The world of fashion is as fickle as London weather and a designer — once out of sight, it can easily be out of mind. Hence, you rarely find designers going rogue and treading on the thoughts of a possible hiatus. Unless, of course, you are Thakoon and third time lucky; sabbaticals and relaunches can especially be dangerous if your target market is the local population and your revival dependent largely on nostalgia. Yet, Pakistani designer Ammar Belal, now based in New York City, took a break from fashion just when he was making his way to the peak of success. But, only to delve deeper into the art.
Taking risks and challenging skeptics has been at the core of Belal’s trajectory. His journey began with ABCD, a coming of age athleisure brand for young and hip Pakistani men; also a brand that soared high despite little faith from industry gurus. He then moved onto launching a namesake menswear label that promised high-end and high-quality designs at the best price. His luxury menswear brand may have reduced to a single studio space in Lahore now — by choice, mind you — but Ammar Belal suiting has an international standing and an exclusive clientele who are loyal to its “highly personal and curated” experience.
If you turn a page on the designer’s history, Belal’s big plan was always to helm a fashion corporation that could achieve widespread success, fame, and commotion. His approach to fashion seemed to elude the value of his origins and was heavily influenced by the West’s glamour and glimmer.
“I want to create an empire, a fashion house that has different brands for different markets…My competitors are foreign brands. My target market is people who buy Armani, Gucci, people who appreciate foreign labels – those are my clients. I want a local brand to come up, which is just as good as a foreign brand,” he said in an interview back in 2007.
An attempt to fuse the East with the West, his outlook appeared more reliant on the West’s definition of “cool.” He created a fashion house, although it was one with a completely different vision and identity than what he set out for.
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At his company’s 10th anniversary, Ammar went back to the drawing board and became one of 18 aspiring individuals accepted into the Masters of Fashion Design program at Parsons School of Design from around the world.
The result? One432.
One432 is a brand that has its heart in the right place. It’s a brand that celebrates equality, empowerment, ethics, and sustainability and one that shares 50 percent of its profits with its artisans. It not only is becoming a vehicle of encouraging education among less privileged communities in Pakistan but is also contributing towards strengthening the position of women in those communities by employing and training them.
Just like that, Ammar Belal went from being an ambitious fashion entrepreneur to becoming a passionate, socially-conscious designer on a mission to infiltrate the international fashion arena with the nuances and ingenuity of Pakistani craft and workmanship.
One still can see hints of both the East and the West in Belal’s ways as he sits down with Brown Girl for a virtual chat in his jazzy hairstyle next to a cushion embroidered with an image of singer Noor Jehan and pieces of truck art. But as our conversation progresses, it’s apparent that this mix in his ethos has evolved into a perfect and respectful blend of cultures than a confused, mish-mash.
The term One432 has various strong connotations as you’ve mentioned in your earlier interviews, and is very unique for being the name of a fashion house. What really is the idea behind this brand name?
There are lots of interesting stories about this one. But One432 as a name means many things. Some with a longer, deeper meaning but it also means ‘I love you, too.’ So when you text someone, the numerical abbreviation of saying ‘I love you, too’ on the keypad is ‘1432.’ It’s a very simple meaning but it relates to the concept of what our brand is and the philosophy behind it. One432 as a brand is about equality, empathy and thinking about communities that might have been forgotten or disenfranchised.
So, how does One432 lead this idea of equality? Unlike any other brand in the world, we give away 50% of our profits from every transaction. We believe in this idea of equality that if I do well, you do well. It’s not about just loving yourself but that I love you, too; about being responsible for another human being every step of the way. That is basically the mission statement of the brand — a sense of equality while we consume fashion.
One432 is essentially that and then come all our other causes. We not only support the artisans through part of every transaction but we also invest in educating a child. So that way you are investing in the future; you are not only working within your brand’s community but outside the community so the next generation has better opportunities.
You are talking about equality. How is One432 being equally responsible for its environment as it is to its artists and ensuring sustainability?
Sometimes people forget about how sustainable practices and sustainability translates in different regions of the world. And more importantly, at different times of a company’s shelf life. The most sustainable thing to do, at times, is to consume less, waste less. At our level, being a small company, if we wanted to tick the sustainability box by using things which were necessarily recycled or more organic, that might sometimes not be very sustainable because we’ll have to import it. So one of the first things we tried to do with one432, in terms of sustainability, is source locally; use local materials. We don’t buy stuff from a lot of big box places. The only time we’ll use something which is imported is when it’s not available in Pakistan. In that case too, we’ll consciously work with local small suppliers to develop that material in Pakistan and transfer it to something local.
