On a flight enroute to Lahore from Hong Kong, Mehreen Syed deftly applies her makeup.
The plane lands and she rushes off directly to fashion week where she takes on the catwalk for her good friend HSY’s show. She stands out as the showstopper, wearing a deep red gown in a show that is dominated by subdued colours. When the designer takes his final bow, he walks out with his mother on one arm and Mehreen on the other, two women very dear to him.
Only a few weeks later, at a solo show by designer Shehla Chatoor, she glides down a catwalk that is laid out like an enchanted garden. She is swan-like, turning, twirling and smiling into the cameras that are fixated upon her.
As she moves, her heavy trail shifts — a fantastical structure diligently constructed with yards and yards of ribbons, tulle, hand embroideries and feathers — stretching out far behind her. She is once again the final model in the show, the showstopper, and the designer has especially created the last outfit to be the most elaborate of all. Aside from walking slightly slowly, Mehreen never truly lets on that she is wearing clothes that weigh far more than her.
“I have worn some very heavy clothes in recent shows but at the same time, they have been some of the most beautiful and I have enjoyed myself,” says Mehreen. “I consider it a huge compliment when designers tell me that they created a certain outfit with me in mind. It means that they have invested months into a design that they only want me to carry on the catwalk.”
She’s been around for over a decade and is still selected as the showstopper for catwalk shows. Supermodel Mehreen Syed talks to Icon about her professional struggles, how she steered clear of fashion’s politics and what it takes to maintain her poise …
Considering the longevity of her career and the benchmarks that she has set, it is not rare for the local fashion fraternity to create designs or looks especially for Mehreen.
I don’t wear clothes that are too revealing, that bare my midriff or legs or cleavage. People respect this, says the model.
Her career spans well over a decade now and she has hotstepped her way through local fashion’s perpetual ups and downs, appearing in umpteen memorable images and working her way into becoming a catwalk favourite. Designer HSY calls her his muse and swears by the fact that whatever Mehreen models gets ordered instantly by clients.
Veteran photographers Ather Shahzad have a longstanding work relationship with her. And for eight years now, she has been an official spokesperson for L’Oreal Paris Pakistan.
“Modeling was never really a hobby for me. I started my career when I was 18 because I needed the extra money to support my family,” reveals Mehreen. “I studied in college in the morning, worked as air hostess on local flights in the evenings and modeled on weekends. It was tough but I’m glad that it all worked out in the end.”
Her story is the stuff of fairy tales; a bona fide fashion story with a heartening, inspiring, happy ending. Mehreen is now one of the highest paid models at fashion shows. She is happily married with a young daughter and, although modeling continues to keep her busy, she also helms the International Fashion Academy Pakistan (IFAP), a vocational training centre that aims to empower women, and ICARE, an NGO focused on helping the underprivileged.
I talk to her at a time at which she is particularly investing time into a project in which IFAP has collaborated with the Punjab Skills Development Fund (PSDF) and the L’Oreal Foundation’s ‘Beauty for a Better Life’ programme.
“If our plans go smoothly, a batch of 510 girls will emerge from IFAP this year, out of which 120 have just graduated. We train them in different skills in three month-long courses, making them capable of earning for themselves. It transforms not only their personal lifestyle and mindset but of their entire families.”
She is enthusiastic — exuberant with plans for IFAP and self-satisfied with a career where she continues to rule the roost. It is at this point where she sits down for an exclusive interview with Icon on the trials and travails of modeling, the politics of fashion and the importance of giving back.
Let’s just start with talking about IFAP. What kind of skills do you provide the girls who enroll in the academy?
Mehreen Syed: We train them in grooming, makeup and hair styling through our skill development programmes and also guide them into making business plans, budgeting and marketing. Once they graduate, we help them find jobs. Some become beauty advisers, others start working at salons and, for those women whose families don’t allow them to leave their homes, we create small salon set-ups in their homes. Out of the 2,000 girls who have graduated from IFAP so far, 1,122 are now working as beauticians.
I only managed to attain supermodel status when L’Oreal-Paris Pakistan took me on board. They have, ever since, supported me and helped me fulfill so many of my dreams, she adds.
And what does ICARE do?
MS: ICARE is an NGO that provides financial support to needy women and automatically facilitates their enrollment into IFAP. These are girls who are far too old to enroll in schools and so we give them skills that can at least allow them to support their families in some way or the other. Once they start earning money, it often inspires their families to aim to do the same. In 2016 and 2017, ICARE worked with the L’Oreal Foundation France’s project ‘Beauty for Better Life’. Now, the NGO is also working with PSDF and the US Consulate.
Are you speaking from experience given that you also started off your modeling career with the intention of supporting your family?
MS: Yes, and my confidence increased manifold when I managed to improve my family’s standard of living. We are four sisters and one brother and my mother was widowed when I was three. She is a lawyer and all through my life, I saw her working hard to make ends meet for us. My siblings and I were determined to help her however we could and we all went through our personal struggles. I am incredibly happy that my family is now very comfortably settled. I want to help others improve their lives the same way.
