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Mehreen Syed

Supermodel turns C.E.O.
Mehreen Syed launches Pakistan’s very first modeling academy in Lahore. looks at the life, times and mysterious ways of this runway favourite

She’s been modeling for nearly 10 years now and is well-acquainted with the ropes of her profession. Mehreen Syed’s seen it all; the good, the bad, the ugly and the downright lecherous. Over the span of her career, she’s been part of Pakistan’s major fashion shows, brand launches, commercials, magazine covers and fashion shoots (that is, the ones that are orchestrated by her mentors and friends Ather Shahzad – but that’s besides the point here). And now, Mehreen Syed has decided to turn entrepreneur with the launch of the International Fashion Academy Pakistan or IFAP in Lahore, with herself as the C.E.O.

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Lately, more and more Pakistani models seem to be turning their elegantly coiffured heads towards business. It’s a move calculated to cash in on the fame they’ve earned through modeling. It’s also a smart choice given that they live in a country where one crazed terrorist attack can put an end to all fashion events scheduled for the next couple of months. Vinnie bid adieu to the catwalk only to reinvent herself as the general manager of the fashion-based channel Style360, launch her own lawn and, more recently, introduce a line of designer shoes. Nadia Hussain followed suit a few years later by endorsing a collection of shoes and lawn under her name. But Mehreen has steered away from the well-worn routes of her predecessors. She doesn’t want to become a lawn guru or a shoe designer or even delve into TV (not yet at least). Instead, Mehreen has opted to launch an institute that she professes to be a culmination of her "dreams".

"I know how difficult it can be to enter the fashion and entertainment industries without any prior training," she explains. "I didn’t even know how to stand in front of a camera when I first came into modeling. I learnt things the hard way and for a long time, it has been my dream to make things easier for newcomers in the field. In IFAP, we plan to provide courses in grooming, modeling, photography and make-up."

The academy is privately owned by Mehreen and Canada-based Uzi Xaidi, who hails from a family that manages and owns modeling and acting agencies in North America. As director of the IFAP, Uzi’s international experience has come handy in setting up the academy’s infrastructure, with a few changes added here and there to make the curriculum more Pakistan-centric. The prospectus chalks out a well-formulated, interesting listing of courses for each of the four programs.

The IFAP and Mehreen’s plans for it certainly look exciting. The academy’s permanent and visiting faculty includes the crème de la crème of Pakistani fashion. Umar Sayeed, Deepak Perwani, Nickie Nina, Kamiar Rokni, Mehdi, Nomi Ansari, Iman Ali, Saba Ansari, Iffat Omar, Hamza Tarar, Nael Ahmed, Nadia Hussain, Juggun Kazim, Sabeena Pasha, Asmaa Mumtaz and Yasir Nisar, among others; Mehreen’s mixed together designers, stylists, models and photographers from both Karachi and Lahore to form her teaching staff. The star-studded milieu of visiting faculty is headed by HSY – whose name inevitably pops up in any notable Lahore-based fashion-related venture. Of course, given that the IFAP is Mehreen’s pet project, Shahzad Raza is set to act as Head of Faculty. This is a task that he should be able to handle with ease given his experience in the fashion industry as well as the fact that most of the faculty members are friends of his!

And then there’s the building; a sophisticated, elaborate affair designed by Hamza Tarrar over a period of six months. Decked out with classy chandeliers and elegant, plush rooms in black and white, it indeed looks the part of a bona fide fashion academy. There’s a gleaming black ramp running the length of a room, opulently wall-papered walls and mirrors illuminated by borders of bright light bulbs. You never know, this may turn out to be just the academy to propel our models to a new level. Then again, it may not.

The need for a proper academy for photography, styling and, more particularly, modeling has been felt for quite some time now. One had expected veterans like Tariq Amin or Frieha Altaf to spearhead such a project. Rather, it is Mehreen who has come to the forefront, pointing out that most industry experts are far too busy to take on the responsibility of training novices. "I remember learning how to model from Ather and Shahzad. They would often be very busy, managing and guiding more than one model at a time and it was difficult to learn the ropes. Usually, most professionals just conveniently prefer to hire experienced people and complete their jobs in half the time. The IFAP is going to be my contribution to my profession, my way of training newcomers before they set forth with their careers. Money is a secondary concern."

