Khadijah Shah, creator of Élan
Khadijah Shah, creator of Élan Image Credit: Supplied

The Élan woman is unique—feminine, self-assured, strong, worldly yet connected to her roots, flawlessly dressed yet comfortable in her skin, forever female, and very proud of it. The Élan woman is self-aware, talented, a businesswoman, a homemaker, a wife, a mother, a trendsetter, politically savvy, in touch with myriad facets of humanity. Khadijah Shah, creator of Élan, is all that and more.

Khadijah, mother of two boys, fourteen and thirteen, and a girl, four, is the founder and creative director of one of Pakistan’s leading fashion luxury and high street brands, Élan and Zaha. Strikingly attractive, the impeccably dressed and meticulously accessorized Khadijah is a style icon—whether in her own creations or some international brand—elegant, glamorous, timeless. Hailing from a family of women who believed in the power of clothing to be more than a sartorial choice, Khadijah’s choice of profession despite a degree with honours in International Relations from the London School of Economics was an organic next step in her lifelong fascination with the creation of a specially crafted piece of clothing.

Élan spans over almost two decades. Starting in 2004 with interactions with “her mother’s clientele in her parents’ garage” to a “makeshift studio”, Khadijah soon created Élan Facon, her “independent label with a focus on bespoke couture that used a unique sense of colour and a playful eye for detail to create signature looks that have been the mainstay of Élan’s popularity ever since.” From one store in Lahore to the launch of Élan Lawn in 2012, hugely popular for its vibrant colours, durable material, and detailed embroidered embellishments, to becoming one of Pakistan’s foremost designers with an international clientele, Khadija’s creative journey is expansive, innovative, and dynamic, not a design, a cut, a stitch out of place.

Khadijah Shah
Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, Ayesha Omar, Rabia Chaudhary, Khadijah Shah with models (London 2017), Mahira Khan, Saba Qamar, and Sarwat Ali (Cannes 2022).

Khadija’s extensive resume also includes her work with the Sapphire Group, one of Pakistan’s top textile houses. Khadijah assisted them in setting up “a retail brand to compete with established mega-brands in Pakistan… bringing her customary drive and creative flair to the project, creating an identity, product plan, and a complete rollout plan for the brand.”

In 2018, Khadijah announced her high street brand Zaha. Incorporating “international fashion trends and a solid understanding of the local market, dynamic and contemporary in terms of its brand image, Zaha’s target market was and is the confident, off-beat Pakistani woman.”

Several awards for Élan and Zaha from distinguished fashion platforms such as International Pakistan Prestige Awards, Hum Style Awards and Lux Style Awards are a testament to the brands’ credibility and popularity in terms of their signature style and buyers’ continuous confidence.

Elan’s “philosophy for both brands is anchored in values of cutting-edge design, superb quality, employee engagement and freedom of creative expression. Internationally recognised for her aesthetic savoir faire, Khadijah’s style statements are versatile, chic and universally wearable. With a commitment towards promoting good taste and authentic fashion, the brands favour wearability and glamour as their guiding principles of expression.”

Khadijah says, “Élan’s couture has been showcased by Swarovski International, the Aashini wedding show in London and exclusive shows in Berlin, New York, Dubai, and India. Leading South Asian celebrities such as Mahira Khan, Alia Bhatt, and Jaqueline Fernandez have been dressed in bespoke creations by Élan. Artist Sarwat Gilani was in Élan couture at Pakistan’s first film representation at Cannes 2022. Élan regularly provide couture solutions to India’s leading socialites as well as Middle Eastern royalty, such as the Al-Thani family of Qatar and Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco. It was a proud moment for Élan to be able to dress HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, on an official visit to Pakistan. Echoing the iconic trip made by Diana, Princess of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge wore a monochrome Élan shalwar kameez that delighted her so much she sent a heartfelt note of thanks to me.”

Khadija’s Élan creations are a celebration of femininity while accentuating the uniqueness and inner strength of the woman wearing them.

For Gulf News I asked designer Khadijah Shah a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: Why clothes? Simple!

Khadijah Shah: Designing clothes was one of the primary influences in my life. I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandmother was very glamorous and particular about how she dressed. I spent a lot of time with her scouring fabric stores for rare finds and textiles. My mother inherited my Nani’s passion and went a step further by assembling a team of craftsmen to create embellished and embroidered garments. She started with designing my grandmother’s looks for her formal engagements and state visits she’d accompany my grandfather on, and then went on to become the go-to person for clothes within her circle of family and friends. My Nani always had an inhouse tailor. I remember sitting for hours in the little workshop explaining designs to him. A lot of my own wardrobe as a little girl was designed by my grandmother and me.

What is style to Khadija Shah?

I think style for me is rooted in elegance. Classic fashion appeals to me. Personal style is one of the outward manifestations of who you are, clothes and accessories are a way to communicate that to people. I feel one’s style should inspire confidence and a sense of ease. In other words, the way we style ourselves should complement who we are as people, and be in harmony with one’s personal aura, as opposed to dominating attention, slotting you in some fashion category and obscuring one’s unique personality.

Is a perfect blend of a beautifully crafted piece of couture and affordable clothing possible?

Couture by its very definition is a process of creating clothes that’s highly value added and painstaking. True couture requires attention to detail, precision, and the highest quality of materials all put together by human hand—its very essence lies in the costly process, and it is impossible to make it affordable. The more embellished the couture garment is, the more costly it becomes. In Pakistan, the term couture is often misused to represent all kinds of clothes that have not been made following any of the processes employed in traditional couture making. All formal or wedding wear is not couture; certain criteria of detail, quality and precision must be met before being labelled as such.

Khadijah Shah, creator of Élan
Khadijah Shah, creator of Élan Image Credit: Supplied

What distinguishes your signature Élan couture from the creations of other renowned designers of Pakistan?

Élan was one of the first luxury design houses in Pakistan with a focus on fusion wear, merging tradition with modernity and eastern and western aesthetics. I chose to work with pale soft colour palettes typically associated with western couture, departing from the traditional bold jewelled tones preferred in the subcontinent. My cut lines assimilated eastern and western silhouettes, which was another first, and the quintessential élan embellishment was refined, crystalline and ethereal, veering away from the use of typical zardozi associated with Pakistani fashion design and style of craftsmanship.

An Élan ensemble is instantly recognisable due to its entirely different design ethos and technique of embellishment the brand is known for introducing in the subcontinent.

What do you think is the secret of the popularity of your retail line Zaha?

Zaha’s design is its strongest facet. The modern Pakistani woman has an evolved sensibility and is in tune with trends globally. Our customers want expertly designed eastern wear that makes them stand out and is a notch above the usual humdrum. We are a design centric label, in constant flux to interpret high end concepts and ideas in fashion and make them available to our high-street customer base. This focus on design and functionality draws the middle income and upper crust to the brand.

Zaha offers a complete range of lines—from day wear to formal and bridal, and also an unstitched line, hence it’s a one stop shop catering to the entire set of needs of its customers.

How can the fashion industry become a sizeable fund generating entity in the regeneration of Pakistan’s economy?

The fashion industry is already a sizeable fund generating entity in Pakistan. Employing a large number of skilled labour and professional managers at every level, the contribution to employment is immense. Fashion retail has exploded in the last decade, initiating a huge wave of e-commerce within the country and catering to expats living abroad. The demand for fashion is almost inelastic, largely riding out economic uncertainty and always keeping cash flowing through the economy. There is huge potential for export, and in the years to come we will see Pakistani brands expanding into other parts of the world.