It is surprising, though, that you managed to gain this financial freedom via modeling, a profession notorious in Pakistan for not paying well and in some cases, not paying at all. Didn’t you ever face issues with paymasters who didn’t pay you once a project was completed?
MS: Yes, there have been such situations. In the initial years, I was paid a mere pittance, but for me even that was enough because I knew that I was just starting out. Success doesn’t come overnight, it requires time and hard work. I have put in the hours and continue to honour my work commitments. I was critiqued for the longest time before I finally won the Lux Style Award for Best Model in 2013.
I think I got my first big payment when I got featured in a TV commercial for a major brand. And I only managed to attain supermodel status when L’Oreal-Paris Pakistan took me on board. They have, ever since, supported me and helped me fulfill so many of my dreams. Now, I am one of the highest paid models in the circuit but it has taken time.
Does winning an award truly matter in terms of generating more work and better pay for a model?
MS: Of course awards matter. For one, the fraternity automatically treats you more seriously once you have won an award. Also, it is a nod of appreciation from the field that you are working in. For many years, I would be nominated in the Best Model category at the LSAs and never win. And then, I won in a year when I had least expected it. It was a year when I had just gotten married and was expecting a baby. It meant a lot and was possibly one of the happiest days in my life.
Modeling is also associated with seedy ‘side professions’ although you’ve always managed to maintain a professional image of yourself. Was there a time that you had to avoid unwanted propositions?
MS: Not really. Dubious side professions exist all over the world but it is an individual’s personal choice to opt for them. For the longest time, I was working primarily for the money and it kept me focused solely on my work.
Amongst the present slew of models, I have been part of the largest number of shows, both in Pakistan and abroad. Designers especially ask me to be part of their shows, says Mehreen Syed.
I never found fashion after-parties and unnecessary socialising appealing. I set my own rules: I don’t wear clothes that are too revealing, that bare my midriff or legs or cleavage. People respect this and it’s my luck that I am mostly asked to wear bridal wear that tends to cover the body. I have also often consciously opted to work with people that I’m comfortable with, who are ethical and who will look out for me. It’s allowed me to keep a safe distance from bad propositions.
Is this the reason why most of your work has been with photographer and makeup duo Ather Shahzad? You have been critiqued throughout your career for siding with the ‘Ather Shahzad camp’.
MS: I don’t belong to any camp but yes, I have always felt most comfortable with Ather Shahzad. They are my mentors. At a time when I did not know anything about modeling, they guided and groomed me. They made sure that I got paid on time and lined me up with major projects. To this date, they continue to be pillars of support for me, guiding me and standing by me.
But isn’t it bad for a model’s portfolio to work primarily just with one photographer and stylist team?
MS: How has it been bad for me? I get paid very well for my work. Amongst the present slew of models, I have been part of the largest number of shows, both in Pakistan and abroad. Designers especially ask me to be part of their shows. My portfolio hasn’t suffered at all.
A burgeoning number of models are now entering the fashion industry every year and the competition is getting tougher. You seem to have had steered clear of backstage politics and catfights. How did you manage?
MS: I have seriously just gone about doing my own work, not bothering with the others. I am not part of any rat race. In fact, I now pick and choose between the projects that I want to take on because I also have my family life to attend to. I am senior to most of the new girls and I get along with them. I look forward to shows where all the models hang out for hours backstage. We talk, sometimes we play cards and even sometimes share the home-cooked meals I bring with me.
As a veteran who has seen local fashion’s initial days, do you think that modeling is on the rise in Pakistan?
MS: There are some models who have promise but there are many others for whom it’s just a hobby or a stepping stone to get somewhere else. So many girls get into modeling now because they are aiming for acting careers on TV. They are unprofessional and become divas overnight if even one project of theirs is a success. Modeling would only truly be on the rise if the new girls decided to focus just on one career rather than dabbling here and there.
Haven’t you ever considered an acting career?
MS: I haven’t. My goal was to build my modeling career and make a name for myself and I have succeeded in doing so. Now, though, I may consider another side career.
But even now, when you have become pickier, you’re part of every major show. Given designers’ new obsession with individual outings, what do you prefer — solo shows or fashion weeks?
MS: I actually like solo shows better. I have been part of solo shows by four designers so far: Faraz Manan, Elan, Shehla Chatoor and HSY and they were all very enjoyable. A solo allows a designer’s signature to shine through. A lot of effort can be put into styling the models because they don’t have to be rushed from one collection to another, as is the case at fashion weeks.
And it doesn’t bother you that the most complicated outfits are set aside for you?
MS: No. I have a lot of respect for a designer’s hard work. I don’t really judge a design and crib if I am given something that I don’t like. Regardless of whether an outfit is beautiful or ghastly, someone has worked hard in creating it. I take care of an outfit when I wear it, making sure that it doesn’t get stained by makeup and trying to make the audience notice every slight detail, from the shoulders to the neckline and the sleeves. And the more complicated the outfit, the bigger the challenge! I make sure that it looks good on the catwalk and captures the audience’s attention.