While many designers are defined by the fashion industry, there are some who end up defining the industry instead. Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, shortened to HSY and mostly called Sheru by the fashion connoisseurs in Pakistan, can lay claim to that title. The rock’n’roll edge, bald, usually sunglasses, followed by body guards often seen in shirts with ‘I love HSY’ emblazoned on the front, when on fashion week duty, is one of the most recognisable figures in Pakistan; always at the top of his game in an industry known for its short expiration dates. On a one-track mission to create Pakistan’s most iconic brand, Sheru has dedicated more than two decades of his life to his work — and criticism, personal sacrifices have all come alongside meteoric success and worldwide recognition.
When he started out as a young designer fresh out of Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design, Pakistani fashion industry was not what it is now. There was scarcity of fashion shows, models, moral patrol on the lead and hardly any off-beat designers coming out who were about luxury at large or couture. Hassan with his love for fashion and work made it all happen and soon starting directing fashion shows and shoots.
Few years ago, Hassan brushed past me just centimetres away, walking along a narrow runway before he stopped to meet a fellow fashion journalist, sitting opposite in the front row, during the finale of his fashion show in Karachi. There was ongoing audience applause and it should’ve been an uplifting moment, but for me it was of curiosity — of knowing what goes in the head of the virtuoso who directs the models on the runway and creates a space of most engaging shows—i.e., the ones with the most energy: atmosphere. In all that hoopla of busy fashion schedule, I never really got the time to sit with Hassan and talk about his creative space, until now.
If ever there was an award for a multi hyphenate man in fashion, Sheru would no doubt make the shortlist. A darling of the entertainment industry alike, he’s no bashful for taking the stage and dancing at an award show as the lead, hosting a prime time talk show Tonite with HSY for four seasons and now venturing into acting with film Ishrat Made in China, amidst the centre of designing clothes and inspiring people.
In an exclusive conversation, Community asks him if he ever envisioned himself as one of the greats, he pauses, laughs, and tells that at the risk of sounding immodest, he did. “Staying relevant is not easy especially in an industry where new people are coming in and replacing old ones, in an instant. I constantly push myself to do something better every day, to leave a legacy behind,” he says.
A studio that speaks for itself
HSY recently established his new studio in Karachi, a grandeur that speaks for itself, encapsulating the heritage and value of traditionalism in a 150-160 year old house. Chandeliers, wooden floors, richly textured world of HSY with his stylish orbit bridal collection on the display, and neat bouclé men tweed jackets, the braided leather- and chain-handled racks — renovated spark with the hues of keeping originality intact. As the doors of his studio open, you can see Sheru discussing about his incalculable future projects with his team. Before sitting and putting forward a dozen questions about design, I comment on the glamour of his studio. “A studio space for a clothing brand that believes in luxury I believe should also ooze that kind of vibe. People should come in and feel that they’re buying a lifestyle, not just a product. This is an old heritage house that was built about 150-160 years ago and we had to renovate it brick to brick and floor to floor. But, I strongly believe that a brands legacy should be what it left behind. We all make clothes, everyone has won awards but that’s not legacy. Legacy is leaving something behind,”he adds, “We didn’t touch the outside façade of the property, neither did we touch the interior with modernity; we just fixed it how it was and just brought it to life.”
What about futuristic approach to design and design space?
Fashion has long been a community driven by passion, artistry, joy, and invention, though, of course, around it has evolved an industry of perpetual motion, always moving, faster, faster, faster… with a pulse on everything that’s happening around the world and bringing international elements to their creation and space. However, Hassan thinks otherwise in terms of borrowing trends and elements from Milan, Paris or New York at large. “Running towards a future that is not borrowed from Milan, Paris or New York but Pakistan is important. So many people want to feel that they’re part of the Ellie Saab world, we’re not. We’ll never will be. We don’t have finger on the pulse on what’s happening in Lebanon. We don’t have Beiruti women, we don’t have the Parisian lifestyle. We sell to a woman who’s in Sialkot, who’s a beautiful woman in Peshawar, who’s a rich powerful woman in Multan, who’s an incredibly important social worker in Gujranwala. They’re the clients. She’s a Pakistani. The question is will she feel comfortable here or will she comfortable in a studio that’s too western for her taste, with flickering lights and just bedazzled mannequins,” says Hassan.
