I instantly recognise Maheen Khan as she saunters into Esquires Coffee at Dolmen Mall for our breakfast meeting. Wearing black pants and a white oversized shirt, she waves from a distance and directs herself towards my table. Seeing her makeup-free visage, a perfect hairdo (the signature pixie only a few women pull off so beautifully) and a radiant smile, I realise time has not affected her looks nor the charm and sophistication she is forever associated with.
Pakistan’s first couturier, Khan is one of the most respected figures in this country’s fashion circles. In a career spanning over three decades, she has showcased her collections in several countries, mentored established designers and won multiple accolades.
Currently the Founder and Design Director of Maheen (established in 1983) and Gulabo (2005), Khan was reluctant to the idea of being profiled, terming it “so boring”. Yet, she eventually did acquiesce and gave me three hours of her time to recount her journey (anything but boring). In our conversation we spoke about her childhood, how she became a designer, the challenges and successes, as well as her thoughts on an industry she is indelibly entwined with and which remains close to her heart.
Khan was born in Calcutta, where her father had moved from Burma following his marriage. Her forefathers, although not Afghans, had settled into Afghanistan “in search of their fortune” and it was only after World War II broke out that one part of the family moved to India and the other to Burma (including her great grandfather). However, subsequent to the Japanese invasion of Rangoon (now Yangon) this part of the family also migrated to India.
After Partition, Khan’s father moved to Chittagong where she spent her early childhood. (She retains vivid memories of standing beside her father watching the Quaid-i-Azam drive by on a visit to the city.)
When her father joined the family shipping business, her parents moved to Khulna, a port city that was undergoing rapid expansion. “My father and his cousins worked for M.A. Ispahani (another cousin) who owned all the shipping business in East Pakistan plus cotton, jute, tea and rice fields.”
At the age of eight, her family moved to Karachi. Her father was to take care of the business in West Pakistan, although an important objective was to give his four daughters (of which Khan was the third, followed by twin sisters) a better education.
“We sailed to Pakistan on the Aurunda, one of the most well-known luxury liners built by the East India Company; it had swimming pools, ballrooms, squash and tennis courts. It was the Auranda’s last trip I think.”
Once in Karachi, the sisters attended St. Joseph’s Convent and Khan describes her childhood as amazing. “We grew up in the beautiful sixties, which were all about flappers, rock and roll and everybody knowing everybody and moving about in gangs.”
She terms her gang a bunch of “monkeys”, composed of girls from St. Joseph’s and Karachi Grammar School and who were always seen in capris and T-shirts. Homework was followed by landing up at a friend’s place, putting on the music and jiving; otherwise it was the movies (at the Palace, Capri or Rex) or trips to the beach.
“We were innocent; we made a lot of noise wherever we went and had fun. There was no such thing as doing up your hair, putting makeup on or taking selfies (thank God). Most importantly, our parents never gave us money. They said if you want something, we will buy it for you.”
Khan, by her own admission, was somewhat headstrong and opted to do things differently, including the way she wanted to look. “If my sisters wore a shalwar kameez, I would wear a skirt. If they decided on loose curls, I would opt for a pony tail.”
She did not know then that these impulses would define her future.
At 18, following her A Levels, Khan began her first job at She magazine, writing for the beauty and social pages. At 19, she married and moved to Lahore.
“Now that was a culture shock. Everything was so different and I found no connection whatsoever.” Although she adds that later she did make some enduring friendships.
According to her, women in Lahore were hooked to wearing starched and beautifully ironed white lathay ki shalwars with a similar kameez and dupatta every day and even slept in them... “but that was the tradition.”
As a result, Khan began designing her clothes. Soon, requests followed from friends and this then led to her opening her own tailoring shop in her garage, which she named The Seamstress.
“Don’t have any visions of fashion because at that time there was none,” she cautions me.
Orders were confined to conventional pleated shirts; zips between pleats, round, V-shaped, square, heart-shaped necks and long, short or three-quarter sleeves.
She recalls “the wonderful matriarch”, Begum Abida Hussain (mother of Syeda Abida Hussain), who asked her to design a collection for her daughter’s American trip.
“I asked ‘what about the kapra’? She said buy it yourself and then she took out her cheque book, signed a blank cheque and said: ‘once you have made the collection fill in the amount.’ Imagine my elation. It was the first time I went and bought fabric myself and I realised I loved doing it.”
A three-year interlude followed when Khan moved to Dubai. On her return she opened her first shop ‘Maheen’ in Clifton in Karachi. She says what prompted her was the fact that every time she travelled she scrambled to make a new wardrobe.
“Pakistani women should have a wardrobe that they can wear and travel in at the same time. It’s expensive to have two wardrobes.”
Here too, Khan did things differently and introduced a new fashion silhouette: capris worn with shirts. It was groundbreaking.
This was followed by more fusions, especially with saris as she came from a “sari-wearing family”. However, she points out that she never played around with traditional clothing and took great care to learn the proper cutting techniques.
In the eighties, a lot of fashion shows were held in support of various charities and it was the practice that the girls modelled free of charge.
“I remember putting together a show and I called the models to my place and told them that they should be paid for their work, and I was going to do just that because they are professionals. I was the first person to pay models and encourage them to set proper rates for their work.”
Khan went on to establish the Pakistan Fashion Council (in her living room) and worked with designers that included Amir Adnan, Rizwan Beyg, Banto Kazmi, Niloufer Shahid, and Honey Waqar. Parallel to this her business flourished and when she launched Gulabo in 2005, there were three branches of Maheen in Karachi. Gulabo was inspired by the truck art of Pakistan.
“Gulabo was inspired by my love for Pakistan and all things Pakistani; the love of colour, spicy food, romance, poetry and the love of street life in Pakistan. But in the long run, it didn’t sell very well; it didn’t have a market and I couldn’t break even, so I had to change the formula.”
Nevertheless both labels are still doing well; Maheen does exclusive couture and Gulabo offers a selection of prêt choices (the truck art theme is confined to the scarves).
Khan is proud of how far the fashion industry has travelled.
“It humbles me to realise that I was the one who instigated all this; by default I stepped into this muddy area called fashion. I would never have dreamt that my small initiative would grow into a mega-billion rupee industry.”
Khan has worked with almost all the top Pakistani designers and in her opinion Deepak Perwani is an undisputed king of men’s wear. Her other favourites are Iman Ahmed (Body Focus) Nomi Ansari, Sonia Batla and Kamiar Rokni, although she says their potential has been stymied by the industry. She also admires Sana Hashwani, Safinaz Muneer and Khadija Shah.
It is also her opinion that the industry has become sleazy, too commercial and stagnant. Given that so many new names have entered the market recently, I asked her how easy it is to become a couturier. Her short reply is: “Do half of them even know what fashion means? They are all seamstresses, exactly where I was in 1972. What do they make that a tailor cannot?”
Khan describes fashion as something new that has never been seen before; it is about introducing a silhouette.
“But, of course, none of them will tell you this because they don’t know.”
In her view, it is perfectly okay if someone wants to make pretty clothes and some money out of it, but they should not call themselves designers.
“Does every man who builds a house call himself an architect? No. So why does every woman who makes clothes call herself a designer?”