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The business of fashion 101 with Image Fabrics – Culture

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Brand identity is all about devising a particular mix of colour and embellishments that has an instantly recognisable aesthetic, and keeping a stringent eye on quality, so that the customers keep coming back.

Fads come and go. Brands may rise to the top, indulge in unnecessary braggadocio and, inevitably, fade out. But the ones that last the long haul understand that, beyond the glamour and the accolades, the business of fashion is, ultimately, a business.

One brand that has understood this well is Image Fabrics, the high-street stalwart that was born back in 1993 and which has since been expanding and evolving according to the changing tastes of its customers.

The brand may now be more than three decades old, but it certainly can’t be accused of being fuddy duddy. Its very recognisable design ethos and constant innovations have ensured that it remains a fashion heavyweight. It caters to the begums just as easily as to the working woman and the college girl, offering a mishmash of high-end premium apparel as well as entire ranges priced down on sale.

Farnaz Ahmad, director and co-founder of Image Fabrics, points out the key factor that has ensured the brand’s popularity: “We never compromise on quality, even if that means that our prices may sometimes be higher than those of our competitors.

“Growing up in a business-centric family, over the years, I absorbed so many dos and don’ts that were part of the breakfast table conversation. ‘Never take customers for fools’, my elders would say, ‘because when you cut corners and bring down quality, they can sense it. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but they will know that something is wrong’.”

A valuable lesson in the Business of Fashion 101 — the entire interview, in fact, could form the crux of a case study. The local high-street is an increasingly clustered one and customers tend to be fickle — not many brands manage to retain their customer base for as long as Image has and Farnaz lets me in on some of the key factors propelling their business forward.

I am meeting Farnaz and her daughters, Uzma Ahmad and Marium Ahmad — the fourth member, Farnaz’s husband Asad Ahmad, is missing — at their head office on Karachi’s Sharae Faisal. As we sit in a meeting room, I notice they are all wearing outfits from various Image Fabrics collections.

“Only the fabric is outsourced, from some very reliable suppliers,” Farnaz tells Icon. “The rest of the manufacturing is done in-house.”

A lot of brands also outsource embroideries, I point out. “But we don’t,” she says. “The fabric arrives at the factory once it has been inspected and approved, where it goes through multiple stages of embroidering, stitching, cutting, the addition of details, before the final look emerges.

“There is a beauty to seeing the CAD [Computer-Aided Design] team at work, and for the fabric to pass through the embroidery machine and to see a flower come to life with thread or laser cut-work.”

The other gospel essential to Farnaz and her team is the retaining of the brand identity.

“Uzma joined the business back in 2014 and, till then, we had only been selling fabric by the metre,” recalls Farnaz. “She told me that she would create some designs for the launch of our ready-to-wear line and came up with some ideas. I took one look at them and told her to throw them away. They were designs that may have been trending at the time but they did not reflect our identity.

“I firmly believe that the market doesn’t know better until you offer it something better and that’s what we would do. Our forte has always been cutwork and Schiffli embroidery. So, if we were to create a ready-to-wear line, it had to be true to our roots.

“So I instructed Uzma to visit our library of archives and select ten designs from the ’90s, add laces to them, stitch them neatly and we would have our new line ready!

“By 2016, we expanded from fabric to fashion. Maryam joined in and we also plunged into e-commerce.”

Did their clientele expand once ready-to-wear was added to the line-up of products?

“Yes, almost immediately,” says Farnaz. “To be honest, our audience had started to shrink. Till then, we had only been manufacturing fabric by metre. Now, we started dabbling with ready-to-wear and, then, we introduced our lawn line, Lawnkari.

“With fabric by metre, customers have to figure out how much fabric they need and what laces and embellishments they would want to add to it. With Lawnkari, we have done the thinking for you: the shirt front, back, sleeves, dupatta and lowers have already been designed and they just have to be stitched.”

She adds: “There was one thing that I was sure of: I wouldn’t want to come up with a lawn collection that required a manual in order to get assembled. I would see so many unstitched lines that would comprise of ten different pieces that the tailor would have to put together. Often, he would get them wrong.

“I wanted our collections to be simple, beautiful, fuss-free. I was never interested in coming up with a line that would be the same as that of many others in the market. It may have brought in the numbers temporarily but, then, I would have got stuck in a rat race, ensuring that my product sold, by bringing down prices and, also, lowering quality. Our fabric needed to reflect the Image signature.”

The very first unstitched line — Lawnkari — led to the creation of others. At this point, Image Fabrics introduces at least six unstitched collections every year. Ready-to-wear has similarly expanded, running the gamut from basic casuals to lightly embroidered day-wear to Western-wear to formal evening-wear.