Pakistani Bridal Wear and Couture
In times of Ready-to-wear (RTW), the only thing that merits a one-on-one between designers and customers is bridal wear. Bridal wear still remains the cornerstone of the Pakistan fashion industry. It is desi fashion’s high point; it is to the subcontinent what couture is t the west. Although Hassan is referred as the King of Couture in this part of the world, he has come in terms with the narrative that couture is only for a specific niche in Pakistan, and graceful inclusion of only certain elements of couture with bridal for this region be more successful for mass market. He says how he’s non chalant to fashion reviews now who bashes him when he shows a collection that doesn’t feature an off-shoulder, a round cut or a big flared skirt. “I get to hear ‘Oh Hassan! It’s stale, its stale!’ Who is actually wearing what you’re asking for? Which women am I targeting? I live by the rules that are set by the world of Pakistan. If I’m doing an international show, it’ll be a different collection, but when I’m in Pakistan — it ought to be a Pakistani collection. A wearable collection people can actually buy,” says Hassan.
“I don’t take fashion off the streets that too of Milan or Paris with off-shoulder cuts and puffy sleeves,” adds Hassan, “I can’t print crabs and taxis and big flamingos on my outfits. I always design keeping two things in mind: can my mother wear it and can my sister wear it. You know when Brooke Shields called us in for a dress, I told her that the motif will be very Pakistani and she was like why else would I be calling you.”
Figuring out what’s coming up the next season
One of the most talented and outrageous fashion designers of his time – with eccentric and poetic fashion moments that no one will ever forget – HSY’s bride-to-be and her family tells him exactly what’s coming next season. He’s smart to pick up the consumer behaviour and market response. “When my client comes in with a sample colour she wants, I know that’s the colour trend that’s going to take over Pakistan the next season and grab it immediately.”
The first time HSY became aware of fashion
“I didn’t know I wanted to be a designer until 29th July, 1981 when I saw Princess Diana getting married. I was a little boy in London with my mother who she took along with her to stand way back in line to get a glimpse of the procession. She held me up on her shoulders and I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the Royal Carriage with the beautiful Queen of Hearts as it passed us by. It was a magical moment. She inspired me like she inspired countless others. I remember telling my Mom ‘Princess!’ and she was like ‘Oh God! Now he wants to be a princess!’ and I was like ‘No, I want everyone to dress like a princess!’ That’s I guess the first time I thought of designing clothes,” Hassan recalls.
However, it wasn’t as easy for men to join a design school and pursue fashion designing back in the 90’s. “Initially I went on to be a lawyer, because fashion designing wasn’t considered a man’s job and then when I was 17, I got into an accident and lost my eye sight. But when I gained my eye-sight back, I realised that there are so many things we’re not thankful for and that’s when I made up my mind that I have this gift of eye-sight and I’m going to make beautiful things. That’s when I convinced my mom to send me to the design school.”
The Royal Affair
The fashion maestro was one of the few people from the country and fashion/entertainment fraternity selected to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, during their visit to Pakistan last year. Remembering how his life had come a full circle from when he started dreaming of the things he has achieved today, he said, “I recently met Prince William and Kate Middleton when they were visiting Pakistan and it was a big moment for me. I told them how his mother inspired me to be a designer. I told them I want to be the king of people’s heart just as how Diana said in her last interview that she wants to be the Queen of People’s Heart. On the same year, I was celebrating my 25 years in fashion, it felt like I had come full circle. The son and daughter in law of the very same person who sparked my desire to be who I am were standing right in front of me and acknowledging my work. More than that I am happy now that I can now go and tell my sister’s children and their children that to dream is not a bad thing.”
