There was a time when the only work socialites did was light charity fundraising – organising expensive balls for their chums or sweet-talking friends and family into donating. Not anymore. High society designers like SanaSafinaz are now an economic force to be reckoned with, employing thousands of workers, with sales running into millions of rupees.
The list of what top fashion journalists have termed “socialite designers” reads like a who’s who of both fashion and society. From Khadijah Shah to newcomers like Misha Lakhani, many of fashion’s elite are “it-girls” who certainly don’t need to work and yet have built professional, thriving businesses. Many society women, such as Nadia and Ayesha Ellahi, design on a smaller scale; to the extent where it now seems there is a “designer” in every family.
However, socialite entrepreneurs haven’t limited themselves to just designing clothes. They are running furniture shops, salons, bakeries, shoe shops, gyms and more. Many start out in a small way, holding exhibitions for friends and family. For some, this is as far as they go, finding small-scale exhibitions the perfect vehicle for a work-life balance. Others, however, use exhibitions as a springboard to a more professional approach selling online or even opening an outlet.
Many of these fledgling businesses benefit from their owner’s social connections but at the end of the day, only viable business models prosper. There are plenty of success stories. SanaSafinaz themselves, along with The House of Zunn, have diversified into furniture. They join Maham Malik of Baroque and Saira Chapra of Charcoal in the ranks of socialite furniture houses. Together they have brought contemporary chic to Pakistani interior design, reminiscent of the aesthetics of Ralph Lauren and Christy. The social elite has bought from them in droves, and drawing room by drawing room, Pakistani interiors have seen a revolution.
It seems like upper class women have ventured into making just about everything that other women buy. From fancy birth announcements to jewellery, there’s a socialite with a thriving business. They are running schools and tuition centres, event planning companies and public relations firms. Some of Pakistan’s favourite restaurants are run by socialites, and they produce decorative accessories by the truckload.
Part of this desire to produce or sell beautiful things is demand led. Women become frustrated at not being able to buy the sort of things they themselves wish to use. “There isn’t a decent gym in my area? Maybe I should start one!” or “I want the sort of jewelery you see in auction catalogues – perhaps I can train a kaarigar to make some?”
The other reason is boredom. Many upper class women are highly educated (every family wants a “pari-likhi” bahu) and want to do more with their lives than rounds of coffee mornings and kitty parties. Traditionally, women are kept out of family businesses. Men folk don’t want their sisters and wives complicating already complex family business structures yet families don’t want them “going out to work”. Thankfully, there are beginning to be exceptions like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her sisters running their father’s factory or Iqra Mansha heading up Nishat Hotels. For the most part though, women end up starting their own businesses. You can pace your business to suit your family life and expand at a time that works with your child-rearing and other family responsibilities. The reason socialites have excelled in this area is they have men folk liberal enough to encourage them and they have the resources to invest in their businesses. That, and also the fact that it’s become fashionable to be an entrepreneur.
It’s important to note that although the target market of these women-led businesses is mainly other women, this doesn’t mean that the money goes round and round their exclusive social circles. Most of these businesses employ a significant number of people and once past the fledgling stage, move to a wider market base. Kitchen Cuisine Bakery, Luscious Cosmetics and Beaconhouse School are all the brainchildren of women who could be termed socialites. Perhaps we shouldn’t belittle them and the likes of SanaSafinaz by referring to them as socialites. Make no mistake, these are smart and savvy women. In these humdrum economic times, women entrepreneurs are among the few that are investing and creating jobs. We should salute them.
Oxford-grad Salima Feerasta is a social commentator and lover of style in any form or fashion. She blogs at karachista.blogspot.com and tweets @karachista
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2013.
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