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The dot that walked out of line

Khadija Rahman, hot on the heels of her debut success for Generation at Fashion Pakistan Week, talks about revamping the brand and reinserting some intellect in todays ‘it’ world of fashion.

The dot that walked out of line
Rahman's publicity shy demeanour is a refreshing break amongst a sea of over-the-top personalities, each vying to out-do the other through extravagant drama.

 instep interview

This year marks 33 years in the business of fashion for Generation. Surviving, if not thriving for more than three decades in retail is an accolade in itself for any brand and Generation has more than merely survived. A staple of the fashion circuit in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s when there weren’t many options available for ready-to-wear, the iconic brand suffered a slump through the first half of the new millennia, only to pick up its game and return to consumers with a new identity but retaining the same eclectic ethos. Spearheading this revamp is creative director Khadija Rahman, taking on the baton from her mother Nosheen.

Generation’s rise from disinterested stupor couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. The changing retail landscape of the country meant that competitors needed to go big or go home, particularly with the introduction of brands like Sapphire that conveniently gobbled a major chunk of the consumer base with the uniqueness and accessibility of their product. Sapphire’s meteoric rise saw many retailers attempt to adapt to their business model but by retaining their distinct identity and brining their existing structure up to date with modern demands, Generation avoided a common strategic pitfall and emerged triumphant. Rahman’s debut collection for Generation, A Dot that Went for a Walk, showcased in Karachi at FPW earlier this year propelled the brand from running in the middle of the pack to the forefront. Going to Generation has once again become cool.

With so much going in their favour the pressure is on the brand’s new helms(wo)man to continue delivering in line with Generation’s stellar fashion week success. Instep sat down with the charming, grounded and self-effacing new visionary for a chat.

Rahman attributes Generation’s new groove and savoir faire to reshuffling among their ranks. She explains that the operation had slackened for some years not due to disinterest or complacency but  because the organization was undergoing massive structural reforms, which included building a bigger team, hiring new designers and developing a current and relevant aesthetic in a rapidly transforming market.

A Dot that went for a Walk might have been Rahman’s debut but the brand did showcase last year at fashion week as well, though in Lahore at PSFW as a high street brand. When asked why Rahman chose Karachi for her debut show she opined that several reasons compelled her to choose the port city for the showcase. “Firstly, we didn’t want an afternoon slot. We weren’t able to meet Sehyr Saigol in time for collection approval, hence missed the deadline. Third is that Karachi makes up half of our consumer base; we wanted to keep them engaged and maintain a strong presence there. I had a great experience at FPW though; everyone was accommodating and helpful, Frieha Altaf was inclusive and the vibe was relaxed. I would love to show in Lahore next year but it really depends if we get an evening slot or not since the afternoon shows get little traction,” she elaborates.

Bringing the conversation back to retail, Rahman revealed that the team is aiming for the highly anticipated collection to be in stores by mid-June. “I hope and pray we get it into the stores according to deadline,” she says with a laugh, adding, “the collection will mostly make it to the racks as it was on the runway including items like the bralets that surprisingly triggered a lot of interest, even among more conservative clients. I wasn’t even sure how many to produce so we’ve only done limited pieces in a stretch chamois and kept it free-size since catering to specific sizes in an item that borders on intimate wear is exceptionally difficult.”

One piece that doesn’t make the (retail) cut is the intricate, hand embroidered finale outfit worn by the brand’s muse Zara Abid on the runway. “This year I tried to create pieces that could be easily and quickly produced since we suffered delays the last two seasons due to designs that were so complex they took ages to reproduce in bulk. Technically we should be so organized that as soon as the show is over we’re ready to ship the pieces to store but since we’re not there yet I reasoned that if we could cut down on production time at least we might be able to get the collection to the consumers more quickly,” she states with wry amusement. “People were also very interested in the shalwars so we’re producing them as they were but they’re a bit pricey since they’re embroidered at the adda. I’ve also left the deep backs, low necklines and sleeveless pieces go into retail as they were; maybe the collection won’t do well at the till after all,” she continues with a grin.

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Generation combined Western silhouettes like a pleated crop top with shalwars and traditional accessories like nasal rings for a unique look.

Generation’s flagship store in Gulberg is now flanked on all sides by new retailers that also want a piece of the fast fashion pie. Khaadi, Sapphire, So Kamal, Damaan and most recently Crescent are all within walking distance of the store, turning the area into a seriously competitive zone, the consumer spoilt for choice; footfall might be high but the cash register only chimes when the customer is truly captivated.

“We’ve definitely felt the pressure of the influx of competition. In fact everyone in the industry is feeling the heat. Previously you could make massive blunders in store and no one would notice or it wouldn’t really affect sales as much but now there’s no room for mistakes. The competition is fierce and the audience is becoming more discerning, distracted by variety. It’s been tough but I think it’s a great motivating factor because we’re generally a bit lazy and need that push,” Rahman said. “Obviously you have to stay on your toes and that means you also produce better clothes so eventually it does turn into a win for all.”

