Sana and Safinaz on their 25 years in the industry, maintaining product quality, and dealing with copied designs.
First published in Nov-Dec 2015
AURORA: How do you perceive SANA SAFINAZ as a brand?
SAFINAZ MUNEER: SANA SAFINAZ is a powerhouse, although a lot of people still haven’t really picked up on this. In 25 years we have taken the brand from couture to prêt and this says a lot for us as a brand. There is stability in our brand because Sana and I have been working consistently and until recently we have been doing this entirely on our own, and with no background in the field – just the love of fashion.
SANA HASHWANI: We love both the business and the design aspect. We have just entered the prêt field and it is a tremendous challenge.
A: Twenty-five years ago, did you have a vision of how SANA SAFINAZ would play out?
SH: Not at all. In those days, if you worked, you were sad. We were two recently married society girls – and people sort of felt sorry for us because we worked. We did it purely out of choice. We started with light evening wear and it snowballed; the vision came in the last 10 years.
A: At what stage did the realisation come that SANA SAFINAZ was going places as a brand?
SM: When you see someone walking down the street wearing your print, it gives you a high, because you realise that you can actually determine and change fashion. It was a slow and subtle evolution. We are not in the newspaper every day but we won three awards this year, and they are a testimony to what we did in 2014. Today we own 14 shops – 15 if you include our online retail – this in just two and a half years; I don’t think anyone has had that spurt.
A: How did you start?
SM: With bridals and light evening wear. Then 18 years ago we went into lawn and five years ago we started doing lawn totally on our own.
SH: We worked for Alkaram for three years and then we did a three year stint at Lakhany where we designed lawn under the ‘SANA SAFINAZ by Lakhany’ tag. After that we decided that we are going to do lawn on our own.
SM: When we worked for Lakhany Mills there was only one collection a year and we got paid for it.
A: But it was your time with Lakhany Mills that made your name.
SH: It made us a household name. It was then that we started to think about doing lawn on our own. Again it was not a big vision; we said let’s start this and see where it goes. We never think ahead of ourselves; we take one step a time. We saw that no one else was doing designer lawn, so we took it on ourselves and took the brand from X to Y. In the beginning people told us we were going about it the wrong way, but it was our idea and we stuck to it. To a certain extent this is what we are doing with retail.
SM: In retrospect I think that had we had business degrees we would have been savvier, although our baby steps toward the bigger picture worked for us. We followed our instincts and they were spot on. This is about two Pakistani women designing for Pakistani women, and when you get that instinct down to a pat, there is very little that can throw you off track. Now that we are older, we are inducting younger designers so that our design vision evolves in tune with younger preferences. To handle the business aspect, we are hiring professionals to push it forward.
SH: The secret is to be passionate about whatever you do and 25 years on we are as passionate, if not more, than when we started.
A: How much are you affected by the small players who copy your designs?
SH: It’s the nature of the business. Copying is a worldwide issue; even the big French fashion houses struggle with the problem. In Pakistan, copyright laws are very loosely applied; you lose market share, but you learn to live with it.
SM: Wherever there is a demand, there will be a supply. If you are the most coveted lawn designer, it’s natural that everyone wants to have it – and the minute the demand is created, someone will meet it. Fashion is one of the few thriving businesses in Pakistan. If the government doesn’t step in and legitimate people keep getting hurt, they will say it is not worth it. I don’t think the government realises the severity of the problem – copying is a huge issue; it is an industry wide problem.
A: Then there is the issue of designers themselves copying prints.
SH: This happens. Before Pinterest and the internet, references came from books, museums and other sources. Now it’s a new world, and hundreds of designs and motifs come off the internet. You take a motif, you merge and change and take ownership of it. This is standard practice. The fine-line comes when the design is copyrighted or if you use the design of a living artist.
SM: You need to own the design. If, for example I take inspiration from a 15th century Turkish motif I see in a book and then expand or merge it with something else, I have owned it. That is the crux of the matter.
A: How organised is the fashion industry?
SH: Getting there. We started when the industry was at zero. Fashion journalists didn’t exist; only a couple of magazines carried fashion shoots, today there are hundreds of publications and blogs dedicated to fashion. Design schools are another phenomenon; they are very good resources to find designers.
SM: Look at the number of Fashion Weeks taking place every year. They have become huge!
SH: There used to be limited supplies in terms of thread, buttons, lace... Today, hundreds of markets cater to this. When Safi places an order for lace, the shopkeeper is happy because she has bought his entire supply. This is how fashion creates jobs. It has a huge filter down effect. With prêt, Shamoon (Sultan) has created millions of jobs, and with more and more companies following the trend, a massive amount of employment has been generated.
However, this is a learning process and a very young field in a young country and Safi and I have learnt from mistakes that someone 10 years from now will not make. But the industry has won accolades and made fashion shine. Today India looks at our industry; their prêt market is not as organised as ours. Lawn is a phenomenon unique to Pakistan. These are incredible achievements, and as mentors to the industry we need to focus on them. This is what inspires us the most.
"Today India looks at our industry; their prêt market is not as organised as ours. Lawn is a phenomenon unique to Pakistan."
