AYESHA SHAIKH: How did a Parsons School of Design graduate, majoring in haute couture, start to work for a textile mill?
SUMRIN ALI: Working for a textile mill was never on the cards. I had returned to Pakistan after stints with various international brands when the opportunity to work for Al-Karam came my way; although I did study textiles, the challenge was to master the technicalities of manufacturing, such as thread counts and dyes. The company is a major player in the international textile market and supplies linen and bedding materials to brands such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan and retail giants like Walmart, J.C. Penney and Target. What I brought to the table was a ‘fashion focus’, which is an area that textile mills in Pakistan have not developed.
AS: Fashion focus in what way?
SA: Despite being an industry pioneer, Al-Karam were not showcasing their products in the export market. The focus was on manufacturing quality cotton fabric. The way things worked was that clients would send design samples, they were recreated exactly, and shipped. I realised that the three annual shows we do, two in New York and one in Germany, were the ideal platforms to present Al-Karam products in a different way. We began displaying stylised bedding and our biggest success came when we began receiving requests to provide our own design solutions to international fashion brands. We were no longer just a textile mill exporting base fabric.
AS: Are you also involved with Al-Karam’s domestic initiatives?
SA: Until recently, the export and domestic divisions operated as separate business units. My involvement with domestic product development started when these divisions were consolidated under one umbrella. After having successfully handled the textile side, fashion-based product development was right up my alley.
AS: What was the transition like?
SA: It turned out to be far more complex than I thought. A few months in, I realised how crucial brand image is when it comes to clothing. In terms of mass-market presence, there are two names: Gul Ahmed and Al-Karam. A quick assessment of how my own brand was operating made it clear that apart from the quality of the fabric, every other element, from product design to store ambience, had lost its focus and this was beginning to affect our sales. We needed a younger team to make the brand relevant, so we hired fresh graduates from textile and design schools and asked them to create a new design philosophy. Soon the market began to notice the change as well.
AS: What are the market dynamics of fashion retail in Pakistan?
SA: The market has evolved tremendously. Despite being a pioneer, Al-Karam failed to keep up and that affected our market share. The audience today is more fashion-savvy, trendy and price aware than ever before and the apparel market, particularly the ready-to-wear segment, is extremely competitive. Many designers, who were only designing bridal outfits and formal wear, have launched their casual prêt ranges and this has transformed the image of lawn from a basic summer commodity to an elegant product that makes a fashion statement. As a result, there had to be strategic shifts in our product ranges, the tonality of our marketing campaigns, and the prints as well. Even our stores had to undergo a transformation in terms of ambience, layout and decor.
AS: As a student of fashion and an end-consumer, what was your first impression when you visited an Al-Karam outlet?
SA: The first time I walked into one of our stores, it was like being in a large department store and not a high-end boutique. The ambience was masculine, despite the fact that we have always been a women’s clothing brand.
AS: Do you think retail ambience and window displays factor in the purchase decision of consumers?
SA: Merchandising makes a huge psychological impact on the people who walk into your store. An increasing number of brands, particularly those with outlets in malls, have started improving their window displays because there is recognition that it affects the customer’s retail experience and influences their purchase decision. Specialists are being hired and we are seeing bigger, better stores. The Khaadi Home store at Dolmen Mall was an innovation in retail design, in terms of how the outlet was planned. Now, why would a successful brand with a loyal customer base do that? The answer is simple. Khaadi wanted the customer experience to evolve as well. In my opinion, your store and displays are opportunities to share your brand story and create a stronger connect with people.
AS: How has the brand’s narrative changed and are you targeting a different clientele?
SA: Previously, the brand association was strictly with a more mature audience, because Al-Karam were known for their traditional, three-piece shalwar kameez suits. Somewhere along the line, we lost touch with younger people but we are addressing this now. We want to be seen as a trendy brand that is a wardrobe essential for young people. The brand’s muse has always been the woman who wants to look classy without being too edgy. Al-Karam is a traditional brand with strong Pakistani values and we don’t want to move away from those roots. What we have done is add an additional layer to our positioning. So, although we still cater to the more mature demographic, we have introduced new ranges, styles, cuts and prints for younger customers. Even our marketing campaigns have changed significantly from how we used to advertise.
AS: Was attracting younger buyers the reason why Mahira Khan became the face of Al-Karam?
SA: The campaign objectives went beyond just attracting young people. It was about conveying the message that women have the strength to be perfect in every aspect of their life. Mahira was chosen not only because of her popularity or because she is a pretty face, but because of the personal and professional obstacles she has faced. From not being taken seriously by the industry to her struggles as a working mom, we wanted to show the journey of a talented, hardworking, young woman who succeeded despite the odds. That Mahira is an icon among the young only helped. What was also unique about the campaign was that there were flowing ball gowns made from lawn. The elegance of the fabric and the new designs were also highlighted in the TVC, and were appreciated as much as the women empowerment theme.
AS: What do you consider Al-Karam’s greatest strengths to be and what are the challenges that need to be tackled to reclaim their position as a top brand?
SA: Currently, 70% of our domestic sales come from the women’s range. Going forward, the focus will be on prêt, because that is a pot of gold. This does not imply that unstitched fabric will become less important because that remains our forte, but the emphasis will be on creating stylish prêt wear of the best quality. There are also plans to launch our bedding brand soon. The architecture, interior decor and home furnishing businesses are booming and eventually, this will translate into increased customer demand for modern, customised bedding and linen accessories for the home and we want to be ready for that. The edge is our international expertise and experience in this product category. The only challenge is in changing the design language, because it is very difficult to edit your designs to make them simple. As a vertically integrated company, we already have the product development capabilities and tools, it is just a question of taking advantage of them to position Al-Karam as an elegant, yet a stylishly young, textile brand.
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