Humble beginnings

Mehreen’s altruism seems genuine enough. After all, this is a girl who fought off the shackles of her family’s conservatism and worked long and hard to make it on her own. She may not be a stylist extraordinaire or a makeover genius but she understands her profession well enough to know just how newcomers can get exploited and manipulated by the wrong people. Who could be a better person to help new entrants into the field?

Mehreen Syed hails from a traditional, Lahore-based Syed family and when she was three years old, her father died. Her mother took on the mantle of supporting the household, insisting that her children should complete their education before they got married. Marriage, nonetheless, was a common focal point at home, with one of Mehreen’s sisters’ nikah taking place just at age 13! "We’d never even worn jeans in our home, once we’d grown up. The women in my family covered their faces with burqas and here I was, attempting to do the unthinkable and become a model!" recalls Mehreen.

"I was studying for my Bachelors in Lahore’s Home Economics College when I first met Ather Shehzad and began working with them," she says. "My family was completely against the idea but I was adamant. Other than the fact that I enjoyed the profession, I knew that if I did my work well, I would be able to earn a lot from modeling. More than anything else, I wanted to stand on my own feet and support my family with my earnings. My mother was getting old and I didn’t want her to continue working just in order to feed and clothe us. I would go to college in the morning; work as an air hostess for PIA in the evenings and on Sundays, I would model for Ather Shehzad. They were kind enough to adjust their schedules for me, pinpointing dates on which they knew that I would be available."

This was a time when fashion was burgeoning in Pakistan, growing from an industry with a handful of designers to the diverse, thriving business that it is today. A few TV commercials and photo shoots down the line, Mehreen began to earn enough to allow her mother to retire and with Ather Shehzad by her side, became one of Pakistan’s most popular models – as she continues to be.

To this date, however, almost all of Mehreen’s work in Pakistan has been with Ather and Shehzad. She insists that this is not because she belongs to the stylists’ camp – in fact Mehreen feels that such a camp doesn’t even exist. "I work with Ather Shehzad because I feel comfortable with them," she explains. "We have been working together for a long time and understand each others’ work ethics. Of course I am open to working with other photographers and stylists and have worked with different people during my international photo shoots. But here in Pakistan, I am always so busy in my work with Ather Shehzad that I don’t have the time to work with others. Ather and Shehzad trained and groomed me at a time when I didn’t know anything and I feel blessed to have friends like them."
IFAP for the uninitiated

Mehreen has formed the IFAP at a time when she feels secure in her career and is able to take out time to work on the academy. Her plans have been in motion for one year now, helped along with the assistance of Uzi Xaidi, who currently runs the Goldtsein Academy in Toronto. On a visit to his hometown Lahore, Uzi felt that the time was ripe for a modeling academy to be set up in Pakistan. Applying his experience and knowledge in the management of modeling and acting schools abroad, he took on the role of Mehreen’s financial partner in the IFAP. "I’ve already thought of a name for our graduates – IFAPians!" he laughs, in a phone call from Canada.

And who exactly is eligible to be an IFAPian? Aspiring models, photographers and stylists, obviously, but also individuals who want to look and sound good but just don’t know how to. "The grooming academy can be thought of as a finishing school for students of all ages and from all walks of life. I have seen girls who desperately want to fit in their careers or colleges and are unable to succeed because they lack basic knowledge about wearing the right clothes, make-up or even common hygiene like using deodorants and waxing. They become objects of ridicule and lose their self-confidence. IFAP’s grooming academy is for people like them. The modeling, styling and photography academy are more focused on developing specific career skills. For instance, girls who want to model need to know how to carry themselves and how to go about their careers. By trusting the wrong people, they can easily get manipulated while their careers dwindle into nothing," Mehreen explains, neatly sidestepping a direct mention of modeling’s notorious casting couch while elaborating on the IFAP’s aims.