A: What are the main challenges for fashion as an industry?
SM: The biggest problem is finding skilled labour, although in 10 years time you will find that skilled labour, because the industry will demand that those people come forth. Then there are the electricity and security issues; there is a strike and you lose three or four days and everything goes haywire with delivery issues.
SH: Another issue is QC (quality control) because the fabric comes from the textile mills and it is out of your control, but we have to deal with it. For example, if there is a bleed on a shirt, customers can return it to one of our stores and if the complaint is legitimate, their money will be refunded. We have a full return policy, which is something new in Pakistan. What is so great about having your own stores is that you can deliver on the trust value of your brand and in this way control your image. If a customer buys one of our products from another store, there is no guarantee they will refund your money.
A: Do you find retail a profitable business?
SH: Profitability is something we will definitely see.
SM: We are too young; just two and half years into it.
SH: You have to give a five to six year timeframe to any business. Our lawn business has been going for the last six years and it is galloping now. We have entered the next level with prêt and are investing in the product and the brand. Prêt accounts for only 10% of the market, but what it offers is convenience; it makes the brand accessible and opens up new avenues. For example, our new muslin line is only distributed through our stores. It’s cheaper than lawn, so we will hit another dynamic in the population. Retail is limitless and you have to keep adding something new.
SM: You have to keep on tweaking the model because it is not a science that has been worked out in Pakistan. Abroad retail is massive. Retail is new here and it is not a business that will grow by leaps and bounds, because it is linked to the economy. You have to be careful about how quickly you expand and how much dead stock you carry, because it is a drain on finances. You need to be very liquid because you have to keep re-inventing your stores and opening new ones.
SH: Unlike other fields there are no professionals, so people learn with you on the job – and then someone else poaches them – because retail is such a small field. There are no tried and tested processes, and unlike other fields where once the formula is worked out, you can keep doing it 24/7/365, we have to reinvent ourselves five times a day. It’s exhausting! If you come up with something this year, you can’t do it the next, because the copiers will be doing it, so you have to keep rethinking your way forward. Until recently, we were completely hands-on and did everything ourselves, but we have realised this will not work anymore. We need to delegate and have younger people work with us.
SM: Retail is only as good as your team is. You can’t make this work alone; it’s not possible. When you get to this level you have to rely on professionals; there is only so far the two of us can take our vision. You need a strong and independent team with retail knowledge. Sana and I have no knowledge of retail; we are learning day to day. Having said this, you have to be hands on if you want a successful business. When you are invested in a company as the owner, the company is more successful because your name is there and you don’t want to put rubbish in a store. When you have that kind of commitment, your product is naturally much better.
SH: This is the thing with age. When you are young, you are fearless; you are at the beginning of things and you experiment. Now we feel we are standing at a precipice and we are scared. But we know we have to be resilient and go for it. With lawn we could have simply hit the cruise button and stayed there; we would not have gone into retail and been very happy.
A: What made you decide to go into retail?
SH: I don’t know. That is the scary bit!
SM: It’s a tough business.
SH: And a very exciting one. It’s very involving and you have to be on top of your game. We have always gone into things by telling each other that we could do it, and we made a success of it. We are like pit-bulls - we hang in there and push ourselves.
A: How does your interiors business fit in?
SM: We only cater to our clients. People come by word of mouth. We have done some of the biggest homes in Pakistan. This is a one-on-one business; nothing is available from a store, because the minute we open a store, the market will be flooded with copies. Interiors is something we do out of passion.
A: So it is contained?
SH: Contained maybe; but it is a big business.
SM: We are excellent multi-taskers. I design lawn entirely on my own. We do interiors entirely on our own. Sana handles prêt entirely on her own. We design and run bridal entirely on our own.
SH: The ‘entirely on our own’ is no longer something to take pride in. It’s something we have to change.
SM: In this business PR is very important. I am the face of bridal. No one is going to order an expensive bridal outfit without talking to me; if I am not available, people come back another time. The same goes for interiors; people are not interested in our team designing their house, they want to talk to us; they want our vision.
A: So the brand is very much associated with the two of you?
SM: We don’t want to be the face of SANA SAFINAZ. We really don’t.
A: How do you escape this?
SH: We will; with prêt and lawn we have already done it. We have invested heavily in our brand and we have to think where the brand will be when we are not there. Abroad, when a designer retires, the design house goes and finds the next top designer. Here one has to nurture and build teams which understand the brand.
A: After prêt are you contemplating another big project?
SM: No. Retail is a very tough business and it will take a long time to become solid. We are going to be at this for some time. You can never rest with retail. It keeps you on your toes every single day.
SH: The growth is so tremendous, you can’t think about any other business. You need to keep focusing on taking it forward. This is a country of nearly 200 million people; unofficially Karachi has a population of 28 million people, Lahore approximately 11 to 12 million. Tremendous scope; it is now about engaging – and we are at the stage where the public is engaging with us. They are starting to believe in our brand. They see we are committed to the brand; that we are moving forward, investing and building the brand. This is how you achieve brand loyalty.
Sana Hashwani and Safinaz Muneer were in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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