With the launch of Kashmir’s first designer clothing store at Raj Bagh, Zubair Kirmani, a Delhi-based Kashmiri designer, has made his entry into this blue ocean market of the valley. He has been nominated for the Woolmark International Prize. He speaks to Shehla Rashid about his motivation, vision and future plans.
KL: What inspired you to take up Fashion designing as a career which is a rather rare profession in this part of the world?
ZK: When I was young, it was really difficult to convince one’s parents, even oneself, about fashion designing as a career even though I had a dream to be a designer during school. Now, I think things have changed drastically and parents are more understanding. Back in those days, we had access only to a few fashion magazines through which you could get exposure to fashion. But even then, I was into fabric painting: I’d paint Chinar leaves on my own Tee shirts.
KL: So, it started out as a hobby…
ZK: Yes, exactly! And everyone liked the Tee shirts and asked for the same designs. So I would paint for them; that was the inspiration and I realized that I wanted to do something of this sort. When I grew up and told my parents that I wanted to do fashion designing, I got the same answers: “Look at your brothers”, “he’s a doctor”. I went to Bangalore right after 12th class to follow my passion but something transpired and I ended up studying engineering for a year. Sometimes, it so happens that, even if you know what your dream is, you end up doing something else, for whatever reason, maybe because you’re not strong enough to take a stand. With Almighty’s grace, however, I met with an accident- it came as a blessing in disguise. I broke my leg and had to take bed rest for around six months. It was then that I told my parents that I can’t do engineering anymore and, since I’ve already wasted an academic year, it’s better to do something that I like to do. They agreed and said that it was my life and that they could only pray for me. It was a dream-come-true for a Kashmiri family to understand fashion. Till then they didn’t know much about fashion except a few things on TV which, sometimes, portray a negative image of the profession.
KL: Did you earn a formal degree in fashion?
ZK: I did a course in fashion in Bangalore but, frankly speaking, I even left that halfway. I guess that was a, well, useless college. But I did learn a few things because if you follow, spend time on something, you definitely end up learning a few things.
KL: When did you launch your own label?
ZK: It was, 2006, I think, or 2007.
KL: What did you do before that?
ZK: I worked at a couple of places for three months, four months, etc. because my mind was not stable at one place. My mind can’t work the way others think it will work. It has to have its own direction. And that’s what you can see in my clothes- they’re understated. And everywhere, in my designs, you can see signature – I was very shy, to talk about things, to talk about myself. I would always tell people that I need a medium to express myself, like painters need a canvas. For me, my canvas is my clothes. They speak about what I think. I am conservative. You can see my women’s clothing- it’s very simple. My men’s clothing is very wearable and that’s how people know me. That is how people relate to my label.
KL: The decision to come back to Kashmir, or let’s say, to expand into Kashmir. Could you tell us something about it?
ZK: It’s been a dream to do something out of Kashmir. I take steps, but slowly. I allow myself to mature in a couple of things and then go ahead rather than jumping into something and spoiling it. I thought that it is the right time; I’m mature enough, to take a call and start something here and give the best to my people. I have many clients who spend a lot of money unnecessarily on travel and, at the end, maybe, get the same stuff.
KL: Are you manufacturing in Kashmir?
ZK: No, but we have a very small centre which takes care of certain alterations on-spot. That’s a future plan, maybe six months or a year down the line. We have huge machines to take care of the finishing. My label is known for its finish. Now we’ll be blending certain handicrafts and merging the best of both. That’s what we Kashmiris need – to take our craft to the next level. Till now, our focus has been on bringing outside products to Kashmir. Now the focus will be on manufacturing products here and taking them outside.
KL: You don’t have a lot ladies’ wear among your collections here, why is it so?
ZK:We are still trying to analyze the market for ladies’ wear. Men, I think, are globally the same, so we don’t have to do a lot of changes to men’s wear. For women, we have very wearable stuff. Till now, we’ve only been designing western wear for women. But, we’ll be launching our women’s line by September or, maybe, next year properly because it’s winter time in September here. My designs are generally conservative- it’s not because I’m scared of the circumstances here, it’s just that I’m not trying to be someone else. I think every woman in Kashmir is a designer. They know a lot about the fabric, the embroidery, etc. Men don’t know much about fabric or design. Kashmiri women have a natural inclination towards design. We don’t want to get it wrong, so we’re going slow. You can even see kids’ wear over here; we’re slowly trying things out and catching up with the market.
KL: Tell us about your expansion plans.
ZK: This (store) is part of our expansion plans. We’re planning to get the best stitching and give a new face to the Kashmiri handicrafts. Cloth-making is zero in Kashmir, even in India it’s not so advanced as it is in the West. So that’s a gap we’re trying to fill. We’re venturing into corporate sector. Our main aim is to target banks, young working crowd especially those who are at managerial positions and whose salaries are decent. We’ve also started doing hotel uniforms, starting with Vintage hotel in Gulmarg. You can check out their uniforms, notice the detail and see what makes it stand out from usual stuff. We’re also trying to bag a few more projects for upcoming hotels in Kashmir and by September/October, we’re certain that these projects will take off. The ambience of the hotels here is very Kashmiri, so we thought about introducing a Kashmiri touch into the uniforms as well, while keeping them wearable.
KL: Generally, people are wary of designer labels because of the price. Would you describe your label as expensive?
ZK: Yeah, I think it’s true, because that’s how things used to happen. But as you can see, we have a mix of everything. Our shirts start from 1700 (Rs) which a normal brand would sell for 2600. On top of that, we only do a few pieces whereas they manufacture for the masses – their profit levels are much higher than ours. Nowadays, even designers have started retailing to the masses. They’re trying to cover that gap where people used to be afraid of buying designer wear. So, I think it used to be a taboo, but not now. Even then, there are designer pieces which are expensive but they’re worth the money, the work is good- after all, gold is gold, diamond is diamond, what can you do about it? (smiles)
KL: Like you said, parents here normally don’t understand fashion but there are many youngsters who want to pursue fashion designing or modeling, etc. as a profession. Do you have a message for them?
ZK: I can’t blame the parents since I myself can’t understand what I’m doing at times (chuckles). For youngsters, I’d say that no profession is good or bad in itself. It is what you make of it. You could take up a very good profession and ruin it with your own character and vice versa. I think one needs to be honest to whatever they’re doing. Trust me that will take you places.