Your... er… outfit won’t really connect with our audience. Our viewers are very high-end, you know,” said the TV reporter. She’d come to shoot 26-year-old designer Zainab Ayaz for a design contest on the channel’s lifestyle reality show. And the ‘outfit’ in question was Ayaz’s rida (traditional outer garment, similar to the burqa, worn by Bohra women). So Ayaz did what any good Bohri girl would: she refused to change her clothes for the shoot. “They told me that it was okay if I kept the skirt on but that I should wear a T-shirt on top instead. I told them that wearing the rida was a choice I’d made and it shouldn’t reflect my talent,” says Ayaz. “Later, they apologised and asked me to come back on the show, rida and all. And I won the contest!” grins Ayaz, as we chat in her carpeted living room in Mumbai’s Opera House.
So Ayaz knows what it’s like to be judged on appearances alone. Which is why she decided to start designing stylish and contemporary ridas for other young Bohra girls. “I want my clients to wear my clothes and feel confident. They should feel like they fit in and it adds to their personality instead of taking away from it,” says Ayaz, who holds a diploma in fashion design from Mumbai’s Sophia Polytechnic.
Traditionally, ridas have delicate floral prints with lace trimmings and matching tops and skirts. Ayaz, on the other hand, experiments with everything from military prints and rivets to denim to black lace. “I also like to experiment with cuts so instead of the usual A-line skirts, I prefer to do straight cuts or fishtails,” she says. And since she eschews the idea of the ‘matching’ top and bottom, her ridas typically have contrasting colours: think a funky black fitted skirt teemed with a mint green, poncho-like top embellished with black ribbons. Her clothes, however, don’t come cheap: a single rida can set you back by Rs 2,000 while her evening ridas can go upto Rs 10,000.
Not everyone in the Bohra community is enthralled by her experimental ridas, she admits, but Ayaz has built up a loyal following. “There’s a misconception about Bohra girls. These days, most of us are very well educated. I’ve even designed a rida for someone who worked as a translator in the White House,” she informs me.
One of her most ardent fans is 22-year-old language interpreter Rabab Ghadiali. “Her clothes just make me stand out. It makes it clear to everyone around me that I’m different,” enthuses Ghadiali, who has even got her mother-in-law and young daughter hooked on to Ayaz’s designs.
Ayaz also has a western wear label called Za, which she supplies to high-end boutiques across the city. And she’s anxious to be thought of as just another promising young designer. Not the girl in the rida. “The problem is that no one wants to accept a traditionally-dressed girl in the mainstream. Either they think of you as another oppressed Muslim girl who is doing something small to keep herself occupied, or they want to give you sympathy. But that’s simply not true any more. More and more Bohra girls are choosing to wear the rida,” she points out.
Ayaz’s eventual dream is to open her very own boutique. Just like any other promising young designer.