Maheen Khan, coming full-circle

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Circa 1982, a young designer called Maheen Khan returned to Karachi from Dubai and rented out a store in the Clifton area. ‘Maheen’, the store was eponymously titled, and it soon gained popularity amongst a niche crowd. Her customers consisted of an exclusive circle of people who valued a neat, well-cut silhouette, fabric with just the right fall, a minimalist classy touch of embroidery.

Later, the brand grew and moved on from that very first store, diverting to other popular shopping locales. Now, 38 years later, a new ‘Maheen’ store has just opened, coming full-circle to the Clifton location. The clientele remains the same; discerning savants who value an elegant cut over overdoses of embroidery and bling.

No typical embroideries over at Maheen’s

A woman walks into the store while I am meeting Maheen Khan there. “I used to come here back in my college days,” she says, while sifting through the racks. “Until recently, I even still had the clothes that I had bought.”

It’s true that once you have purchased a bona fide Maheen Khan design – timeless, sophisticated, oozing individualism – you want to hold on to it forever. “I have never been able to become a traditional wedding-wear designer,” muses Maheen. “I love designing this too much.” She expansively gestures towards the racks that surround us, stacked with pret and luxury-wear.

Embroidered tunics for all times to come … traditional touches and ‘Kalash’ inspirations

She continues, “The coronavirus has been very tough on a business like mine. The bridal-wear designer continued to sell because that’s just the nature of that market. There will always be weddings but suddenly, there were no parties.”

Cutting back on her losses, Maheen decided to make a return to this store – one that she owns – closing down her retail points at two of the city’s ‘it’-most locations; the Gulabo store in Dolmen City Mall and the ‘Maheen’ outlet in the Bukhari commercial area. “I did feel a wrench when I closed the Dolmen Mall store,” she confesses, “but in retrospect, I had been clustered by high-street stores, like a kabab sandwiched in between two buns. In a mall catering to the masses, competitively priced high-street stock sells out more quickly. A lot of people don’t understand the value of a simple tunic which is just cut beautifully – they’d rather buy the buns and not the kabab!” she quips.

“I am now bordering on bankruptcy but I am happy,” Maheen grins. She wouldn’t have it any other way. While we are talking, a painter comes in, about to add some finishing touches. “I worked with this very painter back when I first rented this store,” she tells me. “He’s a grandfather now.” And Maheen is a grandmother.

The new ‘Maheen’ store has silver walls that she and the painter painted together. The racks are silver and the mannequins, black and silver. Perhaps, I tell her, this is the sort of location that was always meant for you, treading its own ground, far from the stores selling generic ready-to-wear. “Yes, it’s like this space was lying in wait for me,” she agrees. “It’s been more or less empty ever since I left it. High-street stores have large operations. They cut back on costs – and often, quality – and can make do with extremely low pricing. That’s a lot of competition for a small business like mine, with overheads that can only be countered if I charge a certain price.”

“But at the higher end, catering to a market where people want their wardrobes to have a certain panache, I hardly have any competition.”

Crsipy green silk that was originally stitched for Kate Middleton … and Maheen’s indigenous line of ‘Koya’ fabric peeping out from behind

The designer is now also offering an option for tailoring. Customers can bring in their fabric and get it stitched in a silhouette that they select from the ready-to-wear racks or they can bring samples of designs of their own. “I am also about to launch online with a more extensive website,” she tells me.

A website, of course, is an absolute essential for a fashion brand today. But this store, more than anything else, is what defines Maheen, the way she always has been. Her clothing racks are stacked with statement-wear, far from the madding crowd of over-embellished, pointless design: a crispy green silk sherwani and pant set that was meant for Kate Middleton during her royal tour of Pakistan last year, tunics and pants in solid colors, assymetric high-collared shirts in the signature Gulabo cut, shalwars, a true blue gharara cascading in multiple ‘ghairs’, a stand-out ‘Kalash’-inspired shirt, jackets, cowl-necked cotton shirts, dainty, unique embroidery and Maheen Khan couture that could see you through multiple parties over the years.


Pret, the Gulabo way!

Design like that – the sort that Maheen Khan creates – doesn’t need to be placed in a busy shopping location in an attempt to draw customers. It can simply be placed in a standalone store, in an accessible market like this one, and the customers will get drawn, all on their own.

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Maheen Khan, coming full-circle