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A Girl Abroad: Lahore’s Layers of Culture and Design

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Photography by Haris Sagheer, Salman Alam Khan and Shannon Grewer with direction by Cynthia Ritchie for The Style Line and Victoria Road

After six weeks of being away, I am finally back in Lahore, a place that has started to feel like my second home.

I have been traveling to Pakistan extensively for the last six years, but it is only recently that I have developed a fascination for this city that calls itself its nation’s cultural capital. It is monsoon season, so there is a cool breeze and everything is green and lush. The air smells crisp and fresh.

The main reason I’m in town this weekend is to work on the development and production of the winter capsule collection for Victoria Road, an ethical fashion brand I co-founded a few years ago. For this collection, we are collaborating with Natalia Naveed, a veteran of one of the large fashion houses in Pakistan who has just launched her own brand. We are thrilled to be working with her to bring her design vision to the U.S. market!

Before getting to work, I decided to spend some time exploring this historic city. Somehow I managed to convince, Mohtshim, our Lahore-based Director of Logistics, and Sana our Ambassador for Brand Communications to wake up early and join me on my excursion. We climbed to the highest point of the Lahore Fort just in time to watch the sunrise. A rose colored glow enveloped our ancient surroundings…

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As the quiet of the dawn gave way the hectic and noisy bustle of everyday life below us,

we set out to explore this spectacular complex. The main structure we see today was built during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556–1605) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The remnants of the magnificent palace that was built within these walls are visible and I am captivated by thoughts of how life must have been during that time. There is a huge green lawn where members of court played polo on elephants. In an open-air arena, there is an intricately carved wood box from where the emperor would play chess with human chess pieces.

There is a room full of mirrors and semi-precious stones, and when you light a candle in the center (or shine your iPhone flashlight at the ceiling), the entire room sparkles like a night sky full of millions of stars. The entire place is full of carved wood and stone with intricate patterns made of geographic shapes: the quintessential Islamic design aesthetic that has served as the inspiration for Natalia’s winter collection for VR. Taking them in sends my thoughts to Natalia Naveed’s workshop, where we’ll check in later today.

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By 9:30 a.m. we were ready for lunch!

We found a small spot just outside the fort that was serving nan chana, a traditional dish made with chickpeas and spices, and washed it down with a yogurt lassie.

Then we headed to explore the wholesale markets, full of fabric, stones, laces and trims.

In one section they were doing embroidery work in bright colors. Across the way they were hand dying fabrics, draping them from the tops of the building to dry. We watched as they expertly mixed the pigments, creating a traditional melding of colors that resembled a tie dye. It was steaming hot so we stopped to cool down with a fresh sugar cane juice.

Next stop was to visit Natalia Naveed at her workshop located in Gulberg, a trendy neighborhood lined with designer stores and high end restaurants. Natalia’s talent, enthusiasm and motivation never cease to amaze me. Today we are reviewing her mood board and sketches as she finalizes the overall theme of her first collaboration with VR, works out the colors and textures and selects the fabrics. The Winter capsule collection is inspired by Moroccan design and Natalia’s own Pakistani culture, like the aesthetic embodied in the Lahore Fort we visited earlier. I am crazy about its gorgeous, well-cut dresses and layering pieces made with luxurious fabrics and detailing. Mohtshim, a sourcing and production guru, has been helping Natalia full time over the past several weeks with fabric sourcing, patterns and other pre-production items.

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We stopped by the factory later that day to meet with the patternmaker who’s been working on the patterns for Natalia’s designs. He’s been doing an amazing job getting the cuts just right, and the factory’s cutting and stitching of the sample pieces was flawless! I get goosebumps whenever I walk in to this clean, bright factory, run by two forward-thinking entrepreneurs that are committed to the same ethical standards that we are.

“Watching a design transform from an abstract concept to something I can wear is an amazing process.”

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Tonight, Natalia, Sana, Mohtshim and I are headed to a team dinner on the rooftop of Andaaz,

a fabulous restaurant housed in an early 19th century building within the historic walled city.  After climbing four flights of narrow concrete stairs, the walls covered in local photographs and antiquities, we are escorted to our table by a really sweet transgender. Owner Ahmed Chema has made it a priority to hire members of certain communities, including transgenders and rehabilitated female sex workers, who would traditionally be shunned by society.

Our table offers spectacular views of the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort, which are illuminated against the night sky. On the other side, we see a row of buildings that make up the city’s most famous “food street,” historic neighborhoods that come alive as pedestrian zones in the evenings. The bustling cafes topped by restored intricately carved balconies reminds me of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The area right behind food street continues the “French” theme, where the 18th and early 19th century buildings lit up with colored lights look a lot like Monmartre’s Pigalle district to me.

We crashed that evening with happy hearts – I head back home to Dubai tomorrow night. It’s been a great week and I am thrilled about the progress we have made with our local team Victoria Road! Looking forward to my next visit, when I’ll be able to see new progress on the designs and make new discoveries everywhere I go.