Bangladeshi Aydha Mehnaz among 6 South Asians who earned their place in global fashion industry

TBS || Shining BD

Published: 1/26/2023 6:55:34 AM
Bangladeshi Aydha Mehnaz among 6 South Asians who earned their place in global fashion industry

Bangladeshi Aydha Mehnaz among 6 South Asians who earned their place in global fashion industry

From battling racism to breaking stereotypes, South Asian women are increasingly holding an important voice in the fashion industry across the globe.

In an article published in Teen Vogue last year, writer Aiyana Ishmael talks about the fashion world's diversity issue: "Diversity and inclusion in an industry that has built its notoriety on being luxuriously exclusive are difficult, especially for young people." However, the last few years have started to see a shift in the norms.

In 2017, American Indian Radhika Jones took over as the Editor-in-Chief of Vanity Fair, and in 2021, Versha Sharma was announced as the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue. However, Leena Nair's appointment as the CEO of Chanel in 2021 marked a milestone moment for South Asian women in fashion. 

As inclusivity becomes the long overdue norm, six South Asian creatives including Bangladeshi Aydha Mehnaz shared their journey with The Established.


Aydha Mehnaz Joins IFDC Global Development | Islamic Fashion Design Council

Hailing from Bangladesh, Aydha Mehnaz lives in Paris and manages celebrity and media relations at Mugler.

"I help nurture the relationships between the brand and its favourite muses and artists that often results in us working together for their world tours, red-carpet events, music videos, and so on. This aspect has been crucial in staging Mugler's comeback in recent years as one of the hottest brands in the world," she explained. 

Mehnaz grew up in a small town called Narayanganj, just 30 minutes outside of Dhaka, and studied biochemistry and biotechnology at North South University. During her time at university, she decided to harbour her love for fashion by filming hijab tutorials which garnered a lot of views.

"I've always had a knack for fashion while growing up. On special occasions like Eid, for instance, I changed outfits five times a day, and everything had to match from head to toe, from the pink headband to pink nail polish to the handbag," Mehnaz told The Established.

In 2015, she was invited to speak on 'modest fashion' at the Indonesia Fashion Week. 

Mehnaz later studied at ESMOD Paris (2017) and holds a double master's degree in luxury brand management.

As a modest dresser who wears a hijab, Paris doors didn't open as quickly as they did for her Caucasian colleagues, no matter how competent she was for the job. Yet, she credits her journey to be a remarkable one.

"I consider each challenge as an opportunity to spring back. As South Asian women, we are often put in a box where people perceive us as a stereotype–in the way we dress, what we do, or how we live our lives. It has been quite fun to break that notion in my own ways," she said.

Mehnaz has been featured in multiple publications globally for her work at Mugler and her life as a modest dresser in the fashion world. Since starting her role at Mugler, she has worked with some of the world's biggest celebrities, including Kylie Jenner, Beyoncé and Bella Hadid.


Pooja Jagpal. Photo: Collected 

From navigating in-house PR at Jimmy Choo to the fast-paced agency world at Karla Otto and now as global communications director at A-COLD-WALL, Pooja Jagpal has had an exciting career trajectory.

Pooja Jagpal worked for a regional law firm in UK for a year but it didn't bring her joy. So she decided to go back to university and did my Masters in PR and Marketing along with several internships. Pooja ended up loving fashion internship at Jimmy Choo, eventually getting a job there. Breaking into a new industry in the UK posed its own challenges for Jagpal.

"At first, I was naïve and didn't think much about the lack of responses, but I soon learned that there was a level of (un)conscious bias towards people who didn't have Caucasian names. However, it was sheer determination and hard work that got one even half the recognition and (barely) a foot in the door," she told The Established.

Having spent 12 years in the fashion PR world, Jagpal certainly has some fascinating tales to tell, including running around London looking for a certain kind of oysters for the legendary Grace Jones during a shoot, showing Kim Catrall around Jimmy Choo and working with the late Virgil Abloh for a GQ cover story. 

"Working with Virgil's team and GQ to arrange the interview and shoot almost on my own was an experience I will never forget. To be in a room with creatives was definitely a highlight (of my career)."

Breaking into the industry is not only about working hard but also being smart about it. Make yourself indispensable to your team, suggests Jagpal. "Keep your individuality and learn how to market yourself."


Rani Ilmi. Photo: Collected

"I received comments that were very kind at their core but could be mistaken to be racist," says Rani Ilmi, founder, FRAME Publicity. The Dubai-born Indian entrepreneur's agency handles accounts like Van Cleef & Arpels, Moschino and Vacheron Constantin, and has been in the industry for nearly two decades.

A fashion marketing graduate from LIM College in New York, Ilmi got her first internship at Gucci in 2004. "I interned my way through college, so I always had a job, and I loved that 'always-on' pace. I think that set the foundation for my career in fashion, the 24/7, always-on approach," she says. After a stint in retail, she worked in in-house PR and marketing roles at luxury labels like Chanel, Versace and Jimmy Choo. In 2011, she moved back to Dubai to work on developing the fashion division of an agency where she was for six years. 

