By Sonya Rehman
It’s hip, it’s edgy and it epitomizes South Asian streetwear. Rastah, an Urdu word meaning path or journey, is a Pakistani fashion label which is swiftly beginning to carve its very own, gritty niche in the global streetwear industry.
Launched in 2018 by Zain Ahmad, Adnan Ahmad and Ishmail Ahmad, the founders were initially planning to use their brand to sell handwoven fabric produced in Pakistan. However for Zain, the Creative Director, the thought of selling fabric felt uninspiring and too safe. Besides, fashion was always his true calling, his “muse.”
From baggy hoodies and t-shirts with ethnic embroideries and patchwork prints of vintage Mughal paintings, including an array of traditional block print designs stamped on sweatshirts and sweatpants, Zain states that the fusion of some of Pakistan’s age-old crafts in western streetwear has worked extremely well for the brand.
Adnan, who brings his business acumen to Rastah, inherently knew that the label had immense potential given the current boom in the multi-billion dollar streetwear industry, which has also propelled some of fashion’s biggest names to elbow their way in to swipe up a piece of the lucrative pie.
“Our work comes from a genuine place,” Adnan says, “People know we’re not just trying to sell merchandise quickly, unlike other brands. Moreover, South Asia is completely underrepresented in streetwear, and that’s what we’re trying to change through our label.”
With a design ethos that remains deeply rooted in Pakistani culture and heritage, Rastah is by no means a brand for the masses, it’s a high-end luxury label for those who can afford $325 for a single sweatshirt.
With limited edition pieces from exclusive capsule collections, Zain reveals that his process for sourcing ideas for each line starts and ends with immersing himself within Pakistan’s fabric markets and working closely with local artisans.
Take for instance, Aslam Mirza, a third-generation block printer from Lahore, who began working with Rastah when Zain discovered him at a mega craft bazaar in the city.
“I noticed this woman haggling with [Aslam] over these huge block print bed sheets and thought his work was phenomenal. Later, I found out that he had stopped block printing because he felt there wasn’t a demand for it in the local market and that people weren’t willing to pay for good quality block print textiles.”
Currently working with Rastah on a full-time basis, Aslam is the driving force behind the brand’s indigenous block print apparel.
“The trouble here is that local artisans are exploited for their work by the middlemen. They’re paid an inadequate amount for their art and those same pieces are then sold on to buyers for sky-high prices,” Adnan says, adding that Rastah pays its craftsmen high wages that commensurate with their art.
By shining the spotlight on Rastah’s artisans dressed in their very own creations in the label’s online advertising campaigns, Zain mentions that each craftsman’s feedback is an integral part of the garment-making process. “Feedback from them is very important to us, our artisans have a big hand to play in how our collections are put together.”
Currently in the midst of planning pop-up shops overseas, in addition to a brand new collection of patchwork jackets, fluorescent block print apparel and hand-woven denim, Zain states that the new volume has propelled him further out of his comfort zone. “The theme of the collection is inspired by the 60s and the 70s and how that time period was incredibly retro and experimental,” he says.
While nostalgic fashion has become thoroughly popularized in Pakistan over the past few years, where well-known local brands have focused on producing campaigns and collections revolving around a romanticized remembrance of the country’s past, Rastah steers clear of regurgitating what has already been done, and instead, pushes the envelope a little further.
“We want to stay rooted to local culture but at the same time, we want to re-interpret the Pakistani identity for a modern day audience,” states Zain, “That’s what I tell the artisans we work with, to innovate by using elements from their craft to weave a new conversation through fashion. That’s the only way our local crafts can be preserved over time.”