Representing the creative future

Zille-e-huma Maqbool presents Pakistani embellishments on Americana silhouettes

The Parsons MFA graduate on learning about Vogue and balancing two cultures

Zille-e-huma Maqbool grew up in a small village in Pakistan, before moving to the bustling New York metropolis to enroll in the MFA Fashion Design & Society course at Parsons. She presented her graduate collection – a juxtaposition of these two worlds – as part of the Parsons MFA’s eighth generation in 2019. The collection was a celebration of Americana and Pakistani craft, featuring tiny gingham hot pants, thigh-high boots, white biker jackets splashed with diamanté dogtooth and cross-stitched vines on sequin moss, trailing off in minuscule French knots across the shoulders. Having celebrated connection and convergence in her designs, the current situation feels jarring. “This has been a strange pause,” she says. “My whole world is paralysed, because my family is in Pakistan and I am in New York and we are just connected through the Internet.”

Coming from Pakistan, what was your experience of New York?

I was the first Pakistani person to be accepted onto the MFA Fashion Design & Society programme at Parsons. The melting pot of nationalities on the course and in the city was so radically different to what I’ve known. I was constantly grappling with how my identity related to that: how could I find balance in this culture? New York is so fast and aggressive in contrast to Pakistan; it was hard to combine those parts of my personal identity. Three women in particular became my friends and inspired my collection, because they were outliers in their own cultures and defined their sexuality and desire without any social expectations and boundaries. I think the culture in New York – the people – that is what has affected my work most.

 “New York is so fast and aggressive in contrast to Pakistan; it was hard to combine those parts of my personal identity.”

How did your friends influence your work?

Meeting all three was a complete accident! I used to explore markets in New York for inspiration and I met this police officer at the 4th July fireworks in Times Square. It was completely packed and she helped me with directions. Since then, we have become friends. When I asked her how she defined sexuality and desire, she said it was her uniform and the authority that it brings every day. She asked me if women in Pakistan wear burkas and are suppressed, because that is what she knew from the media. The second woman was my classmate from Portland. She was a pole dancer and would wear lingerie to class, while I sat next to her wearing covered Muslim clothes. But we were friends and she never judged me for being Pakistani. I met my third friend, an older Jewish lady, in the subway – she liked my eye colour and asked me if I was from India. I told her I was from Pakistan and she would tell me stories about how glamorous New York was in the 1950s. My collection was about these three characters and my personality as well – we’re all representing different cultures, ethnicities and concepts about sexuality, freedom and desire.

“My classmate was a pole dancer and would wear lingerie to class, while I sat next to her wearing covered Muslim clothes.”

How did you articulate your Pakistani side and the New York side in your garments?

My first garment was a red gingham biker jacket, which represents New York, because it’s a silhouette that you see here every day. To me, America is about Grease, Michael Jackson and rock-star culture. But when you look closer at the detail, it has a lot of minimalist Lahorian embellishment. I incorporated elements of the police officer’s uniform, which is oversized and has a lot of pockets. I created camouflage in silicone, inspired by the American military and the industrial side of New York, and then the lingerie references come from my friend who is a pole dancer. My Jewish friend told me that people would wear dresses and swimsuits in gingham in 1950’s New York, so I used gingham too. While I was finalising my textiles and fabrics, I was constantly thinking about these characters, because I wanted to make my collection more authentic than if I was explaining it to someone.

When I started my MFA, I was totally lost – I didn’t know what MTV or Vogue was, because we don’t have either in Pakistan.”

Did you feel at a disadvantage on the MFA, having different cultural references to your classmates?

Definitely. When I started my MFA, I was totally lost – I didn’t know what MTV or Vogue was, because we don’t have either in Pakistan. I realised that it made my approach to the industry very unique, because my narrative was more authentic and global as a result. Pakistan was a developing country when I was growing up and my parents didn’t have that much money, so they couldn’t afford fancy clothes or stuffed toys. That is why you see a lot of bunnies in my collection, because I finally got a chance to play with stuffed toys through my clothes. I think it’s hard to express this childhood yearning to other people, especially if they don’t know anything about your culture.

Your collection comments on politics and social interaction, religion and immigration. Why do you think fashion is such an important medium for this sort of commentary? 

I think that fashion is the most democratic medium to say or do anything. Your religion, economic situation and politics defines your fashion aesthetic. When I just started my collection, I thought there would be a conflict, because my culture is more modest. My silhouettes, my textiles and colours – it’s all about the amalgamation of these two opposing sides. Fashion is not isolated, it’s supposed to be global and inclusive. To understand Pakistan is to understand that we are modest because we value our religion, cultural history and influences. Now, with globalisation and the Internet, even my country has changed – it’s all a global village.

To understand Pakistan is to understand that we are modest because we value our religion, cultural history and influences. Now, with globalisation and the Internet, even my country has changed – it’s all a global village.”

How would you like the fashion industry in Pakistan to change after the pandemic?

In terms of design, I really want more work on cuts and silhouettes, because Pakistani design is too focused on textiles. Artisans in Pakistan have amazing skills to create patterns, but they need that contemporary and modern element in their work. That is something I learnt at Parsons and I really want to educate other people in that too. In Pakistan, we have situations like the lockdown often, but in New York, it’s so strange for me to see. In fashion, we mostly depend on Asian countries for our supplies, raw materials and production, to make our clothes for a cheaper price, but I don’t know how this can carry on now. 

Your graduate collection seemed geared towards the catwalk aesthetic. Where do you think your designs sit between fashion and art and how much does practicality factor into what you consider good design?

I think that fashion and art are interlaced. Fashion is more about trends and personality, whereas art is more about doing something unique. My silhouettes are mostly minimal and wearable, like the biker jackets and the lingerie. But at the same time, I use things like hand-sewn embellishments, which creates something unique. That is the hard part when you are developing something – how do you balance both? At the end of the day, you are making your collection for the runway, but you are also making it to sell and to develop your business.

Would you like to start your own brand in the future?

First of all, I want to explore this multi-cultural conversation and continue designing for my own label. I am working on developing textile links between New York and Pakistan, to integrate them more. Secondly, I would love to collaborate with other people, because you learn a lot more working together. But if we are in the same situation for the next three to five months, how are we going to survive as designers? We don’t have other skills to generate money.

1 Granary

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