From Anil Kapoor’s jacket to French Montana’s sweats: Zain Ahmad talks about Rastah, its audience and why it’s so expensive
Zain Ahmad’s fashion label Rastah has earned quite the name for itself. It landed him a spot on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list and has been worn by a number of international celebrities, including Anil Kapoor, Riz Ahmed and Iman Vellani in the Disney+ show Ms. Marvel. The brand has become a favourite for many, drawing attention to unique designs as well as the ‘unique’ price tags. Ahmad has now opened up about his brand and how it took off.
Speaking to Bilal Khan on his podcast Lights Out, Ahmad started off with his inclusion in the 30 Under 30 list and what it meant to him. For him, the hype died down in a couple of days even if people continued to congratulate him, because it was a “fleeting moment of happiness” while he was keen on finding what success really meant.
When asked if he would be happy if his brand was doing well while he as an owner made zero profit, Ahmad said he wouldn’t. “It’s one of those things where the money is not the end-all be-all but it’s definitely something that completes that package. It’s that cherry on cake but to go even deeper, for me what really intrinsically makes me happy is the success of my team and the well-being of their lives and are they progressing in their careers. If we aren’t making money, we’d have to fire employees, if we aren’t making any money, that means our work has not made an impact on customers, you can’t grow because we live in a capitalist economy.”
Ahmad opened up that he had “enough” money to start Rastah, but it wasn’t a lot. “I had about $4,000 to $5,000 in crypto and this was in 2018. I had Ethereum, Bitcoin, Litecoin and some other smaller coins. I sold some of it and then invested it into Rastah. My dad helped out a fair bit. Initially he gave Rs800,000 to Rs1 million, which was really helpful. But not like sort of the absurd amounts of money that people think you need to start a business.”
He revealed that when he started out, he was still finishing off his final semester in university, so all of the inventory had to be shipped his apartment in Canada because at that time he had no employees and had to do everything by himself.
“When I moved to Pakistan, I really wanted to sell my products here. But our price point was quite contentious in the Pakistani market in the sense that it didn’t really generate that many sales. But we’re doing well in the US and Canada. But what happened in the last 12 to 16 months is that the sales in Pakistan started to skyrocket,” he explained.
“I have a theory behind that. We’re still stuck in this postcolonial hangover where if we get ‘goray ka thappa [a stamp of approval by a white person]’ we need this. So it clicked that for me to sell in Pakistan at this price point, I don’t really need to market in Pakistan and then all of that media will be distributed and consumed in Pakistan and it becomes that high value content.”
Ahmad talked about being featured in Vogue and stocking at Hypebeast but most importantly Moroccan-American rapper French Montana repping the brand in their sweatpants and an outerwear. The company owner says that the ‘Unforgettable’ singer found out about the brand through a mutual who happens to be one of the singer’s crew members and a fellow Pakistani. He revealed that they tried sending The Weeknd a package but failed to. They hope to send it again to see the Canadian singer wear Rastah.
“When I design my collections, I don’t first sketch them out, I write my collections out like it’s a short film or a movie. I don’t have a design background but i taught myself how to sketch and now I’m fairly good at it. But my initial step is always to write everything out like a story and then what happens is that copy of the story or that write up goes to every single member in the design team. I come up with my sketches, my team comes up with theirs and once they read that they are able to feel a certain way and then hopefully project that into the clothes.”
Ahmad was also asked about his take on the current marketing scheme of paying influencers to promote brands, to which he partially agreed. The designer said, “There are certain celebrities and influencers that maybe paying them would make like sort of a big difference in terms of both brand and sales. We’ve only paid two influencers money and they weren’t in Pakistan. They were micro influencers in the US when we started out as a brand. Other than that we have never ever paid influencers or celebrities.”
With most of the products starting from from $85, Ahmad also receives DMs about the prices being high. He shared, “I once got this message on a jacket that ‘excuse me it says $450 I think you’ve made a mistake, this should show in rupees’ and I was like no and I got a reply from the same person that read, ‘are you crazy’. Yeah, you get these like sort of very entitled messages.”
Ahmad was asked if he would like a sub-brand of Rastah, to which he revealed that he is interested in “reinterpreting” the brand by bringing in traditional kameez shalwar and styling and designing it in different ways as a way to blend it into street wear.
Talking about appropriation and how Ahmad wanted Rastah to mark the map for its unique designs and label of being made in Pakistan, he confessed that there was a point when he flew out to LA just to hand deliver a package to the Sound of Metal actor Ahmed because he gave him a time-frame till Wednesday.
“We messaged Riz about this jacket and of course we had styled him before so he said if I could get the package by Wednesday he might be able to add it into the log of clothes. It was Monday morning and we released our volume on Sunday. On Monday morning these pieces cannot get to him to LA by Wednesday. So my business partner called me and said what if we flew to LA to hand deliver Riz this jacket and trousers.”
The designer also revealed he had no idea about Kapoor wearing Rastah in his recent film JugJugg Jeeyo and described it as a “complete surprise” as the denim jacket he wore was an old piece by Rastah that Ahmad had given to Kapoor’s son Harshvardhan. “I think he may have passed it on to his dad and he wore it in the film. I had no idea about it. People who went to watch the movie started sending me clips about it.”
Concluding on style tips, Ahmad only has one suggestion for men — stop wearing the “typical Lahori” look of skinny jeans folded at the hem thrice, polo shirts and loafers.