Nabila Nabi, Creative Director of Nabila Boutiques, dishes on design themes celebrating 50 years of Bangladesh
Although our RMG sector has been clothing the world for decades now, it’s taken Bangladesh a little longer to brand its homegrown fashion on a visible global scale. As we graduate out of the LDC status, we’re also getting to see some prestige brands of our own making their place in the limelight.
Nabila Boutiques, initiated by founder Shamima Nabi in 1986, began its journey as a purveyor of handicraft items, registered as a company in 1995 and has since grown into a luxury fashion retail brand. Over the past ten years, her daughter Nabila Nabi, who sports an impressive multi-disciplinary academic background comprising of law, finance and design - has been helping build a contemporary, cosmopolitan fashion aesthetic around the company’s heritage crafts design DNA. Avenue T recently caught up with the brand’s Creative Director Nabila Nabi for a rapid fire interview about design and beyond.
Who is a Nabila consumer?
The apparel we design and create is, quite unapologetically, exclusive and expensive. I say this because Bangladesh has for far too long been associated with cheap apparel. The very label “Made in Bangladesh” has sadly become synonymous with poor quality and inexpensive apparel and it is essential that we break away from this unfortunate association. At Nabila, mainly through our designer Shamima Nabi and Nabila Nabi collections, we aim to highlight the high quality of craftsmanship and design that can be produced in Bangladesh. This is why our target audience remains men and women who are willing to indulge in luxury apparel.
What drives Nabila Nabi Artistry?
In my many years of work and training I have developed a great appreciation of the fashion designers of the world, and what it truly entails to become one. The concept of my artistry is showcasing the need for art and the appreciation of art in the world of a designer. With my artistry, I conceptualize and paint every apparel I create myself. From the design’s conception to execution, they each tell a story and require two distinct process – the design and conceptualization of the garment, and the design and conceptualization of the artwork.
For the occasion of Bangladesh’s 50th birthday, you’ve been bringing out some truly distinctive patriotic themed lines. Could you tell us a little about them?
Each piece has a different inspiration. For my collection The Language of Flowers, I sought inspiration in the beauty and symbolism of flowers and integrated them into my respect for the Bengali Language Movement. I chose three flowers, Gladiolus, Protea, and Poppy on the basis of their meanings. Gladiolus represents strength, honour, and integrity; Protea represents diversity, courage, and transformation; and Poppy symbolizes respect and remembrance. The beautiful symbolism of the flowers was transformed to an ode to the Bengali language, by painting them, and the Bengali script on Bengal’s famous looms, Muslin, Jamdani and Rajshahi Dupion silk. The love for my language and my nation was not only represented in the canvas that I selected, but in the selection of my canvas too.
I also co-created The Eagle’s Soar, with my mother, Shamima Nabi, in which I adorned a muslin and custom created jamdani saree with Eagle feathers, a bird which represents strength, courage, and freedom - all of which were integral to the Bengali Language Movement.
For March 26, and the celebration of 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence, I decided to adorn a muslin saree with the glorious Phoenix. The phoenix is a mythical bird which rises from its own ashes – I found the symbolism of this bird to be aptly fitting for the Independence Movement of Bangladesh, for this country and its people had to pass the hurdles of tremendous turmoil; historically, facing a genocide followed by famine, to today rising and becoming one of the most remarkably growing economies of the world. The bird burns every cycle, but is reborn every time into a magnificent form from its ashes, which to me is a representation of the various calamities and challenges our country endures, both environmental and political, yet it endures and comes back stronger each time.
I seek new inspirations from my life, my culture, history and experiences. These elements shape who I am and my perception of this world, which I believe ultimately lets me put a signature on the work I produce and makes it uniquely mine.
What makes your work meaningful?
The dual design process of having to design and conceptualize not only the apparel, but artwork as well. With each piece I create, I have to show my calibre as not only a designer but also as an artist. For the Language of Flowers, The Eagle’s Soar, and the Phoenix, there is a heavy tone of national and cultural identity and requires a great deal of understanding of the role of art and its meaning in the world of fashion, and how this art can be used as a tribute to these momentous occasions.
I take pride in not only the output I create, which are my designs and my collection, but the whole process I engage in, in order for my creativity to show. Every piece I create is entirely unique, and it is impossible, even for me, to create direct replications of my own work. Each ensemble my clients take home is a piece of art, that nobody else in the world will have claim to – which in today’s world is a rather rare occurrence.
2020 turned the world on its head. Fashion retail, in particular, has taken some heavy blows. What was the past year like at Nabila?
2020 to the world of retail was a shock like no other. As a business we decided to retain the majority of our employees, and paid them throughout the duration of the pandemic, regardless of lockdowns or closures. This meant while our income was fully halted, expenditures continued, and in the history of our institution this had never happened. The latter part of the year, and finally in 2021, we saw a turnaround, however, the repercussions from the year prior, especially with the pandemic hitting right before one of our most vital seasons, Ramadan and Eid, are still being faced. We are hopeful that everyone will buy from within the country and support the businesses here in the festive seasons ahead.
What strategies did you take to adapt?
Online marketing, extreme precautionary measures in store, including individual appointments and home deliveries. We have always had a focus on social media, therefore, this remained consistent.
What did the pandemic teach you?
Always be prepared for circumstances in which the business operations may completely stop, and invest resources in reaching more audiences online.
Any words for your readers?
Buy from Bangladesh and buy from local designers. Even if you choose to buy imported goods, you can still select items from within the country to support the numerous local businesses that engage in importing and retailing.
Perhaps one of the greatest illustrations of Bangladesh’s purchasing power in action was the consequences other countries faced when Bangladeshi consumers stopped travelling. We send so much of our money overseas for the simple act of shopping – spending that money within our own country would immensely help the economy and the livelihoods of many.