all was happening in the local fashion scene at the time. My show was one of the very first shows to take place since the pandemic had broken out. I think people found that refreshing. It gave them hope that things were going to get better.”
But the show took place almost two years ago. Since then, Hussain has been off the catwalk, although he is churning out multiple collections that run the gamut from heavy duty formals to funkier luxury-wear to unstitched fabric. His designs are distinctive and really quite lovely, but they certainly aren’t as avant-garde as his initial collections used to be. Has Hussain toned down his wacky side in a bid to haul in more business?
“I still enjoy edgy design but, ultimately, the clothes should sell,” he admits. “Even internationally, designers may make crazy statements on the catwalk, but they will make more subtle versions of the clothes for retail. With no fashion weeks taking place, my priority right now is to create clothes that are different but, at the same time, client-friendly.”
He continues, “I think my clients appreciate my brand ideology, the way I fuse traditional hand embroideries with modern silhouettes and colour. It may be market-friendly but it isn’t boring. I make sure that the fabric and embroideries are of great quality and I try to keep prices competitive.
“And then, there’s always so much variety. Every collection has a different vibe and aesthetic from the previous one. Even before I create a collection, I think about how I want to market it, the model and the styling for the shoot. Once the concept is in sync with the designs, the images become more impactful. The shoot doesn’t have to be elaborate. I prefer product-oriented photography which is still unique.”
I agree that the imagery he creates is very eye-catching, calculated to make you want to make a beeline for his online store. And yet, some of these shoots — not all — have occasionally been critiqued for being too similar to those of other designers. A recent collection, released last fall, for example, drew immediate comparisons with an international brand’s shoot also released that same year. The colours and the styling were uncannily similar.
It has also sometimes been pointed out that Hussain is far too ‘inspired’ by certain major brands from across the border. How inspired is he, really?
“I think that it’s very normal to get inspired,” he says. “We spend so much time flipping through fashion magazines, that sometimes we will subconsciously register certain images. Now that my brand has become more established, I have become very concerned that there should be no replications. Still, I don’t mind getting inspired by a brand and styling a shoot a particular way or placing jewellery in a certain style. Above all, the design should be my own.”
Connoisseurs of handcrafted embellishments have also sometimes critiqued that Hussain may have a way with bling and stone-work but his embroideries do not have delicacy and finesse. Does he agree?
Of course, he doesn’t. In fact, he starts to laugh. “I have my own aesthetic. If Elie Saab creates delicate embellishments and Alexander McQueen goes over-the-top with thick layers of sequins, does that mean that one is inferior to the other? My style may be different from others — actually, that’s how I’d like to be!
“When I create luxury-wear, I want it to be glamorous and sparkly. I’ll put together sequins and stones in certain patterns to create that look and aim for a particular price bracket. On the other hand, the traditional bridal-wear that I create has very delicate hand embroideries and is priced accordingly.”
He’s also dipped his toes into the crowded market for unstitched fabric, releasing seasonal collections of lawn and winter-wear. How’s that doing?
“Very well,” he says, “the market for unstitched fabric is huge. One of my brothers is handling just the unstitched fabric market. The other one looks over the finances overall.” His is a family-run business, evidently. “Yes, I am not good with numbers, so my brothers joined me.”
There was no pressure to return home to Gujranwala once he had graduated from the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD)?
“No, my family and I always knew that I would be starting my business in Lahore.”
He has only one brick and mortar store in Lahore to date. Has he considered expanding to more stores or is he focusing more on online growth?
“So far, we’re happy with the studio in Lahore,” says Hussain. “It caters not just to Lahore but to all the surrounding cities in Punjab. And the online world is amazing, it can’t be beat. You put up a clock on Instagram that counts down to the launch of a new collection and, suddenly, you tap into a worldwide marketplace.
“It’s such a high when orders filter in overnight, right after you’ve launched a new line. It means that you’re doing something right. We’re very vigilant about making sure that we deliver on time. We want the customer to come back to us again.”
How does he think that he has improved over time? “I definitely know my market better. When I started out, I wanted to constantly experiment and try out new techniques. Now, I understand that, most importantly, the clothes need to be wearable.
“I’ve also become more experienced when it comes to selecting embroideries and fabric. Right at the beginning, I would use the wrong thread and sometimes it wouldn’t be able to hold sequins in place and they would fall off. I know much better now!”
The threads certainly aren’t falling off anymore and the sequins are right in place, twinkling away. Modern. Mystical. Eclectic. High fashion simmered and tweaked for the desi palette. As I said earlier, one could go on.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 24, 2022