The office is named after fashion’s famous walkway. It is a space that is minimalist in setting, yet profuse with the trappings of its numerous activities and abuzz with the importance of its mission: to continually redefine the cutting edge. It is overrun with a troupe of unapproachably chic young women who are the walking, talking actualisations of the company’s far-reaching vision. And it is all subservient to the iron (but manicured) fist of arguably the most powerful woman in the fashion industry.
No, this is not a recreation of the fictional office of Runway Magazine in The Devil Wears Prada. This is the real life headquarters of the event management empire called Catwalk, run by the grand dame of the field, Frieha Altaf - who incidentally prefers to wrap herself in Perwani (i.e. Deepak, who is also a friend).
“People call me the monster,” she says with a deep, throaty laugh that fits one’s impression of Frieha, the media sorceress, but seems unexpectedly charming on the immaculately styled woman sitting daintily before me. “There’s a reason for it,” she elaborates, “because I’m such a hard taskmaster. In Pakistan, you just can’t survive otherwise.” Spoken like a person of experience — and like a woman who has, for the longest time and in more ways than one, been running the show.
“I have no time for negativity in my life. My goal is very clear: my priority is my family, work and myself. Unfortunately, in our industry, there is a lot of ‘ghich phich’, and gossip really bothers me. You do not survive 21 years in any field if you’re just borrowing other people’s ideas” says Frieha Altaf.
We are in a small conference room that is structurally dominated by an expansive table cluttered with the accoutrements of event management and a nearly life-size poster by Tapu Javeri of Aaminah Haq in rock star mode. The most imposing element of the room, however, remains the dynamo doyenne. Wearing a slinky floral top over opaque tights and stilettos and sporting salon-worthy highlights, she is every inch the pop-culture messiah that she is held up to be.
She offers her own succinct career chronology: “I’ve been a person who was a model, then I became a choreographer, then I became a kind of coordinator/stylist for shoots. I did so many shows, fashion events. I introduced the magazine fashion programme, Lux Style ki Duniya. Then I did Rukhsati which was the first wedding magazine programme that went on air. Then I did the Lux Style Awards, which is the first style awards show in the country. So everything that I’ve done has kind of been related to fashion.”
Reflecting on her own celebrity, she says, “I’m a glamorous person: I love getting dressed up; I love socialising; I love going to parties. So you know me as that fashionista. But I’m also a businesswoman.” That is a title that Frieha takes very seriously, and it is a point that she is intent to hammer into the public’s consciousness.
“I don’t do most of the work,” she reveals. “I delegate work. I’m a CEO now.” Her conglomerate includes a marketing company, a modelling agency (that represents the likes of Tatmain, Umaimah, and Sabina Pasha, who Frieha predicts are the future of supermodel-dom), and it offers celebrity management services (to film star Shaan and half the Pakistan cricket team). A clothing label, a magazine and an institute (a modelling/finishing school) are in the works. “I’m one of those very restless people,” she says. “I constantly need to be doing new things to challenge myself.”
And this year, she plans to spread her company’s wings far and wide. “I’ve got an office in Islamabad. I’ve never needed it in Lahore, but I’ll do that eventually. I want one in Multan and Sialkot also. I’m trying to set up an office in Dubai. I’ve been working on a project with a Malaysian company to do something there - like a TV show. I’m doing a project with India as well — in Pakistan.” The keyword seems to be globalisation. “I can’t think small,” she continues. “I have realised by travelling that the likes of my expertise in this country is not available in a lot of countries. When I went with Tapu (Javeri) and Maheen (Khan) to Jordan, I realised then that I can do work here because they’re so bad.”
The goal, as she outlines it, is to “work with people abroad to: (a) bring Pakistan on the map; (b) bring Pakistani talent on the map; and (c) open up. That’s the way to go. That’s the future. Anyone who’s not going to be on that path is going to be left behind.”
On the local front, Frieha is troubled by the recent developments of the baton-wielding, burka-clad female brigade that has started brandishing a new form of religious extremism. “The entertainment industry is the one that’s going to get affected most by this,” she laments. “So I think that is a cause in itself. We need to come together to make sure something like this doesn’t happen because we’re a force too: we’re an industry bringing income into this nation and providing many people’s livelihoods. And I think that’s where my future lies. But that comes whenever you’re finished with your personal and professional goals.”
The latest on the professional front is the show that is monopolising all her attention: the Citigold Lux Style Awards (CGLSA), as it has been rechristened this year. “The CGLSA is driving me up the wall, as usual,” she confesses. “It’s just a logistical nightmare because 400 people are travelling,” (to Malaysia, the event’s new home, which is an unprecedented occurrence). “It’s the biggest group of talent that has ever gone abroad in history,” (and that includes Frieha’s previous record holder, the Royal Albert Hall show last year). “I’m happy with the progress. Darr bhi lagta hai. Sometimes I go ‘Oh my God, I have to do this’. Then I say ‘Okay, I’ve done this before’.”
Frieha is not one to be cowed. “I’m not insecure,” she says, and that applies just as much to competition. “I love competition. If there’s no one running alongside you, what’s the fun in running? At the end of the day, you want to win; you want to be No.1.
“The reason I think I am where I am,” she continues, “is that I can do anything, from a concert to a wedding to a corporate function to a fashion show to a press conference.”
She balks at having her versatility being contracted to choreography. “Imran (Kureishi, a friend) is a choreographer. He’s not an event manager. Event management is a very different term that started way back, and it is doing everything and anything. It means that you have to manage the entire event. I do very little choreography for other people’s events. It’s usually my own event and I’m doing the choreography (if it’s a fashion event). Quite honestly, in the entire year, I’ve done maybe three fashion shows.” According to Frieha, doing something like the CGLSA is not choreography. “Choreography is itna” she holds the thumb and index finger an inch apart, as if ready to the pinch the air with its insignificance “and I don’t have one choreographer, I have three in that event.”
Shifting the entire awards show onto foreign soil naturally magnifies the duties. But as in the last three years, Frieha is managing it from A to Z, donning simultaneously the caps of event manager, producer as well as creative director. Hopefully, that will prevent a misadventure like the LSA’s last trip to Dubai a few years back, where the Pakistani talent was diluted by the presence of Sonu Nigam and Priyanka Chopra.
“That’s very important (to prevent Pakistani talent from being overshadowed),” she explains, “because we have very good talent in our country. The music, the fashion — all of it. Our designers are very creative. I don’t think all of them are very cutting edge, because some of them get locked in this commercial bullshit. I really don’t like the bridal wear. I know it’s important; it’s where the bread and butter come from. But frankly, I find it most boring. This is exciting to me,” she says, pointing to the aforementioned poster on the wall. “I even think our filmi talent is good,” she opines. “It just needs the right scripts, the right directors, to put it up there.”
Frieha is a fountain of optimism. “I have no time for negativity in my life,” she states. “Life is very hard … My goal is very clear: my priority is my family, work and myself. Unfortunately, in our industry, there is a lot of ghich phich … Gossip is what really bothers me,” (but not to the extent that she would retaliate, even when allegations are levelled against her by former friends). About Tariq Amin’s scathing comments earlier in these very pages concerning her lack of originality, she says, “You do not survive 21 years in any field if you’re just borrowing other people’s ideas. So I don’t think that’s true. I mean, my career is my only defense.”