To this end, the IFAP includes courses like communication skills, personal hygiene, table manners, runway training and health and physical fitness. "I am not going to be teaching any course because I want to remain focused on overseeing the academy. The course outlines have been formulated with the advice and help of my friends in the fashion industry. I am very thankful to them for their support," says Mehreen.

What could make the IFAP work …

Back when Pakistani fashion was besieged by a plethora of self-congratulatory ‘darsigners’, institutes like the PFDC and the AIFD swooped in and gave the necessary credibility to fashion designing. These institutes trained and provided platforms to young designers and a degree in fashion designing suddenly became a viable option. More and more frequently, graduates from these institutes have held their own at fashion weeks amidst more seasoned designers. Meanwhile, the models continued to bumble and fumble their way down the catwalk.

"Modeling, styling and photography can be very lucrative career options but uptil now, people had mistrusted them because no academy had specifically been formed to cater to these fields," observes Mehreen. "Hopefully, the IFAP will change this."

This, particularly, is what could make the IFAP work. The academy is aiming to fulfill a long overdue need of the fashion industry. As careers in fashion become more profitable, new models can be seen entering the industry but they go on to become catwalk travesties before finally emerging into their own a few years later. The location of the IFAP – Lahore – makes sense also. While the country’s fashion events are more or less equally divided between Karachi and Lahore, a battalion of our fashion models emerge from the latter city. With a training academy in their hometown, they can be groomed and glamorized before they are let loose on to the ramp. After all, with Pakistani fashion falling under the international eye more frequently, why shouldn’t we have well-trained ramp models right from day one?

Furthermore, the IFAP’s faculty list is glitzy enough to make the mouth water. Some of the country’s best fashion entrepreneurs all working together in one institute, passing on their sartorial wisdom while teaching courses that even sound riveting. Uzi Xaidi’s experience with international schools gives the course outlines more credibility while the courses themselves sound like fun. Administered efficiently, the IFAP could turn out to be a genuinely successful academy for aspiring fashion wannabes.
…and what could make the IFAP not work

The IFAP sounds great on paper and Mehreen sounds convincingly well-prepared. But classes haven’t started yet and Mehreen, for all her enthusiasm, doesn’t have any experience in managing and overlooking an academy, even if it’s a fashion-related one. For all we know, the IFAP with all its tall plans and flashy faculty list could fall flat on its face. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. We’ve seen big-budgeted, well-publicized Pakistani fashion projects dwindle down to nothing plenty of times.

It remains to be seen whether the faculty that includes some of the country’s busiest designers, stylists, photographers and models will be able to conduct their classes on a regular basis. It would also be great if more industry veterans could be added on to the faculty list. Veterans like Maheen Khan, Rizwan Beyg and Amir Adnan have witnessed Pakistani fashion from its early days and their input would be invaluable to the student body.

Lastly, it is too early to decide just how well the IFAP will fare. Last year, IFAP’s director Uzi Xaidi fell into slight trouble when a roughly created website accused one of his acting schools in Canada to have charged students money while their careers remained non-existent after graduating. According to Uzi, this website had been created by a recently fired casting director and judging from the disorganized format of the website, the accusations appear to be baseless. Uzi’s acting and modeling schools in Canada have been responsible for representing models for renowned brands like Prada, Guy Laroche and Chanel and he says that such petty attempts at slander are common in the business. However, this does bring one point to the fore: it isn’t necessary for a modeling institute to churn out individuals who immediately skyrocket to super stardom. As Uzi himself elaborates, "We have tried our best with the IFAP but our success can only be judged by the success of our IFAPians." It remains to be seen whether the IFAP’s graduates will actually go on to build successful careers or get lost in the milieu.

Nevertheless, with classes scheduled to begin in January, the IFAP’s first step has been in the right direction. Only time will tell how Pakistan’s very first modeling, grooming, styling and photography academy will fare. We have our fingers crossed: so far, so good.

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