Meet the Kashmiri designer branding local art and culture as a global style statement

Taking Kashmiri art and culture to an international platform, a Kashmiri fashion designer has been producing quality native products against the fake ones being sold in the market. In an era of unceremonious artisan class demise in traditional pockets of Old City, the designer is apparently infusing a new life into Brand Kashmir.

Even before a renowned Indian actress would don his designer pheran as her airport look to the delight of shutterbugs and paparazzi in recent times, 53-year-old Kashmiri fashion designer Irfan Rashid Wani had come a long way. The man designed his own journey by branding Kashmir through various global art projects. Far from his homeland, his art acumen had made him an unassuming cultural ambassador, who took the native way of life to different parts of the world.

Wani’s designer journey, however, had a quintessential beginning, in the eventful epoch of eighties, when Kashmir-based artisans and their trade had begun facing tough times. Years later, the constraints on the artisan class would grow and force many of them to shun their “golden hands” and drive three-wheelers for living.

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But the likes of Wani would eventually emerge as a silver lining for the battered community.

One of the Pheran’s designed by Wani.

The designer came from Srinagar’s Nigeen area. As a child, he would see his grandfather late Haji Mohammad Jamal working with artisans and hosting customers from across the world. After his schooling from Tyndale Biscoe School and DAV School, he followed his grandfather’s footsteps.

For the word go itself, young Wani wanted to be an entrepreneur and a fashion designer.

“But to hire employees, I needed to be one first,” says Wani, who first started working with his uncles at their Nawabazar-based Indo-Kashmir Carpet Factory — one of faded symbols of yesteryears’ glorious artisan class of Old City. “I needed to understand what could be expected from them [artisans] and what should be given to them.”

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It was ’80s, when he began chasing his designer dream quite vigorously. Then, Kashmir was booming with tourism and artisan activities. In the later part of that decade, as the valley plunged into armed upheaval against Indian state—the watershed event renewing the demand of the promised plebiscite in the region, Irfan would extensively travel to pick up different threads of design.

“Back home, then, many of us had followed the footsteps of our Prophet [PBUH], who had undertaken hijrat during the trying times,” he says. “It was to salvage a part of us, for the sake of our homeland, which is, unfortunately, still caught in the throes of the dogged conflict.”

Amid terrible offensive back home, he tried to maintain his focus—visiting Mumbai, Goa, Udaipur and Delhi—to learn various design skills.

Once done with his field trip cum study, he started selling his designed shawls in New Delhi. With time, eventually, he went global, and worked with Lebanese, Kuwaitis and people from other parts of the Middle East.

“I was always open to new ideas,” Wani says, taking a trip down memory lane. “I made beautiful lightings of brass once for a luxury resort on an international platform, Orange County.”

The resort where Wani has left his design imprints.

Years later, his design journey would finally shape into SI Lifestyle, an upscale fashion brand—focusing on brewing up fashion statements out of traditional embroideries and techniques.

“It stands for Suraiya Irfan [SI] Lifestyle. Suraiya is my wife’s name. Without her support, I wouldn’t have come this far in life today,” Wani says. “The brand is based on the concept of fusion, relating to the style of the modern generation.”

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Recently his designed pheran was bought through an online portal called Kashmir Box by Indian actress, Kangana Ranaut. “She had bought two pherans,” Wani says. “She even posted a picture of one of them.” It was, however, not the first occasion when the prominent personalities had donned his designer robes.

Kangana donning a pheran designed by Wani.

But given how fake is now becoming mainstream, akin to news, Wani is toiling hard to maintain trust in the original—the unparalleled product which once made high-end European travelers and tourists to fall and bat for Brand Kashmir.

“I saw people selling fake Pashmina, which is doing a great disservice to the art and artisans. It’s like undoing the love of labour of our ancestors,” Wani says. “A non-Kashmiri doesn’t know the difference. This is where we need to put our foot down and come together, to salvage our native brand.”

And to do that, the designer feels, Kashmiri artisans need to update themselves about the changing times and global standards.

“Our local artisans need to understand the international demand and modernize their art accordingly,” Wani continues. “That’s the only way they’ll get their due.”

Interiors of a resort designed by Wani.

As somebody who isn’t against the use of a machine, Wani believes that instead of someone else making designs with a machine, a talented Kashmiri artisan needs to be taught how to work with it. However, he doesn’t seem too sanguine about things back home.

“Today, we’re opening cafes in Kashmir. We work hard. We switch to a normal life and then suddenly things are back to square one due to the uncertain situation,” the Kashmiri designer says.

“We must understand that we’ve a larger responsibility on our hands. And therefore, we must seek newer—innovative—means to rise above the local hindrances, and go global.”


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