Hussain Rehar’s avant-garde work is haute couture modified for the desi palette – Style

There was a piece of neon. Comes in many bright colors. Silk sashes and color-blocked organza came together to form long column shirts. Thick tufts of threads forming eccentric flower patterns. Psychedelic octopuses and fish that run from the shoulder to the sleeves.

Electric. New epoch. Unapologetically stylish. You can delve deeper into the fashion lexicon to find more ways to describe Hussain Rehar’s early work in 2017. It was such an anomaly compared to the fine sartorial finery dominating the fashion scene that it made people to sit and pay attention.

Freshly graduated from the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD) and after a few months of working with designer Khadijah Shah, Hussain started out on his own with a label of the same name. His aesthetic was so unique that he immediately caught the eye. Who is the designer, you may have wondered, after seeing some of the designs scrolling down Instagram.

This question was quickly followed by a study of his prices, where he had stocked, and whether his clothes could easily be purchased. “[He] may become one of the next fashion trends,” I wrote in my first review of his work.

Soon after – in March 2018 to be exact – Hussain made his catwalk debut at the PFDC Sunsilk Fashion Week (PSFW) in Lahore. Walking out at the end of the show in a range of designs, Hussain was as fashionable as the clothes he created. Dressed in a striped jumpsuit with a zipper down the front, he smiled sheepishly as he took a bow.

Since then, Hussain has become a permanent fixture in Lahore’s fashion circuit, making waves when fashion weeks were still operational and even riding the pandemic with grace, releasing back-to-back collections online for his client base in growth.

To this day, his personal fashion statements tend to be on par with his fashion claims to fame: oversized jackets in eye-catching colours, solid suits, loose kurta pyjamas, all complemented by a variety of nice accessories. It’s a wardrobe to die for – and it’s a testament to how much this young guy from Gujranwala loves clothes.

Long before he made fashion design his raison d’être, a young Hussain Rehar mixed clothes and dressed for family gatherings. Relatives would be fascinated. Perhaps, Gujranwala – the city of sun-baked fields and opportunities meeting in dusty akhaaras – had never experienced such a fashion savant before!

“I’ve always loved putting an outfit together,” he tells me. “The wardrobes in my house are full of clothes that I buy over and over and then wear in different ways. I like to dress up and go places!”

This admission makes me curious: what did he do during the coronavirus lockdown when no one was going anywhere? “I used to get dressed and go have dinner with my mother,” laughs Hussain.

A personal penchant for standing out has been translated into creating clothing that stands out. Over a six-year long career, Hussain has honed his craft, worked on patterns and finishes, and mastered the balancing act between design that is commercially viable and yet distinctive.

He has won two awards – Demi-Couture Designer of the Year at the Hum Style Awards 2019 and Achievement in Fashion Design (Luxury Pret) at the Lux Style Awards last year – and held a solo show in 2020 at a time when Covid-19 had has been temporarily at bay.

Although the coronavirus has generally reduced sales for luxury fashion, Hussain’s business has continued to grow. His clothes are seen everywhere – at parties, weddings and worn by celebrities – and he has improved his business module, syncing it with the ubiquitous demand for fast fashion. He has his many fans – and also, some critics.

“I haven’t been able to plan one [second] solo show because business has been going really well,” says Hussain. “Customers want to see new collections every few weeks. There is a constant pressure to keep creating new designs and there hasn’t been enough time to conceptualize and create a runway collection.”

His debut solo show, which took place at a time when most designers were still trying to recover from the losses caused during the pandemic, had taken people by surprise. On a brisk winter afternoon, Hussain had transformed a backyard in a private house in Lahore into his catwalk. A tree, right in the center, had formed the main focal point; models walked around it and gathered under it to take pictures.

There was dhol dhamaka and a swirl of colour, with the collection delving into the many celebrations that comprise a traditional Pakistani wedding. Unlike most solo shows, the arrangement hadn’t been elaborate or over the top. Instead, it was simple and effective, a young brand choosing to flex its fashion muscles on its own, without the help of fashion tips.

Did flying solo help Hussain’s brand, when previously he had only appeared at collective fashion weeks? “It definitely helped build more brand awareness,” he says. “It showed that we were willing to stand in the spotlight on our own, without the hype created by a collective fashion week fashion show. Nothing was happening in the local fashion scene at the time. My show was one of the first shows to take place since the outbreak of the pandemic. I think people found it refreshing. It gave them hope that things would get better.”

