Interview with Maria B.

“Fashion designing is not only for yourself but for millions of women who are your customers …” 
Maria Belal is an ambitious Pakistani designer with a vision. A valedictorian graduate of the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design, Lahore, she launched her label Maria B. in March 1999. Today, she has a clothing empire with multiple outlets in Pakistan, an export operation and production lines manufacturing embroidered fabrics, lawn, exclusive evening and wedding wear, and perfumes, etc.

Both her parents are Kashmiris. Her father served in Pakistan Army and fought in both 1965 and 1971 wars. According to her, “We were brought up to love Pakistan, with passion and devotion for the country and so my aim in life is to do something good for this country.”

In a recent interview with Hilal for Her, Maria shared her journey of becoming a successful designer and entrepreneur.

How would you describe Maria B. as a brand?
I would describe Maria B. as the leader of women’s wear in Pakistan today. It’s a brand that represents the modern working women of Pakistan. Maria B. has been a leader in trendsetting, product innovation, representing Pakistan fashion industry for the past two decades. We strive to introduce something new and are not afraid to go for avant-garde ideas.

You cannot trick your client, you have to respect your client and you have to give them more than they have dreamed of; That’s the number one rule. 

What are your inspirations and philosophy regarding the art of fashion designing? 
I think it is the same as art, the balance of colors, balance of cuts, the intervention of textures, fabrics and lines. You need to have the aesthetics to become a good fashion designer. You cannot be bad at art or bad at creative stuff and be a good designer. At the same time, fashion demands the designer to be an entrepreneur as well. Fashion is selling good quality art in terms of clothing.
My philosophy is that you have to be aesthetically sound with business acumen. I have seen many talented designers not being able to achieve much because of wrong business decisions. Fashion designing is not only for yourself but also for millions of women who are your customers and you have to take them very seriously.

What is the importance of innovation in fashion designing while sticking to our culture and traditions? 
Well innovation is very challenging in Pakistan because of social and religious restrictions and you have to respect the value system of your customer and realize that whatever you are making has to be bought by someone in your target area. You design something good and creative according to the social values accepting the challenge. And when you design and innovate according to the need of people you embark on success. This system would be different for Turkey, London or anywhere else in the world. However, Pakistani designers are producing brilliant fashion trends staying within social norms.

What are the important facets of Pakistan fashion industry? 
Most of the designers in Pakistan are couture, they design bridal dresses at home, on order or in shops and then there is the retail market for ready-to-wear and unstitched fabric market, which is huge. Both areas of fashion have improved and evolved but the ready-to-wear market is far ahead because of its volume. Couture supports cottage industry and ready-to-wear supports medium and large industries. Another facet is the glamour of fashion weeks. Unfortunately, fashion weeks in Pakistan are held for entertainment and local marketing. They are not tailored for international customers. The day that happens, new opportunities would be created for Pakistan’s economy and fashion designers. Pakistan’s fashion industry is in need of support. The general trend of the local market has improved. However, the real challenge is to create an alliance between the export market and Pakistan’s fashion industry so that this industry can contribute to Pakistan’s economy. We are among the largest industries in Pakistan and the time has come to move towards an export-oriented industry.

Success throughout your professional career, what is the secret?
What a woman really requires to be successful is family support. I would not be where I am today without the support of my family. Being a single mother for a long time and now being a mother of two kids, it’s important for me to give time to my children and family. Even when I am at work there is always someone with my children. Therefore, unless you have a supportive family this entire process becomes very difficult. My family has always been there for me in good times and bad. My brothers and sisters are my partners and we all run Maria B. together. I believe with family support women can achieve more than what they are capable of.
Other than that, I have lived my life based on the mantra that my customers are the most important factors in my designing. The ladies who buy Maria B they should be over the moon when they buy a Maria B. product saying, “We have our money’s worth.” You cannot trick your client, you have to respect your client and you have to give them more than they have dreamed of; That’s the number one rule. 
Number two is constant market research. Craving to do better and better is the key. You cannot be complacent; you cannot say, as a designer or a CEO, that you have arrived and whatever you are going to do is going to be the best. You have to constantly see what your competitors are doing. Number three is hard work, I have been working for almost 20years and every time a collection comes out I am on pins and needles. Even today it’s very difficult to say before the launch that it will be a hit. Success means that you don’t take anything for granted. 

What projects are you currently working on and aim to work on in the near future?
I have so many ideas that we would like to venture into. We’ll get in to men’s wear, accessories, bags, shoes, western wear — these all are elements of fashion that we would like to work towards. We started our perfumes and it has been very successful; we will be launching six more perfumes in the near future.

I’ve done shows all over the world and when I am interviewed by different people they are surprised to see that women in Pakistan are so empowered. It helps a lot to present a better image of Pakistan.

What is your biggest achievement?
We have always been a business-oriented company. Maria B. was a one-man show in the beginning but today we are providing employment opportunities to thousands of employees. We feel proud to represent Pakistan on international level. People see a female entrepreneur grounded in Pakistani culture and tradition, which in itself is a great contribution. I’ve done shows all over the world and when I am interviewed by different people they are surprised to see that women in Pakistan are so empowered. It helps a lot to present a better image of Pakistan. The biggest achievement is that we have been contributing to the growth of Pakistan’s fashion industry.

What would be your advice for new entrants  in the field of fashion designing?
I would tell every designer who wants to be a part of the fashion industry that the market is really saturated. I would advise them to first work in fashion houses and learn because there is so much to learn in this industry. Always be willing to work hard. It took me a long time to reach where I am today yet I am still learning. Glamour, fashion shoots and fashion shows are only 5 % of the work. The real work is product designing, following up on how well it is selling, whether the market is ready for it and giving your client what they want. HH

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