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Ali Xeeshan: Fashion’s enfant terrible

Love him or hate him, you certainly can’t ignore Ali Xeeshan. From being banned from the PFDC platform to being acknowledged by Rihanna’s stylist, the designer looks back at an eventful year

Ali Xeeshan: Fashion’s enfant terrible
Photo by Abdullah Haris.

It’s been a year of grave lows and soaring highs for Ali Xeeshan, starting from his fall from grace for assaulting a journalist at last year’s PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week and ending with a shout-out from Rihanna’s stylist for his quirky designs. The cycle of events is characteristic of the designer’s personality and aesthetic – dramatic, unorthodox and headline-making. As Ali comes full circle, preparing to return to the PLBW stage after having to sit out PFDC’s pret edition in April as penalty for the untoward incident last October, Instep catches up with the designer to find out how the events of the past year have changed him.

“It’s been the biggest blessing I could have asked for,” remarks Ali, slightly distracted by the deluge of colourful brocades, embellishment samples and half-stitched pieces of sheer organza that vie for his attention on the ornate sofa he reclines on in his studio. He’s trying to explain to an assistant the exact shade of brown he has in mind for a signature Ali Xeeshan piece. “How do I explain this to you,” he sighs in frustration, “ this is not the colour of my dreams.”

The man might have the time to channel drama and flamboyance when it comes to his public appearances – whether it’s arriving at fashion week with his pooch tucked under an arm or wearing a fur coat in sweltering June – but as far as work is concerned, he’s got a stringent routine. These days, he’s immersed in preparations not only for PLBW but also for a separate collection that will mark his debut at the Shaan-e-Pakistan platform in New Delhi on the 12th of September.

Re-grouping his thoughts, he explains what he means. “Ever since I made my debut at PFDC, I have showed at all the seasons and never really had the opportunity to take stock of where I stood as a designer. Sitting in the front row gave me a totally different view. I realized how important finesse and finishing are, because no matter how beautiful a piece, when it’s that close and under such glaring lighting, even a single thread out of place is unforgivable. My collection this time will reflect my newly learnt wisdom. You will see a much more innovative collection in terms of silhouettes and embellishment.”

Not one to waste time on modesty, he continues, “I also learnt that I underestimated myself. What I bring to the ramp is amazing in terms of the drama and the theatrics. It’s a break from the monotony of normal shows. This time, as a part of the audience, I couldn’t help but think, ‘God, I miss myself!’”

While it’s true that frowers at fashion week look forward to Ali’s theatrical ramp presentations for their ability to shake things up, many have often wondered if the designer is more about gimmicks than substance. Over five years into his career, Ali is content to operate mainly out of his Lahore studio while many of his contemporaries are upping their retail game and setting up shop across the country. Accessibility remains the designer’s weak point. “Fashion is very personal to me,” he responds. “People might think it’s gimmickry but this is who I am in real life too. My aesthetic is spontaneous, not put-on.  As for accessibility, I have opened up a studio in Karachi where I travel to once every month but retail is not my strength at the moment. I feel I need to evolve as a brand before I tackle that market and I want to take my time doing so. It’s definitely on the cards for the future.”

Ali has also received his share of criticism for resorting to violence in the face of criticism, no matter how unsavoury and personal it was. His stance on the matter remains surprisingly unapologetic. “Look, the council asked me to apologize and I did. But I am not sorry about my reaction; I am sorry that it happened in the first place and that too, at a dear friend’s house. You can’t bully someone or be abusive and not expect a reaction. I would react the same way if it happened again.”

Come June and the designer was back in the news but this time, it was a cause for celebration rather than admonition. After Ali successfully participated at the London Fashion Parade, a showcase for South Asian designers, social media went into a frenzy over reports that his designs had won over Rihanna’s stylist and he was now set to dress the pop diva. With no confirmation from the designer himself, the news reached a crescendo of hyperbole, going as far as to suggest that Ali was “revamping her entire wardrobe.” Setting the record straight once and for all, he explains what really went down at the Saatchi Gallery.

“Rihanna’s stylist was at the event and he loved the bejewelled glasses that my models had worn. He asked for a pair to be sent to them and we’ve been told she might wear it in the coming months. We never had direct contact with Rihanna’s team because a PR firm has acted as the go-between.”

The black-rimmed embellished glasses certainly make an OTT statement and Rihanna’s known to favour fashion that is whacky and fun. If things work out, he might even be asked to custom make an outfit for one of her upcoming public appearances, hints Ali. “Let’s just say that talks are underway,” he says, refusing to divulge any more details on the matter.

For now, he’s content to turn his attention across the border, where a ready and eager market for his designs awaits. “I receive tons of queries from India about my work. They can relate to my aesthetic because it’s very colourful and vibrant. I’m excited about showing at Shaan-e-Pakistan, even though it means that by the time I get back, I will have only one day to put things together before my PLBW show on the 16th of September.” Life keeps Ali on the edge of his seat but he’s adamant that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I also learnt that I underestimated myself,” Xeeshan doesn’t waste time hiding behind modesty. “What I bring to the ramp is amazing in terms of the drama and the theatrics. It’s a break from the monotony of normal shows. This time, as a part of the audience, I couldn’t help but think, ‘God, I miss myself!’”

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