Fascination for sketches, drawings and designs since childhood took an army official’s daughter from Leh to National Institute of Fashion Technology for formal training in designs. Bilal Handoo reports how Kaniz Fatima emerged the first among the equals in her training institute, rubbed shoulders with the best in the business in fashion industry and then returned her home in the cold desert only to start her own venture
She seems a soft-spoken. More than her words though, her actions seemingly speak loud. The dove-eyed Kaniz Fatima, 25, of Leh isn’t any other girl in this hilly area to set up her business venture in handicrafts and designs. She is professionally trained in her endeavour. And in a very short span of time, she has earned a reputation of somebody, who meticulously works on accessories before unveiling them for sale on her shop-cum-showroom at old road, Leh. She is, what many call, a girl on the mission to redefine the way Leh dresses and adorns itself.
But much before she made an ambition out of her design devotion, Kaniz was any other girl studying in Imamia Mission School (Leh). After her class 10th, she went to Jammu where she studied up to class 12th. Once done with schooling, she refused to join college to study the traditional courses. But instead went to Chennai where she did one year diploma course in Fashion Designing from Annamalai University. Her acumen for designs was only flourished in the university. And soon, her consistent and creatively crafted designs paid off. Towards the end of her course, she was adjudged as the best performer of the year. “It was a nice feeling to get felicitated for something you are so passionate about,” Kaniz says, beaming jolly looks.
Then on the suggestion of her teachers, she prepared for the National Institute of Fashion Designing (NIFT) exam which she successfully qualified. She opted for textile design in NIFT Chennai. “I had to select one subject for specialization,” she says. “So, I zeroed in on textile designs as I was naturally attracted to fabrics and outfits.” Besides, she says, she had done a lot of work on textiles designs during her one year diploma at Annamalai University.
At NIFT, Kaniz kept participating in regular fashion exhibitions. After sensing depth in her works, her faculty at the campus motivated her to go for accessory designs, which she did.
After completing her degree from NIFT, she went to Delhi where she started working with India’s one of top ten fashion designers, Neeru Kumar. For Kumar, Kaniz worked as the accessory designer (jewellery designer). Her good work continued with the ace Indian designer. And soon, Kaniz’s designs got selected for Victoria and Albert Museum (London). Other than Museum, Fatima’s designs had been part of many exhibitions in and outside India. “This encouraged me a lot,” she says. “And then I thought I should exercise my creative freedom to its fullest.”
The expression of the same creativity won her many accolades, besides a series of success. “But somehow the monotony of the glamour world was turning me off,” she says. “At some point of time, I felt I had become machine than human.”
The very realisation grew her rusty and restless. And then to give herself a break from the ‘demanding profession’, she parted her ways with Kumar and made up her mind to return home. Kumar questioned, what she thought “a weird” decision on Kaniz’s part to leave behind what she had earned very hard after putting up loads of efforts. Kaniz, however, stood by her decision. But before bidding her boss an adieu at Bangalore (where she was working then), Kaniz poured her heart out: “I think, I have reached at a stage where I should utilise all my learning experience to serve my birthplace.” With that vow, she returned to Leh.
But back home, Fatima, the daughter of army official (deputy director), faced the reality: her pocket strength wasn’t good enough to kick start her ambitious set
up. “But fortune favours the brave,” she quips. “I never call it quits and kept exploring and seek assistance till I learned about the scheme offered by Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI).”
The scheme: Sher-e-Kashmir Employment & Welfare Programme for the Youth (SKEWPY) had reached Leh and was promising youth like Kaniz all the help to start their entrepreneurship units. She availed the scheme and subsequently her project worth Rs 30 lakh was sanctioned. And with the financial assistance, she setup her unit ‘De’ Kanis Kreactions’ at old road, Leh. In this setup, she deals with handmade products (apparel, accessories, jewellery, home products and souvenirs).
A trained and professional fashion designer, Kanis is promoting the traditional designs which include Cholo, a traditional wood carving of Ladakh. “Besides Cholo, another traditional aspect of Ladakh which I am promoting is Gyanak Chakri,” she says.
Bearing stark resemblance with valley-based Paper Machie, Kaniz says she is doing her bit to promote it. Though Chakri is indigenous article of Leh, she says, but it has a base link with Kashmir. “I prepare the base models or moulds of Chakri from Srinagar’s Zadibal, a hub of Paper Machie artisans. So, in a way, my articles reflect regional artistry. And I think this makes me different,” she says.
But the moment she threw her unit open, many were left baffled with her designs and creations. “Perhaps people at first were left sweetly surprised with my novel designs,” she says. “But I guess that was very much a natural reaction on their part as all new things do take their time before being accepted by people.” But in spite of introducing something new and novel, she managed a sale of Rs 30,000 in her first month with a margin of 50 per cent.
To attract the attention of womenfolk, Kaniz is also designing fashion ornaments with traditional touch. But one thing which separates her from the crowd is her hybrid collection. “Being a student of designs, I am focusing on the unique factors in traditional garments and designs of Jammu and Kashmir,” she says. “And by blending these factors, I am offering something new.” But while producing the blend by combining all regional designs, she wants to make it sure to give prominence to Ladakhi traditional style.
She says after returning to Leh from Bangalore, she devoted most of her time to study the traditional Ladakhi outfits and designs. The study almost took her a year. “And it was during my study that I realized the influence of China on Ladakhi designs,” she says, widening her eyes to lay stress on her point. But after a marathon study, she unearthed a fact: other than China, designs of Tibet and Japan are equally influencing the outfits and designs of Leh. “Let me tell you, today, traditional dresses in Leh like Goncha have gone under transformation,” Kaniz says.
Goncha (a bulky robe of thick woollen cloth with a colourful cummerbund tied at the waist) is the most common Ladakhi dress. Besides, loose pyjamas, a top hat and long felt boots complete the ensemble. Kaniz says slight dress variations exist for men and women. “Buddhists mainly wear brick-red robes but the nomads of Chang Thang and the Kargil Muslims wear undyed clothes with the latter also using the round knitted Balti cap with a rolled brim,” she informs.
Ladakhi women wear an attractive headgear called perak, made of black lamb skin studded with semi precious turquoise stones and tapering to a thin tail reaching down the back. For ceremonial purposes, colourful robes in silk and brocade are worn. “Many Ladakhis are now adopting Mongoloid style Goncha which has buttons unlike a traditional Ladakhi one,” she says. “The Mongoloid blend sells like hot cakes in Leh at the moment.”
Beaming relentless smiles, her father and mother appear proud parents of their daughter’s (Kaniz’s) enterprise. Sitting among their daughter’s designs in her shop, her parents’ body language makes it clear: Life has changed for the good for them. And perhaps the tagline of their daughter’s De’ Kanis Kreactions: “Have a look and convince yourself” is first convincing factor for her parents.
Perhaps her decision to leave a high profile job in Indian Fashion Industry for the sake of serving her own birthplace has paid off.