The Inimitable Faiza Samee On Preserving Our Heritage In Haute Couture And Sustainable Fashion

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With a strong and committed link to Pakistan’s, as well as the region’s, cultural heritage and a more than three decade long career in the fashion industry, Faiza Samee laid the foundations and strengthened the practice of preser ving almost extinct traditional crafts and embroidery traditions which were under the treat of dying out. She is proud to say today that she has achieved a lot of what she set out to do. Now moving on to the next step of her long-term strategy, she shares her plans of working in sustainable fashion and following ethical practices, while using organic materials.

A blurb describing your entire design ethos simply states:
Tradition retold.

Please encapsulate for us the story behind the phrase?
Commitments to traditional crafts, especially textiles, of the subcontinent motivated me to create pieces based on our traditional ethos but relevant to
today’s lifestyle. I have always felt strongly about reviving and maintaining lost subcontinental traditions, and have stayed true to this base of tradition, but still making it relatable to today.

For almost three decades, you have been hailed as an expert on intricate and rare embroideries and you’ve done a lot of research on the work that you do. Tell us a little about the journey of preserving the rich cultural heritage of our part of the world in your work?
More than three decades ago, I realised that intricate embroideries which our ancestors had mastered, were not being handed down from the ustads.
These ustads had worked under the embroidery workshops of the nawabs and maharajas of United India but young craftsmen were not interested. Realising this, I encouraged and mobilised the younger people to train under the old ustads. Pakistan is now at the forefront of fine embroideries. With great pleasure, I note thatthe stitches have survived after years of struggle and training. In 2014, FICCI, (Federation of The Indian Chamber Of Commerce and Industry) presented me with awards for my contribution to keeping our common heritage and traditional embroideries, cuts, and textiles alive.

Tell us about the skilled men and women who help you preserve a variety of crafts related to embroidery. Where do they come from, how long have they been with you and what does the future hold for them, and for any new people who they are training?
When I started in 1981, I employed the old ustads who had migrated from India, who had trained in the workshops of the maharajas. However this craft was not being handed down to the younger generation. I brought in young people who trained under these ustads. Intricate embroidery is a very
serious commitment involving great attention to detail, eight to 10 hours of intensive focus while working, and is usually done by male kaarigars. Women do not mostly sit down to work at the kaarchob or adda, but rather do other jobs around the workshop. My workers come from all over Pakistan; Punjab, KPK and Sindh. These kaarigars are in high demand as they have received years of intensive training.

Which are some of the traditional silhouettes and outfits that have inspired you over the years. What is their provenance and how have you reimagined them for your couture label?
My favourite costume has to be the angharka, as it has a very long and exciting history, having taken various forms over the centuries. It most probably originated in Mongolia and was worn all over Central Asia and Iran in some form or the other over the centuries. It’s a beautiful costume, and I personally use this silhouette a lot, interpreting it in different textiles, sometimes hand block printing or embellishing it with intricate embroidery.

Do you have any family heirlooms that you love and have preserved over the years — outfits or jewellery?
My mother grew up in Bombay, in the early 1940’s so most of her collection of saris, textiles and jewellery was inspired by the art deco style which I
loved. Meanwhile, my father-in-law spent most of his life in Samarkand and Bukhara — he was a great collecter, so after I was married, I saw a lot of fascinating textiles such Ikat, Kanavez, Dulbarah, and Atlas. I have always had a natural inclination towards beauty and creating beautiful things, so I found myself soaking up all this inspiration like a sponge from a very young age.

You designed the late Benazir Bhutto’s wedding outfit in the 90s. What was Ms Bhutto’s brief to you for what she wanted to wear on her big day?
Benazir Bhutto wanted to wear a white lehenga and blouse on her wedding and Lady Haroon’s 1930s embroidered, deco style sari was given to me
as inspiration for this bridal outfit. A lot was borrowed from it, and most of the embroidery was actually reproduced from it. I enjoyed the challenge
immensely.

How do you plan to put together your work of nearly 30 years? Is there a book in the pipeline?
I’ve been in the industry for 37 years now, and I wish I could plan a book, but it’s not in the pipeline right now.

What is your advice to upcoming designers today? What are the positives and negatives of Pakistani fashion in these times?
Our fashion industry has grown from strength to strength, and it gives me great pleasure to say that Pakistan is at the forefront in embroidered textile
in South Asia. My advice to aspiring young designers is, that although it’s a lot of hard work and a lifetime of commitment to the craft, it’s greatly rewarding. Passion and drive will take you to places you could never imagine, and you will enjoy this journey greatly.

What are your plans for this upcoming year? What can we look forward to?
My next project is going to be the revival of indigo and madder. In a world obsessed with machine made and chemically dyed fabrics, I hope to go back to indigenous methods of utilising our indigo which has been growing along the Indus for centuries, it would be a great pity if we are irresponsible enough to allow it to die off in our lifetime. That along with madder and other natural roots to use on fabrics created on handlooms. With a global move towards going green and showing sustainable fashion it is crucial now more than ever to follow ethical practices and organic materials. We are experimenting with them at our own premises, with the aim to create beautiful formal wear using natural materials to treat dye and print. Wish us luck!

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