26-year-old Iqra Ahmad of Srinagar is doing several things at a time: she is reviving the traditional Kashmiri clothes; she is creating a successful online business; she is breaking barriers and stereotypes in a male-dominated society; and she is showing the way in times of growing unemployment.
Three years ago, when Ahmad launched Tul Palav, an online store for designer Kashmiri clothes like pherans (traditional Kashmiri tunics), she wasn’t sure how well it would do. But today it’s a big hit, especially among the young Kashmiri girls growing up on and with social media, who wouldn’t normally relate to pherans.
From pherans, kurtas, and pleated skirts to wedding dresses, Tul Palav offers a wide range of products designed to blend modern fashion with the Kashmiri culture. Iqra puts in a lot of thought at ever step: procuring the right material, designing, stitching and embroidering.“I aim to mix the contemporary trends with the traditional Kashmiri designs,” says Ahmad. “We try to make something unique by allowing experimentation, a process that has turned out to be fruitful.”
But Tul Palav is definitely not just a collection of tailored products. It’s a concept and an identity. “I am proud of being a Kashmiri and I want my work to reflect ‘Kashmiriyat’,” she says. Her designs are dedicated to “all those women who find pride in who they are.”
Tul Palav fits the definition of fashion prevalent in the valley: modesty, comfort and confidence. Its most popular product is a custom-made tilla-work pheran that has gained a lot of attention among customers. Tilla is a gold or silver thread embroidery, having its origins in Iran’s Zari village, a craft imported to Kashmir by the 14th century saint, Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (popularly known as Shah-e-Hamdan), when he migrated to Kashmir with a group of craftsmen.
Over decades, the tillapherans had not clicked with the young generations of Kashmiris. But now it’s the most clicked on social media pages of Tul Palav.
Tech savvy Ahmad has managed to use social media for her business well. Her wide range of products are available for purchase online through Facebook and Instagram. Her brand has about 30,000 followers across social media platforms.
Tul Palav’s latest collection is a blend of tribal Kashmiri and Afghani designs. It will have intricate tilla work on velvet. “The idea is to bring together different cultures and embrace the differences as well as the similarities between the two,” said Ahmad explaining the new collection.
“I want to make meaningful pieces our customers will love wearing over and over again and even pass down the generations,” she says.
Ahmad comes from a family of employees in the uptown area of Sanat Nagar in Srinagar. But she didn’t want to settle into a job. She always wanted to become a fashion designer. But since Kashmir has no fashion designing schools, and that she didn’t want to move out of the valley for studies, she gave up on her dream temporarily.
After finishing her college studying economics and psychology, and her post-graduation in linguistics from the University of Kashmir, the designer in her woke up again. Even without any formal studies of fashion designing, she launched Tul Palav in 2015. “I was always interested in fashion designing but had never imagined making a career out of it,” she says.
Lack of a professional degree was still playing on the back of her mind. She finally did a fashion designing course from the Wigan and Leigh College in New Delhi last year.
“I needed it to be able to call myself a fashion designer. Even though my business was running successfully, I wanted it for self-satisfaction.” On the Tul Palav journey, Ahmad “began to believe more and more that this is really what I wanted to do.”
But her journey hasn’t been all too smooth. In a conservative society like Kashmir, where not too many women run independent businesses, that too related to fashion, making a start was tough. “When I talked about fashion designing, people automatically assumed I’d be going for modelling and instantly opposed the whole idea without hearing me out,” she recalls.
She had to persuade her family before anyone else. “Even my father was reluctant at first but when I made him understand, he supported me,” Ahmad said with pride in her eyes. She is grateful for her family believed in her. “I could overcome the limitations set by the society only with my family’s support. Once my family supported me, I didn’t care about what others thought.”
Now that the struggles have been taken care of, Ahmad is focusing on new range of designs: a bridal collection that Kashmir can call its own. “The bridal dresses here are too Pakistani in style. We have such a rich culture and it must be cherished,” Iqra says.
One may be able to soon pick up the Tul Palav collection from her own store, that’s what she aspires to open in the near future.
Ahmad’s story breaks stereotypes about Kashmiri women, many of whom do work for the government or in the private sector. But several women in Kashmir give up their dreams and careers after marriage due to many social factors. Ahmad, who says family commitments shouldn’t become a barrier, is an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of women who may have the skills but don’t make the move. She believes, “even homemakers can be efficient entrepreneurs.”