Aurora Magazine

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Published in Jul-Aug 2020

Behind the Mask

Jofa was the first Pakistani fashion designer to take the initiative of producing PPE.

Pakistani fashion and jewellery designer Asim Jofa made headlines recently for being the first Pakistani fashion designer to take the initiative of producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals under the #AsimJofaCares initiative. Soon afterwards, other fashion designers also began to address this acute shortage – and today were you to enquire about what is 2020’s trendiest outfit, the answer may well be a hazmat suit and the most sought after fabric taffeta. Covid-19 has really changed everything!

To find out more about the initiative and the man himself, I pay Jofa a visit in his office in Karachi. Upon arrival I am ushered into a room full of cardboard boxes where Jofa (in black jeans, a navy blue shirt and a mask of his own creation on his face), is occupied with the task of stuffing PPE into them before dispatch to Civil, Indus and Shaukat Khanum hospitals.

“This is the finest achievement of my life. I have never done anything like this before,” he declares as he seats himself at his desk to address my questions.

According to him, the idea to make PPE popped into his head after he read an article on Bloomberg about doctors in Spain using garbage bags due to a chronic shortage of PPE. “It was alarming!” he says. “If this could happen in Spain, how much worse would the situation be in Pakistan?”

This is when he resolved to do something about it. He made his first prototype and presented it to Dr Seemin Jamali, ED at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC). It was unceremoniously rejected. Dr Jamali, however, guided him as to the correct SOPs to make PPE. Armed with this information, within 48 hours he was back at JPMC with a second prototype. This one met with approval and he was given the green signal to continue – and today (mid May) he has already supplied over 3,000 pieces to multiple hospitals and NGOs across Pakistan including Bahawalpur, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Karachi, Khuzdar, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. His target is to produce a total of 5,000 – and then stop.

“I am enjoying what I am doing. As a hyperactive person, I found it difficult to adjust to the lockdown; being idle made me bored and depressed. Now that I am working with a purpose, I am fine,” he says, adding that although he had no prior experience making PPE, or even thought about doing so, it is part of his nature to challenge himself by doing different things. This may also explain why he has experimented so much – from jewellery to ice-cream, to real estate and fashion design. “I never know what’s next. Today I am into clothing, tomorrow I may quit and start something new from scratch.”

Originally named Muhammad Asim, Jofa was born into a family of jewellers from Delhi, who migrated to Karachi after Partition. The family set up their first shop in Meethadar’s Sarafa Bazaar (Pakistan’s first jewellery market). The shop was named Haji Muhammad Shafi & Sons. Jofa’s father then opened a second shop in the vicinity called Fancy Jewellers and it was there that after school Jofa and his brother Muhammad Arif re-paired in order to learn the ropes of the trade. “My father used to ask us to separate emeralds or rubies according to their shade and expected us to be better at it every time.”

After graduating from Government Commerce College in 1993, Jofa and his brother opened their own jewellery store in Tariq Road. He worked there for 10 years, after which the brothers separated and he opened Gold Mark in the newly built Park Towers Clifton in 2000. Then in 2005, while still running Gold Mark he bought over the Mövenpick ice-cream business in Pakistan. “Their outlet was just next to my shop and I used to eat their ice-cream every day. Then I heard they were selling the business; I asked about the selling price and eventually bought it.” He has been running the Mövenpick ice-cream business with a partner for 16 years now and has reportedly increased sales by 600%.

Jofa opened his next boutique in The Forum in Karachi, calling it Jofa – an acronym for Jewellery of Asim. As it turned out, Nadia Mistry, his friend and fashion designer, started to call him ‘Jofa’ and the name caught on – so much so, that he adopted it as his surname. That was when Muhammad Asim became Asim Jofa. It was a new surname and a new brand.

His next venture was Diamond Gallery, a two-storey jewellery boutique located next to Ocean Mall. Although the jewellery business was doing fairly well, the restless Jofa tried his hand at real estate and in 2007 he acquired a 25% share (and approximately 100 acres of land) in the Maymar Housing Scheme. “But there were too many partners and this led to frequent disputes and I quit.” However, as property investment turned out to be a good experience, in 2009 he built Jofa Towers, a multi-storey office building in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. “And then one fine day, after almost two decades of doing this, I realised I did not want to continue my jewellery business.” Jofa was caught by the lawn bug, and in 2009 without further ado, he transformed his jewellery business into a clothing one.

Given his lack of know-how, Jofa started by learning how to cut and sew with the help of two tailors he hired and by early 2010, he was ready to launch the Asim Jofa Luxury Lawn Collection with a tagline: “I Wear Asim Jofa.” He further honed his design and draping skills by attending St Martin’s School of Arts in London in 2013 and later expanded his into prêt and bridals.

Today Jofa launches an average of 12 collections a year which include his luxury lawn and prêt – and his success in his newly chosen field is assured. The question, however, is whether he will also tire of being a fashion designer and venture into something else? “No matter what I do, I do not feel I have accomplished anything and the satisfaction does not last. When I went into ice-cream, I thought this was it... and this is what I feel every time I start anything new.”

For the moment Jofa has his focus on manufacturing PPE. He says he has not derived as much satisfaction with anything else. This is my cue to ask why he is set on just producing 5,000 units? The demand is not just in Pakistan but worldwide and is likely to continue for some time. “I don’t think I will continue this in the long-term. I don’t want to be answerable. Once you get into this line of work, people assume it to be their right to ask how much profit I make and where it goes. I don’t want to be answerable to anyone. Let these 5,000 pieces be my gift.”

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