In competition with herself

Almost six feet in height, Shanaz Siddiq has to safeguard her reputation. She is the designer that the world-famous crystal people, Swarovski of Austria, handpicked out of the other Pakistani designers. This was in 1998, when the company wanted to introduce its ‘hot-fix’ crystals that could be used to embellish Pakistani clothes.

Shanaz opines that although fashion in Pakistan is still evolving, there is a need to go into the international market and network with foreign designers.

“We must associate at various levels. This is one way of charting out Pakistan’s entry into the halls of fame of Paris, New York and Milan. Ours is still not an industry, and the dynamics of haute couture are totally different. We still believe in an exclusive, one-of-a-kind dress from a designer, whereas in the international market the designers could be showing their one-off – probably theatrical pieces – as well as the wearable, mass-produced ones six months to a year in advance.”

Shanaz Siddiq has just had a successful show in Chicago. Over the last decade, she has had several fashion shows in different cities in Pakistan and abroad. What exactly is it that makes her clothes tick?

“I believe in designing simple, wearable and functional clothes, taking inspiration from the traditional. You cannot beat the cut of the kurta – so most designers just play around with the three-piece ensemble – the original kurta, shalwar and dupatta. We make the shalwar into a gharara, a bell-bottom or a butterfly shalwar or into capri pants,” she muses.

“Those who are always looking towards the West for inspiration do not realize that the West in fact looks to the East for the same. Instead of pale greys, rose pinks and mushroom hues for our brides, let our inspiration be the vibrant colours worn by the Thari or Cholistani women. But we must be cautious not to overdo things. For example, the highly orchestrated weddings these days are a direct influence of Bollywood, and sometimes the clients’ briefs include the names of choice characters from Bollywood films. I do not get carried away with high-budget trousseaus, and my output has remained small.”

Shanaz feels her efforts are directed towards competing with herself rather than with other designers.

“It keeps me on my toes, striving for better,” she says. “I still have an outfit from my first show. I look at its colours, style, and the stitching and feel that I have come a long way.” The dresses that Shanaz designs are a blend of diverse styles and techniques. In recent years, she has been using natural dyes together with hand-woven cottons. The exquisite grandeur of the embroideries from the Mughal court, as well as from the folk traditions of our region, have been adapted to the taste and convenience of modern women.

Coming back to the crystals, the Austrians and their local agents, after having short-listed a few designers, chose Shanaz who was given the job to launch the crystal product in Karachi. She therefore held a fashion show in Karachi as well as in Lahore, making her a part of the Swarovski team of designers like Vivienne Westwood from the UK and Gai Mattiolo of Italy and others who have been specially selected to introduce these sparkling crystals in their respective countries. In the year 2000, she conducted workshops for designers in Karachi and Lahore, demonstrating the use of the hot-fix stones.

“Some people called that suicidal. They felt that I was a fool to give away the secret of using the crystals employing an easier method. I think of it quite differently. I feel that I learnt things the hard way. If there are simpler techniques that can be applied, and mind you, eventually a good designer will learn to get around a problematic area in any case, why not make life easier for them from the beginning?”

A volunteer at heart, Shanaz does not only belong to the glamorous fashion world, she is also involved in several good causes. She was instrumental in setting up the public service division of a prominent advertising agency. She has been the past president of the Cancer Society – apparently the only organization in Karachi that gives free medicines to needy patients. The cause is close to Shanaz’s heart as she lost her older sister to cancer many years ago. She is secretary of the Cosmopolitan Club and Society, Karachi, looking after the affairs of the locality and carrying on with the work of her late father, who served the club for almost 42 years. She has been living in the Cosmopolitan Society – in the same house where she was born – therefore relating intimately with the neighbourhood community. She is also one of the three founding members of ASNA – an NGO established to create awareness of our local crafts. Recently, ASNA held a ceramics exhibition, together with gallery talks and seminars in Karachi. Last but not least, as member on the board of directors of the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC), she volunteers her time as treasurer. As an alumnus of the institute, she has an emotional involvement with its affairs.

“In each of these I give a part of myself. It is payback time,” she claims.

The recent fashion-show, organized by a boutique in Chicago, was held to collect funds for the Human Development Foundation, which is based in Islamabad and works towards establishing schools in under-privileged areas of Pakistan. Shanaz says that her shows are always held for charities. Be it the Cancer Society, the Kidney Centre, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital or the PEP Foundation, health and education are two causes that she likes to work for.

As a child, Shanaz went to a school called the Lilliput School, located close to her house. We can’t help laughing at the inappropriateness of the name, as all members of the Siddiq family are anything but Lilliputians! Afterwards, together with her older sister and three younger ones, she attended St. Lawrence’s Girls School right up to Intermediate. Although Shanaz was bent on studying medicine, her health at that time did not allow for the kind of grades that have always been a prerequisite for medical school admissions. A neighbour, on seeing the fine drawings she had made for her Zoology and Botany journals, advised her to take up art classes at the CIAC.

Shanaz graduated with a diploma in design after four years, simultaneously obtaining a B.A. as well. Later, as a freelancer, she designed logos, record covers and shop windows. She also did a spot of teaching at a prestigious school between the years 1990 to ’92.

When she started out on her own in 1987, her aim was to teach block printing rather than become a clothes designer.

“I devised an entire course, hoping to teach the technique and the use of different dyes. But somehow, the first response to the collection I displayed at a friend’s place in Sharjah in 1990 was so overwhelming that I continued designing and exhibiting.”

In her studio, Shanaz encourages interns, who come from various art schools in the city. It seems only yesterday when a group of students used to take pride in wearing cheap chintz material bought from Khajoor Bazaar or the Macchhi Miani markets in the Kharadar area. They designed and stitched these into creative outfits for themselves. All have moved on to different fields. Shanaz, meanwhile, has maintained a link by designing not only for those whose raison d’être in life is to own designer clothes, but also for the girls next door.

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