“2020 is not a year for making profits, it is a year for survival.”
Designer Nauman Arfeen now quotes Jack Ma, the co-founder of the internet-based giant Alibaba Group. But a few months ago, the designer would not have thought that he would be thinking about survival. He was enjoying a very successful year.
Prince William had selected a sherwani designed by him and worn it during his royal visit to Pakistan. Nauman, never one for trumpetry in an industry rife with self-promotion, was enjoying the accolades. Business was spiraling upwards — the fruition of efforts made over a career that spans nearly two decades, where he’s honed his designing skills and developed a signature that relies on understated elegance rather than vivacious fripperies. It has also been a career where he’s had to weather plenty of industry politics, ups and downs and hit-and-miss reviews.
His critics were now commending him. Not every designer gets the opportunity to dress a royal prince. The next few months were going to take Nauman onwards. But then, the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes to life.
Instead of planning ahead, Nauman has now been restrategising in order to ensure the survival of his menswear brand Naushemian. A mild bout of Covid-19 infected him and slowed him down for a short while, but he was quickly back to work again. He tells me that there is a lot to do. The groomswear market, which constitutes a major chunk of his revenue, is stuck in limbo and customers have generally shifted focus from in-store shopping to online retail. Sales are few, restricted to the occasional purchases made for the socially distanced small-scale wedding, Eid or for the parties that are resiliently (or stupidly) taking place undercover despite the threat of a fatal virus.
Designer Nauman Arfeen understands his customers and what they like: elegant, understated menswear in subtle tones, sans experimental artistry. Perhaps that’s what appealed to Prince William as well
But when — whenever — all this is finally over, Nauman is foreseeing a boom in shopping. “The coronavirus lockdown fortunately took place at a time when we’re usually planning out our next collection,” says Nauman. “We had just gotten done with catering to the winter festive season and were slowing down, working on new designs. We managed to get a lot of this done during the lockdown. And then, slowly, I have initiated work on our new product lines. There is always a demand for men’s ready-to-wear and my manufacturing unit is working on those. Online orders are coming in from abroad. When the virus finally gets contained, my brand will be ready with an all-new range of designs.”
But for now, the virus rages on and the future is still shrouded in uncertainty. The big fat Pakistani wedding season, extremely lucrative for wedding-wear designers, has been postponed to an indefinite time, when things will be better.
Has Nauman, also, experienced a decrease in groomswear orders? “Of course I have,” he says. “Right now, there are so many ready sherwanis hanging in our storeroom which customers have not picked up because their weddings have gotten delayed. There are other orders that are lying half-finished. People will only want to pick their clothes and pay in full for them when their wedding dates are confirmed again.”
Isn’t being stuck with all this ready stock, which may or may not get picked up over the next few months, a financial setback? Nauman explains how his business works, “Not really. Customers pay an advance to us when they place an order. If they pick up the completed garment, they will pay the remaining amount due. If they cancel a completed order, they only get a fraction of their advance returned. That manages to cover our losses, and helps us financially during this time.”
He continues, “I have always looked at fashion from a business perspective. Designer Amir Adnan is my idol because I admire the way he built his business at a time when the industry was very new. With my own work, I have always focused on designs that are comfortable, wearable and affordable. A good designer should always know when to stop. There is a fine line to designing and, if you cross it, the clothes become over-the-top. The key right now is to create clothes that people will want to buy once the pandemic is over, and to strengthen the business the way it is.
“I had a lot of dreams for this year — I wanted to renovate my house and I was planning to expand my brand Naushemian to a third shop, in North Nazimabad. But this is no time to make new investments. I’m just saving up on my funds.”
We rewind back to happier, pre-Covid-19 times, when Nauman had just scored a veritable coup with Prince William opting to wear a traditional sherwani made by him. The designer has been stocking at O’nitaa, a London-based multi-label, for 10 years and it was there that the Prince’s team had initially noticed his designs. “They researched into my career trajectory before contacting me,” says Nauman. “The Prince wanted a design in blue. I sent him an additional option, a traditional nine-button sherwani in teal. He ended up wearing the latter.
“It was a proud moment for me and for Pakistan. The Prince and the Princess stepped out of a rickshaw, attending a reception in Islamabad, and he was wearing my design. The headlines in the international press read out the next morning that Prince William was the first British Royal to have worn a sherwani. This was an outfit that had once been relegated by the British Raj to be worn only by serving staff. And now, the future king of England had opted for it.”
The royal visit had been preceded by plenty of hype on social media, with fashion designers clearly hinting that the Prince and Princess may be seen wearing some of their designs. Nauman, despite having communicated with Buckingham Palace, had stayed quiet. Why? “I was just smiling to myself when I saw all these claims being made. The Prince’s stylist had purchased the sherwani from me, but I didn’t want to say anything until he finally wore it.”
Following the royal visit, Nauman coined the name ‘Shahwani’ for his design created for the Prince, registered the name, and provided options in different colours for customers. “So many orders came in, from Pakistan as well as abroad!”
A special event was organised at the flagship Naushemian store to celebrate the design’s launch. The event stood out because it made the royal design available for retail, but it also markedly lacked the attendance of Nauman’s peers from the fashion industry. A few designers were visible, but one had expected many more to turn up, especially since Nauman is a long-term member of the Karachi-based Fashion Pakistan Council (FPC). He is, in fact, an executive council member of the FPC right now. Were his fellow-designers not happy that the Prince, who tends to be very particular about his wardrobe, had selected one of their own for his visit to Pakistan?
The designer chooses to stay politically correct. “Through the course of my career, I have seen people change faces often. It doesn’t matter. I have learnt that networking and getting photographed on the red carpet doesn’t matter. I take part regularly in fashion weeks because they challenge my creativity and inspire me to work on new collections. I come up with separate lines for the summer and the festive season and showcase them on the catwalk for my clientele. This is my way of contributing to menswear in Pakistan.
“But there was a time when I would network at fashion weeks and stay on for the soirees that happened later. Now, I’d rather just pack up my collections and leave early. Showcasing my work and working on my business is all that matters.”
Business, for Nauman, currently traverses three stores in Karachi: Naushemian in Saddar and Khayaban-i-Bukhari and Hat Villa in Saddar, inherited from his father. Why hasn’t he considered expanding to Lahore?
“I’m handling my business alone and I need to work at a pace that I can manage. My father taught me that I should never set up business in a rented store. I own every one of my stores and that, actually, is helping ensure my brand’s survival during the coronavirus crisis. I’m not burdened with paying heavy monthly rents, at least. My online business caters to clientele outside of Karachi and I handle it personally, communicating with clients and answering their queries until they are satisfied. As far as brick and mortar is concerned, I want to gain more clout in the Karachi market before I shift focus to another city.”
His North Nazimabad store would have opened by now had life proceeded as normal. But Nauman’s planning ahead, for the light that will eventually shine at the end of this long, dreary, coronavirus-ridden tunnel. He understands his customers and what they like: elegant, understated menswear in subtle tones, sans experimental artistry.
Perhaps it’s what appealed to the royal prince as well. Nauman knows this. And when all this ends, he’ll be ready with an all new line-up, prepared to storm the market.
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 5th, 2020
Author: ” — www.dawn.com “