That’s one thing we do. Then we also try to up-cycle and use things that have been discarded. In the shoe market, if you are intelligent and creative, you can use a lot of stuff from garment waste or denim. There are such high levels of production happening in India, Pakistan and the rest of South Asia that our countries produce some of the highest levels of cutting waste — pre-consumer waste as we call it. And for shoes it’s perfect. And we are innovative with how we use it. For example, for our signature material, which is the cotton twill, we use recycled cotton as a fibre and then we work with a third generation weaver who on a non-electric handloom in his home weaves it into that signature cotton twill that’s one of the core fabrics that one432 uses on its pillows and on cotton shoes that we vegetable dye. Recycling means you just recycle something but up-cycling means you give it more value. Are we 100% sustainable? Absolutely not. But it’s a commitment to how we can respect and create a brand that is about social justice and ethical practices. It’s raising the bar of what everybody else is doing in fashion along ethical lines.
For us, our major cause is equality. We want to stop this hierarchy of designers and brands making so much more money than the people who make the stuff. And labour wage in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is a serious problem. If I was from say Scandinavia, maybe my mission would be the organic-ness of cotton or more sustainability, which is also part of one432’s mission but the big thing that on432 is doing is saying that if we can do it – we are such a small company, independently-owned and if we can do it then why can’t consumers ask some of the bigger companies that listen what are you paying your workers and why is it that you make so much more money than what the worker is paid who actually makes the clothes?
Moving forward from your discussion on the shoe market, you launched One432 with shoes being the focus product — in particular, the South Asian jutti. You have now expanded to include sweats, t-shirts, and even home essentials. But what was it about the jutti that intrigued you to use it as a starting point and then a signature for One432?
One of the few reasons was that when we talk about the idea of equality and caring for somebody who you can’t necessarily see, it starts from a place of empathy. And when you start thinking how the other person feels, a very common phrase, in not just English, Urdu or Hindi but many languages, is you don’t know what it’s like to ‘walk in my shoes’ or ‘be in my shoes.’ So the shoe is like a metaphor that globally carries the message of empathy.
Another thing is that we often talk about being one, about not being divisive and the South Asian jutti doesn’t have a right or left foot. It’s one and the same. So we thought it was the perfect messaging. People these days say I am this, you are that. Sure we are different but there are more things common about us than there are different on a human level and this was something about the indigenous shoe to our part of the world that resonated with me.
And then lastly, the brand One432 is also about changing the way we look at things. When systems need change and when something has been done a certain way for too long – we say it’s a 1234 way; the obvious way. And we need to 1432 this. And this idea of sharing profit and this goal of responsibility and transparency, is us 1432-ing it. Similarly, in our language, ‘jutti’ did not mean shoe hundreds and hundreds of years ago. ‘Jutti’ was instead a specific type of no right left, flat slipper. Everybody, in our part of the world, must’ve worn the ‘jutti’ so much, just like using Kleenex, that it became the word for shoes. But originally, ‘jutti’ was only that particular shoe and nobody wears that shoe anymore, we only wear it at weddings. So here was something that defined our nation that it became the word for shoes but the actual shoe is dying. So I was like we need to 1432 this. It’s dying because it hasn’t been updated to keep up with our lifestyle of concrete roads and city living. And that’s how we developed the shoe using performance soles like the one Nike and other brands use and made the jutti very comfortable. So it’s no longer a ceremonial shoe but one that you can wear all day, every day.
As you mentioned, a lot of small businesses that are making juttis tend to follow a more festive, decorated design approach, whereas One432 designs are simple and minimalistic. Is there a reason why you’ve taken a more minimalistic approach as opposed to the popular choice of design and where do you draw your inspiration from for the designs?
Honestly, it’s a choice. But I’ll tell you why as the creative head I prefer to take that route. In my humble opinion, I think that there are plenty of people who do a really good job in exporting Pakistani culture. The difference, in case of one432, is that I was not interested in exporting our culture, I was interested in exporting our craft. When I go into Pakistani communities and speak to my artisans, what they want is to come together and figure out a way that their skill and their craft and technique finds a place in everybody’s home across Pakistan. That’s what sustains us. That preserves the technique that is indigenous to us.