But the show took place almost two years ago. Since then, Hussain has stepped off the catwalk, although he is churning out multiple collections that run the gamut from heavy formals to more luxurious garments to seamless fabrics. His designs are distinctive and indeed quite beautiful, but certainly not as avant-garde as his initial collections were. Has Hussain toned down his quirky side in a bid to attract more business?

“I still like edgy design but, at the end of the day, the clothes have to sell,” he admits. “Even internationally, designers can make crazy statements on the catwalk, but they’ll do more subtle versions of the clothes for retail. Not holding fashion weeks, my priority now is to create clothes that are different, but at the same time, customer-friendly.”

He continues, “I think my customers appreciate my brand ideology, the way I combine traditional hand embroidery with modern silhouettes and colors. It may be market friendly, but it’s not boring. I make sure the fabric and embroidery are of the highest quality and I try to keep the prices competitive.

“And then, there’s always so much variety. Each collection has a different vibe and aesthetic than the last. Even before I create a collection, I think about how I want to market it, the model and the shooting style. Once the concept is in sync with the designs, the images become more impactful. The shoot doesn’t have to be elaborate. I prefer product-oriented photography that is still unique.”

I agree that the images he creates are very attractive, calculated to make you want to make a beeline for his online store. And yet, some of these shoots – not all – have been criticized from time to time for being too similar to those of other designers. A recent collection released last fall, for example, drew immediate comparisons to photos from an international brand also released the same year. The colors and style were remarkably similar.

It has also sometimes been pointed out that Hussain is heavily ‘inspired’ by some big brands from across the border. How inspired is he, really?

“I think it’s very normal to be inspired,” he says. “We spend so much time browsing fashion magazines that sometimes we unconsciously record certain images. Now that my brand has become more established, I have become very concerned that there should be no repetition. However, I don’t mind being inspired by a brand and styling a photo in a particular way or wearing jewelry in a certain style. Above all, the design must be mine.”

Connoisseurs of handmade embellishments have also sometimes criticized that Hussain may have a way with stones and stonework, but his embroideries lack delicacy and finesse. Does he agree?

Of course, he doesn’t. In fact, he starts laughing. “I have my own aesthetics. If Elie Saab creates subtle embellishments and Alexander McQueen goes above and beyond with thick layers of threads, does that mean one is inferior to the other? My style may be different from others – in fact, I wish I was!

“When I create luxury clothes, I want them to be glamorous and shiny. I will combine sequins and stones in certain patterns to create that look and target a specific price range. On the other hand, the traditional wedding dresses that I create have very delicate hand embroidery and are priced accordingly.”

It has also dipped its toes into the crowded market for unstitched fabrics, bringing out seasonal collections of lawn and winter wear. How is this?

“Very well,” he says, “the non-woven fabric market is huge. One of my brothers is only dealing with the non-woven fabric market. The other looks at finance in general.” Apparently, it’s a family business. “Yeah, I’m not good with numbers, so my brothers joined me.”

Was there no pressure to return home to Gujranwala after graduating from the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD)?

“No, my family and I always knew that I would start my business in Lahore.”

He has only one brick and mortar store in Lahore till date. Has it considered expanding to more stores or is it focusing more on online growth?

“So far, we are happy with the studio in Lahore,” says Hussain. “It serves not only Lahore but all surrounding cities in Punjab. And the online world is amazing, it can’t be beat. You set a clock on Instagram counting down to the launch of a new collection and, suddenly, you’re in a worldwide market.

“It’s very high when orders filter in overnight, right after you launch a new line. This means you are doing something right. We are very vigilant to make sure we deliver on time. We want the customer to come back to us again.”

How does he think it has improved over time? “I definitely know my market better. When I started, I wanted to constantly experiment and try new techniques. Now, I understand that, most importantly, clothes should be worn.

“I have become even more experienced when it comes to selecting embroidery and fabrics. From the beginning, I was using the wrong thread and sometimes it couldn’t hold the sequins in place and they fell out. I know much better now!”

The threads are certainly no longer falling and the sequins are in place, twinkling away. Modern. Mystic. Eclectic. High fashion boils and turns for the desi palette. As I said earlier, it could go on.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 24, 2022

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