Twenty-fives years of fashion revolution
Fashion shows we see today are not the way he envisioned them a decade ago, he along with his team of models had to undergo scrutiny just to organise a meek fashion show built on wooden planks at a community garden of some designer’s house. Fashion has changed immeasurably in Pakistan. Some years it felt like every season was starting anew, with droves of creative directors coming and going; more recently it has seemed like every week was a new beginning—or ending—in the fashion world, with brands, stores, and ideas sprouting up on social media as brick-and-mortar spaces we thought would exist forever closing their doors. Nothing about the medium is the same as it was back in 90’s. Some years were marked by specific collections or designers, while others were about unique items, trends, or cultural shifts. How Hassan thinks fashion industry has evolved, he responds, “Everything has changed and nothing has changed. Good craft is still king. Good designer aesthetics is still the most important thing. Attitudes have changed. But to sum it up, it’s still the customer that’s calling the shots. Things have become better in terms of acceptance. Boys working in fashion acceptance, girls working as models in fashion acceptance and fashion weeks acceptance. We have done fashion shows from scratch and was it good for me? Yes! I learned a lot and taught a lot.”
HSY on being relatable
“I’ve been around for the industry or 25 years now and I’m a people’s person. I post on Instagram more than any other designer does to make myself accessible to my people. I share when I’m sad, and I share why am I sad. That has been my strategy forever. To be someone people can relate to. I hope I’m not going over the line, but today if you take me or any other designer to a passer-by, his/her chances of recognising me are much more than anyone else. Not because I’m famous but because they’ll know I’m one of them. I even go to schools and share my success story with them. On how I didn’t come from a privileged background but still made it. I’m not going to be around forever, sure I look really young, but one day I’ll go and I want my journey to be more than that he made beautiful clothes. I want people to remember that he inspired the youth of Pakistan.”
A tale of two cities
Fashion has historically been a tale of two cities in Pakistan and there has been an intense competition between the two. A fashion industry of its own sprung up in Lahore with most organised structure — PFDC — under Sehyr Saigol and just how smartly a bridge between Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design and PFDC was created, a Karachi council Fashion Pakistan was also formed. Lahore was PFDC’s territory and FP, Karachi’s. For some time it was as if the councils owned their territory and became insulated. However things have been stirring up for the past few years. Hassan thinks that designers in this day and age should play a national game, rather than city divided approach. “There’s no New York or Miami, there’s no Milan or Rome, there’s no London and Bristol — as its American, Italian and English fashion, it should be only Pakistani fashion. Together we are a stronger breed and separated we are a fighting silly bickering designers who forget that the game is fashion not competition. Competition is not in which city you’re in but how good your product is. PDFC has done a good job and so has Fashion Pakistan. Yes, there’s a certain old guard that feels like politics but if you look at the new young designers, each just wants to show.”
HSY’s ‘My Pakistan’
Time and again we come across various celebrities, who devote considerable time to different philanthropic activities. They lend support to social causes but also go the extra mile to spread awareness regarding issues like education, health, vocational trainings etc. Hassan collaborated with Network of Organisations Working for People with Disabilities, Pakistan (NOWPDP) to provide hope, empower as well as create opportunities for differently-abled designers. “The idea behind this project is to empower differently-abled design students and provide them with a platform to creatively express their ideas, thoughts and whatever comes to mind when they think of Pakistan through art using different mediums. What we’re going to do out of these drawings is that we’re going to make tunics out of these and sell them, and the entire proceeds of the design are going to go to the student.”
HSY in Qatar
I did a show in Qatar few years back and the entire thing for me was pretty good. Since I had a couple of Lebanese friends in Doha, it all came together well. Also I love flying via Qatar Airlines, it’s one of the best in the world.
ROYAL MEETING: Hassan with Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, during their official visit to Pakistan last year.