What has propelled Mohsin Naveed Ranjha’s atelier to mushroom so rapidly, quickly spiralling it into becoming one of the country’s top-tier brands?
It’s something that I have wondered often — as many others working in the Pakistani fashion industry may also have done.
There’s no denying that Mohsin has always been a pro at marketing his brand. He has regularly showcased collections at the mass-centric, hugely popular HUM Bridal Couture Week (BCW) and also at the Pakistan Fashion Design Council’s (PFDC) fashion weeks back when they were still around. He’s aggressively collaborated with celebrities and his muses range from Pakistani stars to major names from across the border to occasional prestigious appearances in Hollywood.
He’s churned out regular collections, skittering from womenswear to menswear and from couture to unstitched formals to lawn. And his efforts have been commendable in curating fashion shoots following particular themes and having back-stories, making them memorable. Of course, all these efforts are bolstered by the fact that he has an eye for knowing what works in the market.
But there are others in the Pakistani fashion diaspora who also regularly put forward creative shoots, bring out regular retail-savvy collections and sporadically dabble with the catwalk.
What makes the eponymous MNR label such a winner, then? As an observer who has seen it grow from strength to strength, I think that strong business ethics have played a pivotal role in oiling the wheels that run the brand.
“The one thing that I am scared of is delaying the delivery of a bridal order,” Mohsin told me about four years ago. “It’s not about losing out on money; it’s about ruining someone’s special day. I wouldn’t want it weighing on my conscience. So far, I have made sure that no one’s wedding gets ruined because of me.”
It is, of course, common sense that a bridal-wear order needs to be delivered well in time for a wedding — but unfortunately, social media is rife with stories of how some of the country’s most prestigious ateliers have often failed to fulfil their commitments, leading to distressed brides wearing borrowed clothes or making do with a badly fitted replacement on their big day. Word-of-mouth has the power to make or break a brand and MNR’s efficient delivery process may have played a vital role in convincing customers to place orders.
Sitting in Mohsin’s bridal store in Karachi, which opened in January this year, I have observed him and his team deal with a constant flow of customers. This was some months ago, at a time when the designer had specially flown in from his home-base in Lahore to meet potential clients and it was impressive how he patiently had long conversations with them.
Clientele for wedding-wear tends to be a tedious lot — entire groups of mothers, sisters and cousins usually accompany the bride, sifting through multiple designs before shortlisting their favourites and proceeding to have detailed discussions on pricing. Most designers delegate the client appointments to a trusted team member, only stepping in, if needed, when the order is finalised. “I do the same sometimes,” Mohsin had told me, “but this store is new, my team here is new and I have to guide them on dealing with clients by setting an example. I actually look upon it as a test; I should be able to have the patience to sit with a customer for an hour, hour and a half, regardless of whether an order eventually gets placed or not. If I get annoyed, my team will behave the same way in my absence. The thing is, if your brand is getting appreciated and people are eager to see your designs, then it is your job to cater to them respectfully.”
And so, I watched Mohsin splay out dupattas for clients, discuss the finer points of gota, dabka and resham and dissect pricing requirements.
Now, as I sit for a conversation with him, I ask him how he — a designer with his roots in Gujranwala, whose initial clientele has been predominantly based in Punjab — is faring in the Karachi market. “Very well,” he says. “A lot of people in the fashion fraternity told me that customers in Karachi don’t generally like my kind of aesthetic. I was told that I would have to depart from my signature bright colours and bold embellishments and develop a lineup with a more subtle palette for the Karachi store.
“However, I felt that in order to last in the long run, I had to stay true to my brand ethos. I couldn’t change my aesthetic completely for a particular city. Luckily for me, the Karachi market has appreciated how different my designs are from those of other brands. There are so many girls from Lahore getting married in Karachi and vice versa. We can’t categorise both cities’ aesthetics in particular ways. My customers come to me for the bright colours, the bold embroideries, the ‘loud’ impact.”
He adds, “I think that what has also helped me is my willingness to deliver in a few months’ time. Customers in Karachi have come to me and told me that they couldn’t place orders with certain well-known ateliers because the designers could only deliver in a year’s time. That doesn’t make sense to me. In a year’s time, trends change, customer preferences change and the designer may then even have to tweak the outfit according to the changing requirements. About a month and a half is more than enough to deliver an order. I think customers appreciate this. They don’t want to spend their money and also stand in line waiting for their order!”
This observation exemplifies the business acumen that I mentioned earlier.
“I have to add that the label has also grown because my brother Abubakar Ranjha is on board with me. He forms the backbone of my business. While I look at marketing and design, he handles the finances and maintains the infrastructure of our manufacturing units. I don’t think that I would have had been able to expand without him by my side,” says Mohsin.
He has also diversified towards retailing unstitched lines, ranging from formals to festive lawn. How has his experience been with retailing unstitched fabric? “In a way, it is easier than retailing couture, because you create a design, have it packed in a box and once you sell it, your work is done. Our business is generally couture-based. There have been times when we have opened up our factory on holidays to specially alter an outfit for a customer. Retailing unstitched fabric is relatively easier that way. At the same time, checks and balances have to be maintained. We are very vigilant about providing exactly the same amount of fabric as shown in the catalog. Every embellishment and textured border shown in the catalog is packed in the box so that the customer can get the design stitched, as is,” he says.
“We also include the MNR tag that could be stitched on to the suit. We are proud of our designs and we want the customers to be proud of them too!”
Does he miss being part of collective designer fashion shows? Mohsin had always been very vocal about his enthusiasm for fashion weeks before they bit the dust altogether. “Of course, I do,” he says.
“As a new designer, I had always been excited by the notion that my designs would be featured on the catwalk, followed by collections by reputable names like Elan, HSY, Ali Xeeshan and Fahad Hussayn. Editors and media from across the country would be at the fashion week, watching the shows. It is sad that fashion weeks aren’t getting revived,” he laments.
“Globally, any country with a strong fashion industry has a strong fashion week framework. Unfortunately, we don’t anymore. When fashion weeks were still around, I would often get calls from brands, inviting me to participate in smaller shows. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Most recently, Mohsin made waves when Indian-Canadian musician Karan Aujla and his bride Palak Aujla opted to wear his designs at their wedding. There have also been many other times when the MNR brand has been worn by popular celebrities, from collaborations with the likes of Bollywood stars Jhanvi Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan, Huma Qureshi and Ranveer Singh to Pakistan’s crème de la crème including Mahira Khan, Atif Aslam and Maya Ali to British Pakistani star Tan France of Queer Eye fame. How have the celebrity associations bolstered business?
“It definitely helps in image-building and ultimately, it draws in customers. I also enjoy it because it’s my way of making some fireworks in the market. Suddenly, a collaboration surfaces and it shakes things up, reminding people that I have quietly been doing my work, but I am certainly very much there, making things happen.”
Is he about to make things happen again? Mohsin tells me that he is. There are a few shoots in the works and an international store that he hopes to open soon. At a time when local fashion is barely making a whimper, one is thankful for Mohsin Naveed Ranjha’s eye for business, his passion for his brand — and his love for setting off “fireworks”.