Fashion designer, photographer and the owner of the Commune Artists Colony talks about his journey into fashion design and his plan for launching his label in Pakistan
Tucked away in a quiet godown behind one of the busiest streets in Karachi is the Commune Artists Colony. One had first heard of it some three odd years ago as a place where friends from a local art college went to recite and share poetry. Those same friends also ended up forming a theatre group by the name of K’la. It was this group’s first (and to date, only) play, Tihai, at which Yousuf Bashir Qureshi, the owner of the Commune, made his public appearance as the voice of the postman, doodhwalla, etc. Since then, it has played host to myriad of activities from small concerts, intimate gigs, fashion shows, high-profile plays and art exhibitions to name a few.
As a person, Yousuf Bashir Qureshi is hard to ignore: with sharp, intelligent eyes that visibly twinkle over a large fashionable moustache, seemingly unkempt hair and always dressed in a dhoti, he is quite the character, and not just visually. Three years ago, after having lived in the States for a little more than a decade, he came back to Pakistan.
With the YBQ Design Studio operating out of the Commune, this designer is also a photographer and has previously also dabbled in the restaurant business. “Basically I’m a food scientist,” says Yousuf, “(in America) I was working with a pharmaceutical company and I didn’t like it, so one fine day I quit.” His plan was to hitch-hike to Pakistan and apply his food science to farming and creating jams, jellies, ketchup and what not. “But the day I quit I was taking a stroll down Lincoln, Nebraska and I found this empty place that used to be a slaughterhouse about a hundred years ago, and then became an Irish pub. It was all broken up and closed down and was available for lease. I fell in love with it,” he says about the onset of his venture into the restaurant business and fashion design. “I started a café there and in the back there was a huge hall where I had my design studio.”
Yousuf would begin to make “really bad sketches” which he would send to his mother, who would have it made by a local darzi and send it back to him. “That’s how I ended up doing my first-ever collection,” he laughs. His dependency on his mother’s tailor wasn’t going to last long though, since Yousuf would one day meet someone he considers his mentor. “I met an old Armenian tailor. He was the one who taught me how to sew, cut, sketch, drape, make patterns, etc. He used to teach me every day. After my café was over, I’d do the assignments that he’d given me. I started picking up from there.”
Eventually, his fashion designing career took off. But he is careful to point out that, “It took off in the mid-west primarily because there wasn’t that much competition there. So if an individual was doing something out of the norm, he got a little limelight. I became the celebrity of the town,” pausing for a moment he adds, “and it was a very small town.”
Eventually, some investment bankers found potential in Yousuf’s work and made plans to bring him to Los Angeles and launch him there. Tight-lipped about exactly what happened, Yousuf says, “Basically it didn’t work out. And then I was left to the dogs in L.A.” Adding that wherever he went for a design job, he’d be turned down with people suggesting, “‘You’re a food scientist, why don’t you work in McDonalds? This is not your space’.”
With fate having dealt him a cruel blow, Yousuf eventually found work at a boutique called Mariani as an assistant to the salesperson. His job, Yousuf laughs, was to retrieve stock and mop floors, etc, adding that “at the same time, I started decorating windows.” With the boutique located just off Rodeo Drive in L.A., the windows Yousuf decorated also began to generate a lot of attention.
Pretty soon, he was commissioned to decorate windows by other boutique owners and individuals. Some of them included Pauletta Washington, Denzel Washington’s wife, and Sheryl Crow. About the contribution Crow made to his career, he says “She was great to me, had such a big heart: she let me use her house as my first studio and got me all her friends as clients. She always paid on time, paid more than I asked. She started promoting me and then I was doing stuff for her videos besides contributing to her personal wardrobe.”
Yousuf’s career kicked off again and pretty soon he was designing wardrobes for actors, musicians, music videos and independent films in Hollywood. “Once I had this profile, I started designing for different firms. “There was a phase when I was designing for a lot of different companies, and then I started my own.” But he wasn’t to stay in the States for long, “My parents wanted me to come back to Pakistan and so I moved back here. I sold my companies but I still get royalty and design for them,” he finished.
Back home, Yousuf’s plan was never to go commercial with his work. “The building that I have was an old structure that was in shambles. I took up restoring it because I wanted to have high ceilings and I did not have any intentions to do anything locally. Yes, I was planning on working with exporters which I still do now, but not on a commercial level because I did not need to be on a prominent store front, be it Zamzama in Karachi or Liberty in Lahore. I wasn’t servicing clients everyday; I don’t have any walk-in clients.”
Having the space, Raania, a close friend sat down with Yousuf and outlined the plans they had for it. “It was basically a space that would be by artists, for artists. It’s not just another gallery; we wanted an alternative place that would be an inspiration to the artist; that they will come in with an idea to work here and then showcase it as well.”
Just because the Commune is available for hire does not mean just anyone can book it. “It’s very private. We’re very picky about the events we do here. We’ve kept it like that and we have certain rules,” he says. “It’s not a party place although people think it’s an ideal venue.”
As a designer, Yousuf says, “All of my inspiration comes from nature and then obviously from our heritage. I cannot claim to know everything about the embroideries of Pakistan because I don’t,” he says, adding, “In the past year, I was commissioned by the British Commonwealth to work on a book on the embroideries of Pakistan. That opened my eyes towards the work being done, primarily of the Thar, Sukkur and the Hunza regions.”
“I travelled extensively to these places, understanding it and educating myself from one stitch to another: what’s the name, where has it originated from, so this gave me a lot of insight on that. But then there are hundreds of othe embroideries that I don’t know about, so I cannot claim to be a specialist. And the embroideries that I’ve also studied about in the past year, I don’t know everything about.”
Finally, he says that he plans to launch his own fashion label in Pakistan sometime towards the end of this year. Rest assured, we can be sure that we haven’t seen or heard the last of Yousuf Bashir Qureshi yet.
caption: yousuf with sheryl crow
— portrait on top by Rizwan-Ul-Haq