When something is very ornate or is screaming Pakistani culture, where does it sit in our wardrobes globally? It sits as the fifth or sixth thing that you’ll wear to a ceremony. So when I was trying to preserve the jutti, I believed it was a shoe for everybody and if it’s a shoe for everybody it can’t be screaming our desi culture. We work with a certain amount of subtlety so that everybody can wear it across the world. That way it’s not the fifth item in your closet that you wear on Pakistan Day or a South Asian community event. What I want is for the South Asians living abroad as well as their white friends to consider wearing a desi product not just at an occasion; I want them to wear it and use it everyday with pride. So when your foreigner friend asks where you got it from, you’re like actually it’s made in Pakistan and now you don’t need to go to ZARA anymore. That was our vision that we are going to create something that has a bit of subtlety to it. And everything we make has a mystery of the Pakistani message into it. Whenever we do embroideries, everything points back to Pakistan – the flower we’ll use will be Jasmine, if it’s a cassette tape then it will be specific to a store in Lahore — but we let our consumers dig a little bit.
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Being a small-scale company, how has the pandemic affected your business and the response to it this year?
We do really well when we are an in-person pop-up because people like hear the stories and touch our product and when they do, they love it. But because we don’t have any corporate backing, it’s been hard for us in the online space; to have the budget to do online marketing. So the only difficulty we’ve had is organically growing our audience so that more people know about us. All the mentions we do get is because we are doing something that is radically different. And we do have a lot of support from people who simply believe in us. This year because of the pandemic, however, we have started doing better online though but we still need to more people to learn about our message.
Let’s talk about the designer himself now; you were pretty much at a career-high in Pakistan with an action plan in full swing. What made you change your direction and leave Pakistan altogether?
I don’t like to say that I left Pakistan because I still run a company in Pakistan and all that money goes back home. I just shifted my focus in terms of what kind of fashion I was doing. I just reached a point in my career I suppose where I didn’t have that sense of fulfilment in doing fashion which didn’t have any meaning beyond it being cool. And it happens to a lot of us when you get to a point in your life. Everything that I am, Pakistan gave it to me and I am very grateful for any kind of success and recognition that I achieved through my menswear in Pakistan. But the more success and accolade I got, I felt a bigger sense of responsibility to do something which was more meaningful.
And I didn’t want all my life’s work just to be about me and lavishness. So I took a break from selling high-end menswear in a retail setting for two years just to realign. And all of that sort of coincided with me being the first Pakistani designer to get an opportunity to do the masters program at Parsons. And once I got out of there, it was time for my thesis. And at that time Pakistan had a lot of stories that needed to be told; that were just not being carried in Western media. So one432 was born as a vehicle in fashion which has that subtlety, that mystery of carrying those stories. Where fashion can fill that visual vacuum through which these stories can be told.
I still do menswear but on a very small scale, very custom and exclusive for my key patrons in New York and Pakistan. While one432 is my vision of how I want to be and operate in Pakistan.
So is one432 a redefining of Ammar Belal or just an off-shoot, or extension?
It’s more like the next step. If you look at my journey, where I started from and all the brands that I created, it’s a natural progression. I started with sportswear, with ABCD then went into high-end tailoring and so one432 seems like the rational evolution. Ive always cared very deeply about what we stand for, what I stand for beyond myself. What is the bigger purpose of what we are doing. So it’s definitely an evolution – personal and professional.
And what does the future hold now for Ammar Belal and one432?
This has been a tough year for every business let alone a small one and that’s why we pivoted to our ‘at-home’ essentials. And people have really supported us; our sportswear, our hoodies because it’s not extravagant and it supports its artisans as you can see their imprint on everything t-shirt and product we make. So for now I can see us continuing with are home essentials; in doing these good handmade basics that show craft. There are some new products on the periphery, we maybe working on a sneaker but I don’t want to jump the gun. There are just so many more beautiful stories about Pakistan that we can tell but most importantly, we want our community of South Asians in North America to hear about us. I want to reach out to the South Asian community here. One432 sends 95-96 percent of its money back to Pakistan so we need the support of our South Asian community to choose us here; just try us.
If you are looking for some high quality, social impact fashion closer to home, then one432 may offer some hope. Fashion has taken years to come where it is now and while the road to constant and relevant change may be long and hard, a vision like Ammar Belal’s can play a key role in elevating the real artists that make up the foundation of our fashion system.