The ABCD Boy

Ammar Belal is the charming young guy behind the stylish ABCD, the label that has injected new life into the stodgy old Sarah’s retail empire. That’s quite an achievement for someone who majored in management, and whose only qualification in fashion is a short stint as an intern at Selfridges in London. But what Ammar lacks in professional training, he makes up for with his natural talent, intelligence, enthusiasm, and inherent love of clothes. These have helped ABCD become one of the most sought-after casualwear labels around. Walk into his outlet and check out the clothes: whether it’s the cut, the fit, or the styling, we dare you to not convert to ABCD-ism!

So why designing? Did you always want to be a designer?
Designing just sort of happened. But now when I think about it, it always seems like it was inevitable. Now that I am doing what I’ve always wanted to do, everything fits into place. I just realized much later that I should’ve, but it’s all good and no regrets. I studied business management at Clark, and in my last year I went to do an internship in London. I was always interested in fashion; and my father is in the knitwear export business so I grew up in a house where appreciation and interest in fashion was present from the start. When I went in for my fashion internship at Selfidges, I was styling people and getting exposed to the London fashion scene. A lot of people appreciated my work and pushed me to continue working in the industry.

What exactly do you mean by “styling people?”
I worked in the press office. Many magazines come to Selfridges to collect items for their photo shoots and feature pages. For example, in the 2001 fall season, if you saw something in GO, Vogue, Wallpaper etc, which said, “Available at Selfridges”. I was involved in choosing the item and sending it to the publication. Meanwhile, I also started customizing my clothes, especially jeans. After an inspirational semester in London. I came back and four months later graduated from college, getting my bachelors degree in management.
After I graduated, I knew that I wanted to get into fashion, but I didn’t want to go to school for another four years. I lived in New York and Miami for six months pursuing styling, and then moved to Pakistan, where I started working with my father in the export business. My mother has had a retail store for the past twelve years. I’d spend my evenings at the store helping out. I knew that the store lacked a younger and more fashion savvy customer base and so I started my own brand, ABCD. And before I knew it, was a full time job leaving me with hardly any time for my father’s business. But now I’m trying to find the time – I’m balancing both of them.

Have you studied designing professionally?
No, I haven’t studied it, but I’m actually in the process of studying it right now. I’m learning pattern-making. I’ve also taken up illustration. I’m in the process of starting learning stitching as well. I plan to go for my masters in fashion.

Really? When?
Well, depending on when I have time to leave, and depending on whether I get in. I want to go to St. Martins London for my Masters.

Why did you name your label, ABCD?
ABCD is what you want it to be. Obviously, the term ABCD can be taken in a lot of ways; ABCD defines a start – A, B, C, D are the first four letters of the English language; it’s supposed to mean something very easy – something that’s very applicable to everybody. Somebody might not know the English letters down to Z, but they still know A, B, C, D, ABCD also stands for American Born Confused Desi. I chose this name for all these reasons. ABCD is a concept for all those people who want to be different and who want to be themselves, who might not have been accepted or understood by people who are around them. It’s for anybody who wants to be unique and independent with a certain sense of style. ABCD remotes your individuality.

What, in your opinion, sets ABCD apart from the numerous other casualwear companies out there?
It’s your perception that makes it different. ABCD stands for something really simple. At the end of the day. I’m making very basic clothes – they’re basic, ready-to-wear, everyday clothes. But my philosophy is that even in everyday clothes – even a simple white T-shirt – you can do quite a few things to make it different from all the other white T-shirts; the way it fits, the way the fabric is, the way it’s cut it’s the attention to minute details. ABCD is about pinpointing those details and perfecting the simplest of garments.

Why did you fell the need to introduce a separate line? Wasn’t Sarah’s already producing quality casualwear?
Yes, we were. But it’s like, Gap and Banana Republic. They are the same company. Banana Republic is the upscale version of Gap. Sarah’s caters to a different market. It is casualwear, but Sarah’s over the years, had developed a niche that was very conservative. ABCD by itself might not be the right thing; but ABCD along with Sarah’s gives the consumer that option to have their T-shirts a bit more fitted, or red when Sarah’s would offer a more sedate color. It’s more adventurous; it’s young; it’s more upscale. ABCD is mostly more expensive than Sarah’s. It is also designed with a specific theme in mind for winter and summer.