“What does bring down the quality of product in the market though is a price war,” Rahman added. “To stay competitive you have to bring down your prices but that eventually means you compromise on the development and quality. It also kills creativity. Fast fashion, as it is, follows a format where you don’t get a lot of time to incubate ideas so bringing in the added pressure of a price war on an already beleaguered design time just makes things worse. I will say this though that I feel since the revamp, particularly last summer onwards, we might have picked up designing and turn over pace but our processes have stabilized and I feel we’ve nurtured a creative atmosphere that empowers our designers, allows them to take ownership of their departments and hence feel more invested in their work.”

But fashion isn’t just about sales on ground or traditional advertisements any longer; e-commerce and social media have had major influence on a brand’s business strategy and also on how the consumers view the brand. Generation’s off beat aesthetic is mirrored by their Instagram which features hip, curated posts that often include social awareness campaigns on issues that resonate with the brand. Their social media strategy though is quite different from what most brands follow.

“We’re really bad in some ways because we tend to get a bit too intellectual with our content,” Rahman states with a self-deprecating chuckle. “We have so many posts on our Instagram in which there are no clothes! We dedicated an entire month last year to a breast cancer awareness campaign and posted no product images. I thought it was a crazy idea but the campaign meant a lot to me but I thought our engagement that month was in shambles. Surprisingly though, when we went to meet Selina Rashid of Lotus she claimed that the campaign resonated with, and was well received by, people as well. It’s been really good for our image and for the rebranding, though maybe not as much in sales because of our approach. We are planning on toning it down though because a well-wisher recently termed our page as ‘burger’ so we’d like to make it more mass market and accessible. We like the way our Instagram looks and we’d rather retain our authenticity than follow the usual route but you have to strike a balance for the sake of the audience.”

Generation's shalwars and bralets were instantly added to everyone's summer wishlist the second they walked down the runway.

Generation’s shalwars and bralets were instantly added to everyone’s summer wishlist the second they walked down the runway.

Another modern phenomena conspicuously absent from Generation’s social media is harnessing the power of an It girl. Brands regularly host shoots or events where they send social influencers outfits from their collections so that they can be photographed and used as social media fodder. “We haven’t gone down that route though a lot of our competitors have and it’s worked for them. If we talk about a brand like Sapphire, their entire strategy has worked very cohesively for them in terms of quality product, pricing and image. But that’s just not us. In fact when we were planning on what to do for our summer campaign this year we realized that the in thing to do was to travel to Sri Lanka or Thailand or somewhere exotic and shoot lawn in an over-glamourized manner that makes it look more expensive than the staple fabric it is. We had to do something big because this is the season, lawn mania everywhere, so we thought we’d do the total opposite. We ended up with our Manjeet Diaries shoot, where we took the girl and put her in real places and scenarios; on the street, in a dhaba, playing cricket. We thought it would make for a nice break from the pretty campaigns that are almost expected now, with the flowing dupattas and all that.”

Rahman was so invested in the ethos of the campaign that they created hashtag #StepOutside and approached Girls at Dhabas, a feminist collective that advocates reclaiming public spaces and greater freedom of movement for women in South Asia with their Why Loiter program. She wanted to tie in their cause with the campaign.

“We’re passionate about such causes and like to associate with socially relevant issues. We approached the founders of Girls at Dhabas and they said they’d endorse the campaign after we shared the shoot images with them. They were a taken aback by it because they felt we should have used real girls instead of a model but Abdullah Harris, our photographer felt very strongly about using models. He’s very particular in the way he shoots and so we eventually opted for Zara Abid. Anyway, the founders of the movement thought the shoot was a disaster and advised us to not release it. They thought we were trying to appropriate their campaign for a glamourized commercial venture but the truth is our heart was in the right place and we were really earnest about investing in it and their response gutted us at that time. Though they recently got in touch with Alizey, my brand manager, who was liaising with them and commended us on how we executed the campaign. They said that they probably wouldn’t have done it in the same manner but they were pleased to see that we hadn’t turned it into a frivolous caricature of a serious movement,” Rahman elucidates.

Returning to the topic of It girls and drawing upon their following, Rahman reveals that actor and her childhood friend, Ayesha Omar even volunteered to be their showstopper in Karachi. “Ayesha asked who was walking for us and we hadn’t even thought of asking anyone famous or using a celebrity. That’s just not what we wanted our brand to represent. Selina said that people approach Generation as thought leaders (which I found a bit intense) ever since the revamp because I was worried that certain demographics thought we might be an ‘aunty’ brand but our approach seems to be working, or at least we’re building an image as a brand with consciousness,” she reveals.

It’s easy to get caught up in the self-promotional, exhibitionist atmosphere that has emerged with the rise of social media and it’s even easier to copy a successful formula that’s already working for others but Generation’s recent metamorphosis has ensured that the brand retains its identity and relevance. It might have been easier for Rahman to take the commercially viable route as opposed to an alternative approach to fashion and brand image but it is precisely this risk that has paid off for her and put Generation on the map once again. This is what you get when you step outside the box.

Photography by Usman Saeed

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