“The risk is entirely my own"

Shehryar Sheikh talks to Hania Chima, lead actor in Ajoka and 'Bol', Harvard grad and now a fashion entrepreneur

“The risk is entirely my own
If the free-flowing coffee, space heaters and warm wooden floors that host her exhibition were not sufficient to convince you, hear it from Hania Chima’s mouth directly: “I really want people to feel comfortable in my clothes – for me fashion is not meant to be intimidating, it is meant to be functional and aesthetically pleasing,” she explains as she gestures for me to take more cake. If her aim is to make her clients comfortable, she is succeeding. Her breakthrough exhibition this past week was a refuge from the chill of the Lahori winter and the onslaught of weddings that afflicts the season – a bustling but cozy shrine to her debut line of Western womenswear. The clothes themselves exemplify the kind of simple elegance that those who know Hania associate with her, but the significance of her appearance in fashion design may be somewhat lost on those who don’t know the story of this young Lahori. In many ways, she embodies the kind of bold entrepreneurial lucidity and courage that some accuse Pakistani millennials of being bereft of.
The link between social change and fashion is not, she admits, an immediately intuitive one

“A few years ago, I would never have guessed that I would be starting a label,” she says as we glance across a room filled with a flock of busy admirers sieving through her pieces. She remembers a young seventh grader in Lahore’s Convent of Jesus and Mary sketching elaborate designs of fantastical gowns into the back pages of her notebooks. Her sketches were not, however, representative of a larger passion for a career in fashion design. “I loved clothes and the way fabric fell on the body, but it wasn’t a career I could see myself in back then.” Raised in a decidedly academic household, she had imbibed a notion of what her eventual career would look like: “I was raised to believe that I needed to do something that impacted my society and the greater discourse in the community and that clothing did not fit that mold.” Though the link between social change and fashion is not, she admits, an immediately intuitive one, she sees this as a strange phenomenon of perception. ‘Clothing is a daily form of personal expression across cultures and backgrounds, and it would be inaccurate to relegate it to something that is purely superficial.’

Hania in Harvard's magazine
Hania in Harvard's magazine

So what brought this young thinker back to those seventh-grade sketches? “It all happened at college, I think.” It is easy to forget when talking to Hania that as recently as last spring, she was still in university. At Harvard, Hania studied in the departments of Sociology and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). Even to those within the Harvard community, this combination of specialties is an impressive one - students in the VES department are notoriously busy, perpetually immersed in large-scale projects in elaborate studios. At Harvard, it appears, Hania found the perfect marriage of her artistic bent and her desire to develop a relevant voice in social discourse. Outside her classes, she realized that her individual aesthetic choices began to be noticed. Unsatisfied with the pickings in the shops around the sleepy town of Cambridge, she would make hasty sketches of dresses for her tailor in Lahore, only to be amazed by the compliments she would receive on the garments that resulted from her ideas. “I never thought too much about it,” she insists, “but a little part of me wondered if I might just be onto something.”

To those familiar with her work on the stage, which spans a prolific portfolio with the venerated Ajoka Theatre Company, Hania has always been an artist. While still a student at Harvard, she made her debut on the silver screen in Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol, a natural progression of her desire to make art that spoke to larger issues. “When I think of art, the first thing that comes to mind is film.” The kind of cinema she wants to make, however, is not trivially created. While she admires much of the work in current mainstream cinema, what excites her is the potential for something unique and novel: “The kind of cinema I want to practice is definitely not mainstream, so it would necessarily be a private endeavor. And not a cheap one,” she admits with a laugh. It is here that the raison d’etre of her label becomes apparent: “I pour my heart and soul into each garment, and it is an essential form of expression for me, but it is not itself the only goal of my efforts. I see it also as a stepping-stone towards film-making. The risk is entirely my own,” she explains, “and so is the ownership.” It is hard not to be in awe of the lucidity and precision of her ambitions.


The clothes in Hania’s debut collection are canonically occidental, including blouses, tunics, gowns and jerseys, but she is cautious of the equivocation that is risked in using the term ‘Western’: “It’s absolutely a line of clothes for Pakistani women.”. Distinctly occidental cuts are rendered in crimson satin and jamawaar with skilled synergy. Though Hania does not shy away from the title of ‘fusion fashion’, it seems unfair to stamp what has become an increasingly hackneyed term onto a novel approach in the field. At least for the moment, her style is uniquely her own and not easily classified or categorized, which is perhaps its greatest qualification.

Hania Chima’s debut collection will remain in exhibition at selected times in the coming weeks. Details can be found on the label’s Facebook page, “Western Women’s Wear by Hania Chima” She can be reached at haniachima@gmail.com

The writer is a Lahori student studying stem cells and contemporary Arabic literature at Harvard University