I see that there are a number of labels on the clothes. There is ABCD, then there’s Sarah’s, and then there’s a Sarah Ammar label as well.
Well, ABCD labels are ABCD – that’s what I do. The Sarah’s label is what my mother does. If a style is unisex, then it is given a Sarah Ammar label.

How do you compare yourself to the likes of Karma or Nomi Ansari – relative newcomers like yourself?
I think there’s one very fundamental difference between the three of us. I don’t even think I should be compared to them. First of all, both of them have been in the business longer than me; I’ve only been designing full time for the past year whereas both of them have been doing it longer. And both of them went to the fashion school for four ears. But above all of that, they do eastern wear, and never touch eastern wear.

You modeled for the first ABCD campaign with Aaminah Haq. How was the experience?
A lot of times people as me. “Are you a model?” I always say that I’m not. The first ABCD campaign was done by Aaminah and me because we weren’t modeling; we were being us. You know, if I was posing and pretending to be somebody, it would be different. Basically ABCD is all about being different. All my salespeople wear the question mark. Even I wear the question mark every day and underneath it is written something different every day. It’s about questioning the norm – questioning anything. And my campaign also said that, this is what ABCD is about. We’ve just done the winter campaign and that is the complete opposite. It’s us again but the darker side of a relationship. It’s based on the seven sins – but the seven sins applied to relationships. So it’s gluttony, but gluttony in a relationship, anger in a relationship, pride in a relationship, sloth in a relationship. This is the last campaign that Aaminah and I are going to do together. We’ve always been ourselves; we have depicted our relationship, our reality, and that’s what the camera caught. Now a lot of people have cashed on the whole. “real people” thing.

But the ad campaigns tend to be very daring. Is ABCD going to continue to push the envelope as far as provocative shoots are concerned and be the Calvin Klein of Pakistan?
I think people gave the Calvin Klein name because of the summer ad campaign. It was black and white, it was very simple and Calvin Klein ads were also about emotion; they were very sexual. I come up with the concepts of my shoots and we’re always trying to… push the envelope and sometimes do something different and real. Everything has a very strong concepts or an image. So yes, I will continue to do provocative, and cutting edge work, because I started off as a stylist, and that’s what a stylist does.

Any plans of continuing with modeling? Would you ever consider modeling for some other designer?
No, I’ve never considered myself a model. I’m very passionate about designing. That’s who I am. If I came in front of the camera it was to do something different – something that is thought provoking. When we did the campaign we were the first two people who shown their intimacy on that level; saying this brand is about being yourself, being different, and being proud of it.

Who’s your favorite local designer?
Well, I love Karma’s work. See, the thing with me is, and this might sound really strange, but. I don’t have a knack for easternwear. I don’t wear that much of it myself. When I thin of a woman, I don’t picture eastern clothes on her. And I’m not ashamed of saying that. I want to learn about them, but that’s not what my specialty is. I like Karma’s work a lot, but then again I’m not familiar with a lot of other designers. One of the designers that I really respect a lot is Maheen Khan. I’ve never really even met her, but she’s somebody that really inspires me and intrigues me.

Favorite foreign designer?
A designer whose work I’ve always appreciated is John Galliano. Then I really like Tom Ford for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. He’s got that magic of appealing to everybody. And then I think different designers are good for different types of people, you know. They have their look.

Who is your favorite model? And don’t be diplomatic!
When Aaminah and I started dating I really didn’t know who Aaminah Haq was. But since then I’ve worked with her, and I’ve worked with a couple of other models, and I really do believe that she, if not the best, then she is one of the best print models in this country. Actually, internationally! I’ve seen models internationally – done photo shoots – and the way Aaminah shoots – in front of the camera – not many people are like that. She’s the only one who does it professionally. You could ask any photographer who has shot her. People call her the chameleon – it’s not for no reason! How she can transform into so many different things. I’ve done crazy, daring shoots, which I can’t picture anyone else in the country pulling off except her.

