For the love of fashion

Within the varnished interiors of her stores, Sonya Battla treads her own path. The designer has two outlets — the happening E-Street and the high-street Kaju in Dolmen City Mall — where bling comes in tasteful, subdued spurts, neat block-prints are merged with hand-embroidered borders, the chikankari is remarkably dainty and script is etched onto fine cotton-nets and silks.

It is also here that Manora’s skyline is sketched out into a haze of colours and transferred onto elegant, slinky silhouettes. And where the Grand Trunk Road winds down apparel, sifting through historic navigational routes; traversing the colours of Varanasi, Kolkata and Kabul. Triangular cutouts may be intricately layered together to form multi-tiered dresses, and malmal fabric may be torn and then glued together to depict how the soul tarnishes and decays while on earth.

Symbolic and individualistic, it is design that immediately takes you back to days of yore, when fashion was not just the means to an end, but the means itself. But does this precarious marriage of art with fashion bring in the kind of business that more market-friendly designers are hauling in?

With fashion blindly spiralling towards commercialism, Sonya Battla stands out as a rare breed

“Probably not,” admits Sonya. “But I am satisfied with the way I am. I don’t believe in churning out design or changing my signature in order to become a high-street sensation. Fashion, for me, needs to be an extension of my imagination. It needs to be crafted in order to define something new. I could never sacrifice my integrity in the name of commercialism.”

‘My ethics are not valued here’

It is this sincerity to her craft that defines Sonya as a designer. Even as fashion begins to get clustered by lackluster social media sensations and money-minting copycats run rampant, she resiliently stays true to her love for design. Her signature is instantly recognisable while other established ateliers flit from one style to the other, losing out on their identity in the race to gain sales.

“I have never copied anyone’s work in my life,” she admits. “In fact, sample-making constitutes a huge cost within my business — to take the fabric and work it with intricate embellishments and techniques in order to understand what will work. I know of designers who simply go to Italy, get hold of designer wear that they like and when they come back home, these become the samples that their craftsmen replicate.

“Still, I don’t think my particular ethics are valued here. Everyone’s in a rush to commend mediocrity, support their friends or give rave reviews in exchange for money. There are very few people who appreciate the thought and effort that goes into creating bona fide design. For my capsule line Manora, for instance, I went to KPT and Kemari to see the shoreline again and again. I reflected upon the colours of my surroundings, how foul the water was and how it could be so much more beautiful, were we to take care of it. I don’t know how many people truly understood this.”

Fashion week experiences

Nevertheless, Sonya’s collections are always well-received, whether for their sheer artistry or the understated elegance that they exude. A case in point is her Identity, showcased at Fashion Pakistan Week (FPW) earlier this year. Created in collaboration with textile and visual students from Karachi University, it was very experimental, well-structured and laden with meaning. An outfit fashioned from bubble wrap and wire, for instance, depicted Sonya’s sense of desolation at the carnage dealt by the bomb blast in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal park, that had taken place recently at the time. “I saw an image on the news which showed pieces of plastic strewn amongst the remains. They were probably broken pieces of toys that children must have been playing with at the time. I just put together different materials to construct an outfit that paid tribute to that loss.”

While many may not have been able to understand the collection’s symbolism, it was appreciated for its craftsmanship if not its immediate wearability. “There are pieces in the collection that can be worn, as is,” argues Sonya. “The collection generated a widespread response internationally. Clients come in and we alter the designs according to their requirements.”

In contrast, Sonya’s recent showcase at Bridal Couture Week (BCW) was more market-friendly, presenting well-defined silhouettes, layering and sophisticated embellishment. “The two collections were very different,” she explains. “The FPW line was more creative and wilder, staying true to my spirit. The BCW collection, meanwhile, stayed true to the skill-set of my craftsmen. I also used the platform to highlight the pain experienced by burn victims. Dr Jawad Khan, who was part of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary Saving Face, and Massarrat Misbah of the Depilex SmileAgain foundation, walked the catwalk as my showstoppers. BCW is a widely-popular platform and I wanted people to see my work as well as make them think about a cause that matters.”

Also serving as her showstoppers were actors Humayun Saeed and Sohai Ali Abro. What prompted her to hone in on the two, and do celebrity showstoppers generate greater mileage? “Actors have huge fan followings and certainly, having them on the catwalk helped draw more people’s attention to my brand,” she agrees. “Some people may have initially set out to watch the show because they wanted to see their favourite stars, but they also got to know about my ethos. Also, both actors looked great. Sohai is very young and pretty and yet, she wore a design that has long been part of our tradition, a red Lucknowi farshi gharara. Humayun is a popular hero but I dressed him in a classic well-tailored sherwani with no heavy-duty embroideries. He wore it with such conviction that it drove home my message; that you don’t have to be shrouded in bling in order to look like a hero.”

Identity, showcased at FPW earlier this year, was experimental, well-structured and laden with meaning. An outfit, fashioned from bubble wrap and wire, depicted Sonya’s sense of desolation at the carnage dealt by the bomb blast in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal park, that had taken place recently at the time.

Business savvy — and then some

Which fashion week experience was more lucrative for her? She characteristically mulls upon the question before answering, “I think they were both good in their own way, business-wise. We’re still getting enquiries about both. Also, they were enjoyable experiences. The FPW team was very efficient and at BCW, there was this comfortable feeling of belonging to the Hum TV family.”

Although her bridal business and luxury pret has a steady clientele, how well is Kaju, her high-street venture, faring? “People like the clothes but with Kaju, I make sure that designs are only slightly cutting edge,” says Sonya. “I am focusing on economical prices and so, I can’t experiment too much with design.”

This means that many of Sonya’s regular customers may not like Kaju. “There are people who like it and others who feel that they can’t really see my aesthetic in the clothes. But isn’t that how it is, the world over? Armani’s haute couture is breathtakingly beautiful while the Armani Exchange label has great quality but is less pricey, more easy-to-wear, less complicated and consequently, less enthralling.”

It’s a business-savvy observation. Still, even as she keeps an eye on her market while flitting from Kaju’s prêt to the more luxurious realms of the Sonya Battla line and bridal wear, there is one point at which the designer invariably falters: her inaccessibility in cities other than Karachi. Aside from sporadic private exhibits in Lahore and Islamabad, Sonya’s collections are consistently available only in her hometown, not even accessible online via an e-store.

“An online store is definitely on the cards and we hope to have it up soon,” says Sonya. “As it is, we are perpetually taking orders via e-mail. I do know that expansion is important but at this point, I am restructuring my business. I need to get things in order before I think of branching out. As it is, I make sure that I show in at least two fashion shows per year and exhibit frequently not just within Pakistan but also in Singapore. Additionally, my designs are part of the regular lineup at multi-label store Onitaa in London.”

But as she sorts out her business plans, there is no denying that other contenders in local fashion are widening their markets manifold, with multiple outlets in the country and a retail presence on the Internet. Is their work as trendsetting as Sonya’s? Not usually, but they make up for it by providing accessibility to a burgeoning, sartorially-inclined clientele. It’s high time that Sonya follows suit. It would be a shame to restrict that fashion-forward sense for design — so rare in today’s world — to merely one city.

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