A Fashionable History: Fifi Haroon

A Fashionable History: Fifi Haroon
In the late 1980s, a young journalist Fifi Haroon (Fifi), who possessed all the ingredients needed to create something original, joined hands with photographers Tapu Javeri and Arif Mahmood, models Atiya Khan and Frieha Altaf, make up artist Tariq Amin, designers Maheen Khan, Shamaeel, Rizwan Beyg and others on a mission: to revamp Herald. ‘Fashion was evolving when I started writing for Herald and both Razia Bhatti and Fareeda Aman allowed me a lot of freedom. Samina Ibrahim had started shoots at that time but She and Razia Bhatti moved onto Newsline and that’s when the Herald pages became a journey and an exploration for me.’

Given how Herald was primarily a political magazine, for Fifi the focus was on fashion as a means of expressing herself creatively and investigating how it reflected and communicated Pakistani society and politics. ‘My interest was why do people wear something in a particular time and history or a particular time in a country’s evolution or a nation’s journey. Everything is interrelated. Fashion is anthropological, sociological, and political. It is deeply embedded in our lives and how we live our lives.’

Fifi took the idea of a fashion shoot, which had generally consisted of models acting as clothes’ hangers against a neutral backdrop, and injected it with a heavy dose of electrifying energy. This was evident in a shoot that involved Lollywood film actress Babra Sharif. ‘It was called Babracadabra and it presented Babra in a totally different light.’ The inspiration for the shoot—for which Tapu was the photographer and Nabila the make up artist—came from Fifi’s love for 1950s Hollywood glamour icons including Vivian Leigh, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. The focus was on their images, the lighting and the black and white photography. ‘I took the photographic references and Nabila and I talked about how we would do them.’

The solution was to start off with the cleanest look and then work towards the heaviest (which happened to be Joan Crawford). The end result was a striking set of images in which Babra successfully pulled off each Hollywood actress’s individual look.

By early 1994, in Herald’s annual issue, Fifi’s role in the fashion elite was cemented in a feature titled ‘The Style Mafia’. Still, doing the fashion pages was not enough for her as she felt a need to explain her interest in fashion which went beyond cut, line or silhouette.

Fiercely intelligent and a well of creative energy, it was only a matter of time before she would take the reins of her own publication, filling it with content that reflected her brilliance to the max. In 1994, Fifi started a lifestyle magazine by the name of Xtra which took on society and politics in a way that no Pakistani publication ever dared. It not only challenged unspoken rules but also poked fun at what were then grave political issues in a somewhat satirical manner.

From the very first issue Xtra shattered all societal airs and graces, shocking even those who were seen as trailblazers at the time, pushing for liberation of culture. ‘I think the very first thing that happened with Xtra was that it was considered riveting. I remember Junaid Jamshed, a dear friend of mine, saying that he almost crashed his car when he saw a hawker hold up a copy of it.’ The cover featured two models—Bibi Aliya Mian and Resham—from starkly different family backgrounds, locked in a tender embrace. It was a bold comment on female sexuality and class division—two women suggestively moulding their bodies together, disregarding class and gender as factors in defining relationships.

The roots of this lay with Fifi’s own strong views on sexuality in Pakistan where she noted that, ‘Women were obviously objects but not subjects. They were not allowed to own their sexuality especially at that time.’ Seeing women plastered in print ads and billboards selling biscuits and toothpaste, it was apparent that none of these females actually had control over her image, her body or anything to do with the shoot. The models simply smiled shyly at the camera while looking sideways or lowering their gaze demurely.

For Fifi, this portrayed a challenge and she took it on with full force. ‘I explored and played with people’s expectations and assumptions and it was political. I think that was very important to me as a person growing up in Pakistan. If you look at fashion photography of that time, you will find these women looked at you in the eye. We had everyone from Meera to Resham to Bibi to Aaminah Haq to Vinnie, all looking at you straight in the eye saying, “This is me. Deal with it.” This was particularly evident in a cover shoot featuring Vinnie and Iraj coldly staring back at the reader in all their beauty and pride. The idea was to ‘take the gaze back.’
Fifi’s boldness found a partner in Meera who featured in some of the more daring shoots. ‘We really recast Meera, taking her rougher edges, and completely redefining and reinventing her’

Fifi had created as a platform for female empowerment, a visual mouthpiece for females, causing them to explore their sexuality as well as question the relationships between human beings and venture into alteration of male and female roles. ‘Xtra was a lot about taking power. It was a lot about playing with people’s perceptions of masculinity and femininity.’ This was portrayed in an issue concerning gender featuring women in suits as well as having articles concerning women written by a man and vice versa. The plan had included putting Sufi rock band Junoon’s lead singer Ali Azmat in a skirt but he had refused.