The recently launched Image Studio line is more high-end, utilising luxe fabrics and embroideries, and offering them at a lower price than the avant-gardists that form fashion’s top tier.

While the Image umbrella may have widened with more collections under Farnaz’s watch, the brand is yet to have ventured into mega-stores — the sprawling, shiny stores packed with clothes and accessories, as well as Instagrammable corners that other high-street behemoths have been setting up across the country. Why not?

“Why should we?” counters Farnaz. “Ultimately, this is a business and we have to meet our bottom-line. Our stores need to be big enough to stock all our various lines, but that’s all we need. It’s very easy to get distracted by the media attention and opening a big store merely as a show of clout. It would lead to me opening an even bigger one and inevitably losing track of my expenses.

“A sprawling outlet is not important. What’s important is that the customers enjoy the product they pick up. The store’s ambience, courteous staff and efficient service help enhance their experience but that’s all that is needed.”

She continues: “In any other business, you could be thriving and no one would know. The downside to working in the fashion industry is that it’s very easy to get dazzled by the glamour. There’s a risk that your eyes won’t stay on the ball and you’ll start focusing on showmanship rather than on the brand.

“For me, it’s always been important to keep the brand alive rather than push myself, or my girls, as the face of the brand. It’s essential to keep your feet on the ground.”

There have been times, though, when the brand has indeed put a tentative foot forward in the limelight, venturing onto the catwalk with shows in one of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council’s (PFDC) fashion weeks in Lahore and then, in 2017, at the Hum Showcase.

“We felt that it would work well for the brand,” says Farnaz. “I remember at Hum Showcase, most designers were leaning towards Western cuts and silhouettes. I was adamant that I wouldn’t put forward a collection that didn’t resonate with my brand’s roots and my audience. We created a festive line, worked with gota, and it was very well-received.”

In more than 30 years of accolades, has there never been a time when she got dazzled by the limelight?

“No, I always looked upon the brand as a business — and it started as a passion project,” Farnaz recalls. “I loved making clothes and a lot of my family members would ask me to get their clothes stitched for them. I observed the huge demand for embroidered fabric and it led to my husband and me procuring our very first embroidery machine.

“It was essential for me that I also spend time with my children, so I would leave for work in the morning and be back in the afternoon, by the time they returned home from school. My design team at the time was just limited to me, sketchpad in my hand, trying to create something that I would love and so would people.

“To date, we have worked with embroideries, cutwork, prints but an Image collection has never resembled that of a local brand. Initially, I would outsource fabric from major textile mills and have it embroidered, creating swathes that I would then supply to fabric retailers in mainstream markets.

“The fabric would sell extremely well but they would remove the ‘Image’ sticker, selling it as their own. I was being relegated to the status of a fabric supplier, when I was more interested in building my brand.”

She continues: “So, in 1997, I decided to hold a one-day solo exhibit at a reputed hotel in Karachi. Initially, I pondered over sharing the exhibit space with a well-known designer, so that I could benefit from the footfall, but my husband convinced me to go solo.

“I pulled out all stops, distributing invites to the exhibit to everyone I knew and putting out an ad in a major newspaper. I was very confident about my collection — it was beautiful, ranging from organzas to chiffons and cottons. We were sold out within hours of the exhibit.

“Three months later, I planned out a two-day exhibit and, the next year, we opened our first outlet in Karachi’s Zamzama Boulevard. Over time, I built upon my know-how, attending a course in Switzerland focusing on Schiffli embroideries.”

Farnaz may have made an effort to develop a distinctive aesthetic for Image Fabrics but the brand’s success has led to the recent upsurge of multiple copycat brands. The details are often replicated so vigilantly that one can’t tell from afar that the outfit is not a bona fide design. Have the copycats hurt business?

“No, we have a customer-base that appreciates our designs but is also consistent, because they know that they can trust our quality,” professes Farnaz. “Copycats are a sign of our brand’s success.

“We have tried to dissuade them by copyright registering the names of our very lines — Lawnkari, Malmalkari, Rehsamkari and so on. And all we can do now is to keep innovating, adding new tweaks to every collection so that we stand apart.”

But how much innovation can there be in designs that are dominated by chikan embroideries? “A different print for the dupattas,” she points out, “or contrasting embroideries, patterns and colours.”

Or a new line. A new spin on silhouettes. Something new and, yet, reminiscent of a brand that has stood its ground for more than a whopping three decades. A brand identity — a decipherable one — is the first rule in the book in the Business of Fashion 101.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 23rd, 2024

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