Thursday, 5 June 2014

Fashion as Art – Pakistani Fashion Designers Umbereen & Sharmeen take fashion to new heights of artistry


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Detailed hand embroidery from Umbereen Sharmeen
Does fashion qualify as art? It does when sisters Umbreen and Sharmeen are doing the designing. While it’s arguable that a beautifully cut dress or a creative ramp presentation is art, Umbereen and Sharmeen are different because they treat design as fine art. For them, their designs are expressions of a message they want to convey and a way of depicting emotions and opinions. When designer Umbereen describes herself as an artist rather than a designer, it’s tempting to take this as another example of the pretentiousness of the fashion world. Then Umbereen brings out her designs and it’s clear that this is not fashion as we know it.


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Umbereen Sharmeen's richly detailed outfits evoke the Moghul Era
One of the exceptional pieces she displays is a Moghul-themed chaadar (large, heavily-worked dupatta)  that depicts the dichotomy between male and female worlds at the time. One end of the chaadar shows the men: hunting, at war, in consultation and generally being very active. The women’s end is more passive, depicting flowers, dancing and ladies-in-waiting. A man and a woman meet in the centre of the piece, surrounded by a beautiful garden. The chaadar is simply exquisite, hand-worked in tiny stitches of single-resham, using rich warm colours that evoke the Moghul era.

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Exquisitely detailed embroidery & applique
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More details from Umbereen Sharmeen's Moghul chaddar
Another outstanding chaadar depicts seven different types of birds in an intricate garden. Various species, from songbirds to vultures are intertwined with elaborate flowers and leaves. The concept behind this piece is to portray how people of different backgrounds, different cutures and sects can co-exist in harmony. The delicacy and beauty of the work is breathtaking and the chaadar looks destined to become an heirloom. 

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Detail from the 7 birds chaadar
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Seven different varieties of bird are depicted living in harmony
While the artistry and conceptualization of such chaadars is extraordinary, there are those that would argue that Umbereen Sharmeen are textile designers rather than fashion designers. Indeed, Umbereen and Sharmeen focused on textile design when they first launched the label in 1997, later gradually moving into pret, formals and bridals. Now however, as any of Karachi’s cognoscenti will tell you, the label is a fully-fledged design house. Umbereen Sharmeen’s cuts and silhouettes are as attractive as their embroidery and embellishments. 

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A choli with palazzos and a sheer coat from Umbereen & Sharmeen's winter collection

Their collections include avante-garde cuts as well as more conventional silhouettes to cater to more conservative clientele. A recent bridal featured an asymmetric kameez with palazzos and an embroidered waistcoat. Whether a client wants to wear a jumpsuit or a choli lengha or a traditional farshi, Umbereen Sharmeen has it all. 

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Umbereen & Sharmeen Sari

The label is unusual because they design separates, which can then be put together as per clients’ wishes. A recent visit to their showroom revealed a pair of polki-embroidered pants and a Moghul-embroidered short angharka that worked brilliantly together.

 
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Detail from one of Umbereen & Sharmeen's signature chaadars


The charmingly bohemian Umbereen explained that their current collection features a lot of Moghul-inspired elements – from figures to paisleys and other motifs. Moghul figures are very trendy at the moment but Umbereen Sharmeen’s inspiration is a wish for political harmony and a disaffection with the current atmosphere of violent intolerance. They wanted to depict a time when the country’s people lived together more harmoniously. Umbereen concedes that the Moghul era was far from perfect but states that they are trying to portray a message of peace and tolerance by evoking our rich cultural heritage. In doing so, Umbereen Sharmeen have used bright flowers and rich clothing to portray prosperity, which they feel stems from tolerance. Umbereen mentions they are currently planning a range that reflects Turkish influence on our culture. They are also working on miniature coffee table books to accompany their signature heritage chaadars, to give the background behind the piece you own.

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Umbereen and Sharmeen's showroom
 One of the most attractive features of Umbereen&Sharmeen’s designs is their versatility. Their formals and pret are designed as separates so can be dressed up or down depending on which item they are paired with. Their heritage chaadars can also be worn in so many ways, with a jumpsuit, sari, shalwar kameez or even a dress. Their heavier joras tend to be timeless outfits in classic styles, while you’ll find a higher proportion of trendier cuts amongst their pret. Particularly appealing is the fact that every bridal is unique and the fact that each signature heavy piece is a limited edition, not something that is repeated ad-infinitum.

 
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Waistcoat from Umbereen&Sharmeen's latest winter collection
Umbereen Sharmeen display a sensitivity to their clients wishes that is refreshing. They will customize everything from colour to cuts and embroidery. A high proportion of their most recent collection features figures but they are flexible about replacing these with floral and other motifs for clients who prefer not to wear figures. Most of their embroidery is handwork but they will even replace this with machine work to suit their clients’ budget if necessary. Given the time-consuming artisan nature of the handwork that they employ, their prices are relatively reasonable in any case. Their impeccable finishing, filigree-like embroidery and sophisticated design aesthetic make Umbereen Sharmeen one of Karachi’s most covetable labels.

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