Xtra was also responsible for challenging society’s perspectives and perceptions on popular culture, including music as well as politics. While satire was generally a job taken on by political commentators or cartoonists, Fifi displayed a stroke of genius when she merged fashion with politics in a shoot that brazenly addressed US President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, particularly addressing the issue of a cigar and how it had been used between the two of them. The shoot featured Vinnie beautifully made up and dressed in a suit puffing away on a cigar. Nothing and nobody it seemed was safe from Fifi’s commentary, in or out of Pakistan.

By the 1990s, the music industry was churning out singers as well as boy bands, including Vital Signs, Junoon and Awaaz. While Junoon had carved out their own niche as rock stars heavily infused with Sufism, Vital Signs and Awaaz consisted of squeaky-clean boys with melodic voices. Young girls swooned after them and dreamed of marrying these young men who offered artistic talent and inspired the youth. Fifi and Tapu gave both bands total makeovers turning them from fresh faced boys into stars.

With Awaaz, Tapu painted the boys’ faces with bright fluorescent paint and made them pose against a black background. ‘It was completely Tapu’s idea. It was amazing!’ The images were trippy and mesmerising and transformed them from bubble gum boys into sexy and hot musicians. Vital Signs with their clean-cut image were also given a new look. ‘They had been a ‘pretty boy’ band. We took them, wearing leather, in an empty pool with a lot of colour construction and gave them a new look using a wide lens angle.’

One of the magazine’s defining features was that it merged high fashion with what was then the murky world of the film industry. ‘Fashion at that time was considered for high society, it was very elitist, and on the other hand film and Lollywood was considered beyond the pale. But Xtra was known for re-branding and remaking. We completely made all these women from films into glamour icons! We completely rebranded them.’

One dramatic transformation was that of television actress Atiqa Odho. Known for her beauty and weepy roles in drama serials, Fifi had just about had enough of the latter. ‘I knew Atiqa really well and to me she was an absolutely assertive person. She was a whip on a horse’s back.’
In a stunning shoot, Atiqa was dressed in a PVC top and wrapped with red, flowing silk. The fierce but sensuous image of Atiqa was immortalised in the form of a very high contrast, black and white photograph—something that no other magazine had attempted. Atiqa was never again viewed as a weak or flimsy personality.

Fifi’s boldness found a partner in Meera who featured in some of the more daring shoots. ‘We really recast Meera, taking her rougher edges, and completely redefining and reinventing her.’ Working with Nabila and Tapu once again, Fifi cast Meera in several other shoots that really highlighted her versatility. One shoot involved taking this young actress - who was perceived to be from the wrong side of the tracks - and portraying her as a feminist of sorts by ‘shooting her as different women in history who had been assertive’. Meera proved her mettle as a model when she posed on a bed in a furniture shop and a crowd gathered to watch everything.

Nothing frightened or deterred Fifi. She was a woman who was here to set new boundaries and pave new ways, pushing the industry into a realm of professionalism and making industries that did not involve designing clothes into a business.

By making Tapu and Arif, both fashion photographers, into photo editors, Fifi was the first to give importance to photographers as a whole. ‘I came up with ideas but so did they. Any ideas that came to the fore were developed via discussion and collaboration. And that’s why it really worked.’

For Fifi, Xtra was not a platform that encouraged or expected commercialisation nor did it ever compromise on its content. It was always about the artistic value and she set the bar so high that till today her contribution to fashion remains unmatched. Having set the path for a more liberal face of fashion, injecting it with intellect and attempting to normalise the sexual element of it as an art form or even an area of intellectual stimulation, Pakistan has yet to see another Xtra.