S U Ahmad speaks to successful British Pakistani fashion designer who has become a London Fashion Week regular
Being the first Pakistani to showcase at London Fashion Week, Omar Mansoor has been a regular fix in the years since his initial success in 2008. Having started his business from scratch, his trademark fusion pieces can now be seen in London’s Westfield Shopping Centre and on Fulham Road, Kensington, among other locations. His work has been featured in fashion shows across the world and worn by Middle Eastern royals and television personalities attending the Academy Awards and the like.
How did it all begin?
When I was at school, I was never naturally the brightest of students. C grades, for me, were like other people’s As. The one subject I excelled in was Art, and with my family being in the textile industry, I decided to combine the two areas and get into fashion. My parents were supportive, having decided that one doctor in the extended family was more than enough.
How did you get onto the big scene?
When I was studying at the London College of Fashion, my teacher Geoff Owen both inspired me and was inspired by my work. He always showed a keen interest in the subcontinent. In my sketches, he would ask me about the embellishments I drew, which represented embroidery and sequins, and would make samples to demonstrate. One day he suggested I prepare a show for London Fashion Week which was always a dream for me. My first show in 2008 was a success and I’ve done eight since (bi-annually).
Did you find it difficult to break into the industry?
I actually think being brown has been a plus point. My designs are very Asian, representing a fusion of culture – I use pure silks, chiffons and other similar fabrics, all lightly embroidered. They’re designed for the western market but all have an eastern style to them in terms of fabrics and embroidery. In a way I feel I’ve cashed in on my ethnicity and it has worked; because I’m an Asian, people have always felt I’m the best person to put such fusion pieces together.
How was LFW earlier this year, including your own line-up?
Usually the February fashion week (Autumn/Winter) isn’t as colourful as September (Spring). This time it wasn’t all that gloomy. It was more lively and experimental, as many established brands experimented with their creations.
Futuristic and geometric shapes were showcased. Digital prints dominated alongside textured fabrics. Some of my favourite designers included Vivienne Westwood, the wild side of fashion, and Osman Yusufzada, suave and sophisticated. I wasn’t too impressed with Burberry this time; this season the “blankets” weren’t my cup of tea.
My collection was inspired by the English classic wedding colour scheme. Blacks, ivories, reds. With couture shows you have more freedom to express your own style, but this was a ready-to-wear show, where I had to be more careful. I had to play my cards safely in order for my designs to go into mass production. Though I kept the Omar effect! Embellishments, jumpsuits with broaches, and so on.
Does the industry restrict creativity?
It isn’t the industry so much – trends and styles are more buyer-directed. With social media, often one mobile upload can bring about a mini-fashion-revolution within seconds. During fashion shows across the world, before models go backstage to change into their next outfit, bloggers ensure the first outfit on display has been seen by millions. Every designer is selective and careful with the cuts so they can make sales.
What ethical issues prevail in fashion?
I was never appreciative of the fact that, for a long time, interns were unpaid. Thankfully from this year onwards, the government has changed the law; a specific amount is now paid as a stipend. It’s half the minimum wage but still covers travel and food expenses. Some of the biggest names are the worst offenders when it came to interns.
A while back, a friend of mine was working for a very big name. For days she was made to cut patterns with scissors, even though there was a pattern cutter handy. When she complained that her hands hurt, they showed her the door. So she walked out.
The Omar Mansoor ready-to-wear label is, 100 per cent, made in the UK. The fabric is sourced from Asia but the factories supplying have an ISO9001 certificate which shows health and safety conditions are monitored by external bodies (so you won’t see the Rana Plaza sort of disasters repeating). Wholesalers often moan about prices and ask if there are other ways things can be done in a subtle way. I can make money easily but capitalising on someone’s misery isn’t something I’m prepared to do.
Unfortunately this isn’t widespread. Many of those in the fashion industry place orders with companies who, at the forefront, tick all the ethical boxes, but outsource to slums. Children as young as five years can be seen helping their mothers produce garments. We’re talking about huge brands who deal on Oxford Street. I’ve been to see slums and seen baby – not even child – labour. I’ve seen children aged six carrying clothes from one machine to another.
What is your proudest moment?
Susanna Reid wore one of my dresses to the Oscars. She’s worn my dresses two times before that and tweeted that I make “real dresses for real women”. This, coming from a BBC Breakfast Show presenter, meant a lot to me. I’ve also made clothes for Sophie Anderton and various Middle Eastern royals.
What about your most challenging moment?
I put together a collection titled ‘Paradise Lost’ based on John Milton’s famous poem. It was very much appreciated by critics, how the muse was turned into dresses, but from a buyers’ perspective it didn’t do so well. I think what a bad experience teaches you is something that a good experience can never.
The next collection did so well that I did covered my losses for the previous season. I checked what the boutique owners wanted, which turned out to be just a certain level of experimentation. They couldn’t sell poems – just dresses. The next collection was put together in Kensington Palace. I experimented within limits and it worked well.
Being of Pakistani Muslim background, are you ever hassled by the harram-police?
Certain individuals feel they have the authority to tell others what is halal (permissible) and what’s not. They have often approached me, messaged me, hate-mailed me, trying to convince me to stop – even suggested that I have been cursed until I stop selling indecent clothes. I’ve been told I shouldn’t be making cuts of a certain length and so on. I advise people to simply lower their gaze if it’s such an issue for them. It hasn’t got me down – it’s given me more resolve. When your parents are there to support you, you don’t give a damn. I find, actually, that this is more of a problem in the UK. In Pakistan, people have moved on with time, certainly in the cities (though I can’t speak for the village areas).
It must be said however, that most people have been supportive. I’ve been encouraged by many more than I’ve been criticised.
What’s the response in Pakistan been like?
I’ve had one showcase in Karachi Fashion Week. (More widely, Bahrain Fashion week too.) In Pakistan I’m often invited as a guest to fashion shows, and approached by journalists, bloggers and the general public. People praise me for showing the positive side of Pakistan since the socio-political side of things isn’t doing so well.
Now there are more Pakistanis in LFW, but when I started I was the first.
I’ll be killed if I don’t ask you what trends to watch out for this year…
In the Spring / Summer trends, look out for printed jumpsuits and dresses in loose silhouettes complemented by sharp waist belts and experimental pieces. Kaftans too. Key colours will be blue, pink, neon green, and fabrics will include nets, lace and jersey.
I often get told I dress like a pensioner. Where am I going wrong?
Buddy, I’m just glad you’re no longer carrying your things around in a plastic shopping bag – I see you now have a leather messenger bag. You need to invest in a better pair of glasses, I’m sure there’s a Specsavers sale coming up? The hair is a surprise, in a good way (£7 haircut from Slough, boom). Otherwise, your colours are boring – a bright scarf wouldn’t go wrong.
Photo Credits: Shahid Malik and Corall Garrett
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