While on the job, mild forms of racism were common practice. "I worked with a boss, not of South Asian descent, who would say things referencing my passport when introducing me to clients to 'up' my worth. There was a lot of 'This is Rani; she's Indian with an XYZ passport,' and less-than-subtle digs that I would hear constantly. I would also be called 'Mr. Rani' teasingly," she explains.

Ultimately, after much support from close friends, including the former editor of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ilmi took the plunge and started her firm. In 2018, with just her and another colleague (who sadly passed away later), she launched FRAME, and her first client was MATCHESFASHION. Cut to 2023, her agency now has 17 people and an enviable client roster.

Ilmi recently handled the communication for the launch of the 'Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Love, Nature' exhibit at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia.

"I was taken aback, having been raised in Dubai, and then working in New York.  I hadn't experienced blatant racism earlier but I learned quickly to ignore it. It has never had a bearing on my ability to deliver, maintain a relationship, or develop a new one, so I didn't let what I experienced in Dubai get to me," said Ilmi.   




The London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins alumnus was the former Head of Global Communications and VIP Placements at Julien Macdonald before starting her firm, which she says was never a part of the plan. Despite her extensive experience with celebrity placements in the past,

Currently representing Gaurav Gupta and Lebanese couturier Jean Louis Sabaji, Bose's impressive celebrity roster includes Lizzo, Cardi B and Mary J Blige, among others. In March last year, Megan Thee Stallion made headlines with her outfit at the Oscars–a form-fitting, crystal-encrusted gown by Gaurav Gupta–a placement headlined by Bose. Yet another placement was the sculptural gown by Gupta that Cardi B wore in her music video No Love.

"I have been extremely lucky to have received great opportunities from eminent couturiers who believed in me, and that was the reason for MBC's inception," she told The Established.

Bose talks about how the reciprocation with the stylists can vary. "The perception can sometimes be restrictive from their end; thus, constant storytelling is equally important for the industry experts to see the difference and choose," she explained.

Yet, since its inception in February 2022, Bose has already seen quite a few highs, one of them being at the Time 100 Gala last year when Mary J Blige wore a Gaurav Gupta gown, followed by a Jean Louis Sabaji creation for her performance.

"One of the biggest moments of pride was having my showroom in the iconic Martinez Hotel, with all the brands I represent, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022," said Hema Bose, founder of Maison Bose Communications (MBC).

Her Los Angeles- and London- based luxury communications consultancy handles VIP placements and brand elevations, working towards bringing couture labels international recognition by showcasing them at major red-carpet events.


Diana Kakkar. Photo: Collected 

After leaving her role at Erdem in 2018, entrepreneur Diana Kakkar launched a luxury garment manufacturing company in London to bridge the gap between designers and manufacturers.

MAES, which is 'seam' spelt backwards, provides designers with CMT (Cut, Make, Trim) services that start from sampling to small production runs along with a product development service.

"I had been living in London for five years when I decided to quit my job and start my own business. Even though London was home, my social currency was not as strong as it is now. It was all new and fresh, so pulling the connections and really putting myself out there, in the beginning, was a struggle," said Kakkar.

Moreover, starting a business outside India was a risk, particularly with the then Brexit issue and later, the Covid-19 pandemic, the timing was most undoubtedly challenging. "Fashion, in general, is a very competitive industry. It tests you on a skill, emotional and creative level, irrespective of where you are and where you come from," said the NIFT alumnus.

As a result, it took a lot of groundwork to get the business up and going, which included cold-calling clients, setting up a team of highly-skilled artisans and establishing a local supply chain. 

Currently, Kakkar's client list includes veteran labels like Acne Studios, Molly Goddard, JW Anderson and Halpern. Since its inception, the business has continued to grow. In 2021, it welcomed 40 new clients and created 6,703 garments for 76 clients. "The recognition we've been getting from renowned publications has been a celebration of the fundamentals of MAES London and the change it's contributing to the industry. Recently, Vogue Business did an article on MAES and our mission of wanting to make a difference in the supply chain and environment. Last year, we were on Amazon Prime's Business as Unusual, a five-episode miniseries around businesses– that was very validating."


Muzi Sufi. Photo: Collected

While living in Lahore in her early 20s, Sufi's parents gifted her a camera, and she began taking portraits of anyone who would let her do so. Soon enough, she was noticed by some prominent names in the Pakistani fashion industry.

"Fashion photography was a very male-dominated field at the time, so I think it was great to add a feminine perspective," she said.

During the pandemic, Sufi was living in Riyadh and started posting photos of herself wearing clothes from her own closet–that was the beginning of her journey as a content creator. By making sure her image was carefully curated, she started gaining the attention of regional PR agencies. However, once she moved to Dubai, where she knew nobody, it was different.

"I am a Muslim, Pakistani mother, a series of adjectives that have all been used to marginalise or limit myself and women like me for decades," said Sufi, adding, "So I really had to make an extra effort to network, attend every event and constantly create great content."

Since then, she's collaborated with some significant brands in the world, including Saint Laurent, Paco Rabanne and Dior.

"It's been challenging, but also something I've enjoyed pushing back against."

Shining BD