Features 24.10.2019

Naughty by Nature

BY Asif

He is simply dressed in local jeans and a blue shirt. The only fashion indulgence that can be seen on him is his brightly chequered pair of socks. Looking at this slender figure sporting a pair of thick-framed spectacles, it is not hard to imagine that this is one of Pakistan’s leading fashion designers Kamiar Rokni, better known to some as Kami.

He leans back on his beige two-seater sofa and crosses his legs. The location is Kami’s home and his sanctuary reveals the inner details of this modern-day fashion guru. His house is simple, but small and intricate objects from all over the world are arranged on his coffee table, shelves and mantelpiece. His manners are immaculate: he asks with a slight wink and a grin what I would like to drink as soon as I’ve made myself comfortable.

As a boy Kami lived in Bahawalpur with his feudal family. But this was far from limiting. “We were generally a very creative family,” he says. “You have to be creative when you live in a small town so there was a lot of reading, writing, drawing, and painting.” Kami’s mother and uncles are all artists, and his family’s open attitude towards careers allowed him to nurture his own creative talent.

Kami found a VHS tape of an Yves Saint Laurent fashion show from his uncle’s video collection. I knew instantly that this was my world

Kami had a tough all-male school environment at Bahawalpur’s renowned Sadiq Public School. “But that gave me the confidence I needed to be a well-rounded person,” he says. “If I need to go on a hunting trip I can do so; if I need to go to a fashion week I can do so.” His favourite toys at home were his Barbie dolls and his best friend was a little girl he called Malzie (Maleeha Naipaul). “I loved dressing her up when we were kids and still do,” chirps a bubbly Kami. At sixteen, he enrolled at LCAS in Lahore. “My days at LCAS were great. I partied hard, I acted, I was in debates and I studied a bit too.”

Since Kami was a child he knew that he wanted to be a fashion designer. From dressing up his Barbie dolls to making over Malzie, he understood that clothes were where his heart was. At a time in Pakistan when television showed censored images of a stifled nation, Kami found a VHS tape of an Yves Saint Laurent fashion show from his uncle’s video collection. “I knew instantly that this was my world,” he says.

Kami moved on to fashion school where he worked with HSY and gained support from the likes of Iffat Rahim, Tanya Shafi, Aminah Haq and ZQ, giving him a stellar start before his career even began. “Fashion school was all about work and fun. I had great teachers and friends.” His unique style and creativity landed him an art award that sent him to Japan where he grew further as a designer.

After graduating, Kami slipped into procrastination mode. “I had no real plans. I hired a master tailor and my mother bought me a sewing machine but even then I spent most of my time slumbering and being lazy.” But this ended when former colleague and friend Maheen Kardar suggested that they hold a clothes exhibition together. “Maheen was much cleverer than I was”, Kami acknowledges. The exhibition never happened but instead, with an investment of just Rs 5,000 from each of them, the fashion label Karma was born. “We worked together, but in business any mistakes you make are your own at the end of the day. My advice to young entrepreneurs is: get a lawyer. If you’re going to sell your designs you ought to make some dosh out of them.”

Kami soon reached his saturation point with Karma as he felt under-utilised and knew that he could make it bigger. He moved on to successfully go solo by his own name. I ask him when he thinks his name actually transitioned into a brand name; he replies, with modesty: “I think I started getting famous from the word ‘go’.”

As the interview turns into a fluid conversation, Kami reflects on the evolution of fashion in Pakistan and how there are certain people who set the trend and others who follow it. “I feel I am always a little ahead; it might sound a little pompous but I feel that I am one of the trendsetters,” he says, sitting up, he deliberates on a question regarding the differences between the works of male and female designers. “Women are really good but they tend to design for their own body and stick to what suits them,” he replies after a short pause. “Male designers experiment with silhouettes and you may get more variation in cuts.” But he doesn’t consider any of that important. “Art and fashion transcend social and sexual boundaries,” he proclaims.

I’ve had my adulation and admiration. Society ladies wear my clothes, ‘it-girls’ wear my clothes but that’s a small world.

So what plans does Kami have for his career? “I want to reach a point where the focus is on the product and it’s no longer about my name. I want to make everyday clothes for the masses and not just for wearing at events. Retail for the middle classes is what I am working towards. I’ve had my adulation and admiration. Society ladies wear my clothes, ‘it-girls’ wear my clothes but that’s a small world and after a while you get over it. You want to go out there for the rest of the world. You want the girls and boys at BNU and NCA to be wearing your creations.” It becomes clear that Kami is turning his attention to a much larger and far more economically diverse consumer market than the one that he has targeted throughout his career. When asked if his products will reach the rickshaw driver, he replies: “Not the rickshaw wala, but it will reach the video shop wala for certain: perhaps not the working class but definitely the whole spectrum of the middle classes.”

Designing clothes for the Pakistani consumer has limited Kami to creating outfits that fit in with our culture. His radical designs are his dreams and he is working to sell them to markets abroad where they will be received better. “You can only go international with large volumes,” he says. “Currently our collection is going to Dubai. We are in talks with Studio 8 and Ogaan in India and our clothes are being exhibited at the Paris Fashion Week. We have agents in the Middle East and are always on the lookout for exciting opportunities and collaborations.”

While retail may be a form of therapy for his customers, however, it isn’t so for him. “I’m a real boy – I can do retail, but shopping to me is more an efficiency thing. I only shop when things are falling apart. Reading and book-shopping is my therapy. I pop into the bookshop Readings when I want to wind down, to be inspired.” All sorts of books catch his eye.  “I’m not a snob when it comes to books. From Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew to Naguib Mahfouz, every book has taught me something,” he declares. “Jackie Collins has been a great influence on my desire for glamour and Lucky Santangelo is a favourite heroine of mine.”

‘‘I will try anything once; you can feed me snake, I will always try it once.”

Kami has now settled into a comfort zone and is talking his heart out. He discusses photography, society and his weight. Lahore is the city of good food and Kami has no qualms about admitting that he has a healthy appetite. His weight, however, is the least of his worries. “I slack off in winter but I get into shape right before summer,” he smiles.

“I exercise and I eat healthy. I do, however, have a penchant for the vanilla cake at Masoom’s and the tiramisu and nutella ice cream at Cosa Nostra.

I also love peanut and almond brittle – I can have slabs and slabs of it. I do binge sometimes but I don’t eat when I’m depressed or stressed.” I ask where and what in particular he likes to eat. “In Lahore it has to be the Cosa Nostra burger, half the menu at Hsin Kuang or Steve’s Golden Wok. In Karachi: khatti daal, biryani and anything at Okra. I will try anything once; you can feed me snake, I will always try it once.”

The conversation turns to his views on religion. “While I believe in the forces above, I am not particularly religious, but I have no issues with spirituality,” he says. “I find religion very interesting because I’m into history and I like to connect the dots between that which is divine and that which is human. I think the ‘religions of the book’ are pretty much the same but I feel that organized religion has caused more damage than good with its politics and resultant genocides and wars. If people were less materialistic and more spiritual in this day the world would be a much better place.”