Which shoot?
It’s still in printing. It’s just one of the few. The camera loves her – the way she becomes different personalities, the speed, how she takes it so professionally every time. I’ve heard that Iraj is very good. I haven’t had the chance of working with her. But if you look at Aaminah’s portfolio over the years, you’ll see her work standing out. Aaminah and I make a very good team when we work together because we bounce ideas off each other. I do work with other people, but any time I’ve come up with a very strong concept – something that’s very hard to do – I can’t picture anybody else doing it.

But rumor has it that you and Aaminah Haq are not only an item but have also gotten engaged. Any truth in that?
We don’t talk about our personal lives. People say. “Oh, why are you saying that? It’s hypocritical of you. You get pictures taken of yourself. You appear in magazines, and now you don’t want to talk about your personal life?” The difference is; we control the image that we give of ourselves. Every time Aaminah and I have come in an ABCD campaign, it’s controlled by both of us. And at the end of the day, the image is relating to the brand. It’s not about us; it’s a picture reflecting and promoting the identity of the brand. We control what we project and that’s fine.

So it’s really just an image?
We are together, I don’t need to hide that; I’m not ashamed of it. She’s somebody who’s very close to me. That’s all anybody needs to know.

In a previous interview, you were reported to be very flamboyant – and an avid wearer of lipstick. Why such unconventional tastes?
I do a lot of crazy things and I think in this country it shocks a lot of people. But I’m not ashamed of that interview, although it was a bit sensationalized. The facts in that interview were true – and that’s how I am. Yes, I am a flamboyant person. This is exactly what ABCD relates to: ABCD is about challenging stereotype. All of us have a stereotype. We say, “Agar ye iss tarha ki harkat karta hai to ye iss tarha ka banda hai.” And we judge people. Sometimes it’s not even our fault how we perceive people because we might be raised in a system/society where we’re taught to see something a certain way and make that judgment. Whereas, if you open your mind, there might not be any connection between the perception and the prejudice. I don’t know whether I should blame people for thinking that, but I don’t I’ve gotten to the point that I’m just really comfortable with whatever I do. Just because not a lot of people do it doesn’t mean that it’s flamboyant or extraordinary or wrong or bad or stupid or homosexual or whatever.

We hear a lot about the fashion camps in Lahore. How do you position yourself in that divide?
I don’t place myself in any fashion camp. The thing is, I’ve the luxury of not placing myself in any fashion camp. I have the upper hand because at the end of the day I don’t need to advertise because we have been here for eleven years without it. I’m not saying I don’t need advertising – it’s great – but I think anybody who has been in the industry for long enough – s strong enough not to get sucked into that. I won’t lie to you. In the past nine months, I have learned a lot. As a new designer, as a new person in the industry, it’s very easy to get manipulated by the industry or get pushed around in certain different ways, or people hold something against you when they have no right to – to manipulate you or intimidate you. But I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve started with an established brand.

But you have worked with Ather Shehzad a lot.
Yes, I’ve worked with Ather Shehzad a lot. Then I also have worked with Khawar Riaz, Deevees and Usman Saeed. Some of my best work has been with Tapu Javeri and Mubashir Khan. They’re my favorite photographer and makeup artist team.

ABCD recently started the trend of custom-made jeans (AS jeans). What exactly is that?
When I started out in fashion, the first thing I did was jeans. I started customizing jeans. Jeans are my passion. I make one of-a-kind jeans. I meet people: I sit with them for half an hour and I get an impression of what they’re like, and that impression – the ideas I get – I put that on the jeans. The jeans are actually a reflection of you – it’s what I think of you, whether It’s paint. Whether it’s rips, whether it’s fabric, whether it’s leather. I do crazy things with jeans – rip them, burn them, all sorts of things. I get inspired by the people and put their personality on the jeans.

Any fashion shows in the near future?
I’m trying to do a fashion show but I’m not sure. I did a fashion show last year. It was a really big one, with the whole Miami theme, because I was launching the brand. So I might go into other forms of advertising, where people can actually identify with the image and concept of the brand.

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