Maram & Abroo – the dynamic duo doing it for themselves

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Contrary to what one might think, the photography and styling segment of the Pakistani fashion industry is a male-dominated arena. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though, if one evaluates the reasons behind it: girls have always been discouraged in the fashion arena – which prior to 2000, the so-called media revolution in Pakistan, was riddled with social stigmas and it was considered non-kosher for girls from ‘good families’ to be part of the fashion industry in any significant way, even if it was in a behind-the-scenes role. Apparently, things have changed now… but have they really? It might have become socially acceptable, but Maram & Abroo testify to the fact that the insiders in the industry still aren’t very accepting towards two girls trying to make their way in and create a name for themselves, especially in an area dominated by men. Maram & Abroo are the only women photographer/stylist team in the country and not only is their work different, but how they managed to establish themselves in the industry, against the odds, is also a very interesting story. Over the last five years or so, Maram & Abroo have worked with the top designers and brands; have a portfolio that boasts of work that has graced international magazine covers; and won several awards and award nominations in make up, styling and photography along the way. Their work speaks for itself. As Abroo is away in New York setting up a studio there, Maram talks to Blue Chip about how they started off, the challenges they faced and their work ethic that differentiates them from the rest of the crowd

Maram & Abroo

What brought you towards styling and fashion photography?

Maram Azmat: “Abroo and I were together in college. We did our Bachelors in Maths, Stats and Economics and Masters in Public Administration and then we did this! We both liked photography and we were doing shoots and college fashion shows when we were at college. We wondered if we should come into the fashion industry, but nobody was very encouraging because, a) we were girls, and b) they didn’t want to do anything with us as we were inexperienced professionally. We would always be asked, ‘oh, don’t you have a portfolio?’ and such typical questions, to which we would respond that if you give us a chance, we will do it — portfolios aren’t made just like that!

Then, we went to Abu Dhabi and it was a completely different experience. Everyone was so professional and they didn’t really care whether we were girls or not – portfolio or no portfolio, they thought that we could handle a project and they asked us to do a shoot and we did it. It was amazing and it went really well. It got printed in Almara’a Alyaum — an Abu Dhabi-based magazine — and we started from there! We were in partnership with an Arab lady and there was a studio and everything.

Then, in 2005, my father built this place [their present studio] and he called us back saying, ‘girls, come back and work in your own country!’ Since we had that stamp that we’ve worked abroad, things just started rolling after that.

How did you decide to go off to Abu Dhabi?

MA: “Initially, with our degrees, we wanted to work in the Media City and that’s why we went there. I remember printing a million of our CVs and we gave a lot of interviews. Then, we were at a dinner with Abroo’s family and her dad’s friends were there. They were having this conversation about these two girls, one from the Yusuf family and the other from the Romaithi family, who had started a business and were looking for girls to work with. We became really excited because that’s exactly what we wanted to do, so that’s how we got into that place.”

What are your individual roles?

MA: “We both do photography and we both love doing make up — but when we were there, we were only doing photography. I also did some make up courses from Paris Gallery while I was there. My inclination was towards make up from the starting. However, when we came back, we had a lot of work going on – shoots and everything – and it became a little stressful, so since we were a two-girl team, we decided to divide it in this way that Abroo would do the photography and I would do the make up. But, we both love doing both the things.”

How big is your team now?

MA: “Besides me and Abroo, we have two more girls. Madiha is our manager, who you’ve been speaking to on the phone and Zeest is doing the graphics and coming up with concepts – she’s my brain these days!”

What is your opinion on your competition, given that there are so many well-established photographers and stylists?

MA: “It hasn’t been easy at all because they don’t let you come forward, mainly because we’re girls and they don’t encourage it. But, in many ways, it’s been really good as well. I think we’re the only girls’ team and we’ve been encouraged also and within no time, less than a year, we were getting work and we made our name. We also got nominated for the LUX awards. It’s still been difficult but we’re still doing it…”

What are you working on these days?

MA: “I’m the stylist for Shoaib Mansoor’s latest movie. Other than that, we’re working on other campaigns as well. Fashion photography is also going on alongside, and we’ve recently done this campaign for The Republic which was printed in Daily Times’ Sunday. He’s a local designer but he’s come up with an outlet and is making some brilliant stuff, in competition with Ammar Belal’s menswear. We’ve done a few other campaigns that are going to come out in Spring/Summer which I can’t mention right now.”

One of your shoots was also on the cover of Norwegian magazine Vixen in October 2009. How did that come about?

MA: “A couple of years ago, an agent came to Pakistan with a foreign model and we, along with some others, did some shoots with her and we developed a rapport with him. He came again and this time, we worked with some local models. When he went back and laid everyone’s work in front of the editor, she picked ours which was great, because there was no favouritism or anything. He told us that she found our work to be very genuine and creative, and she said she hadn’t seen work like that before.”

Since you’re saying that your work is different and original, where do you derive your inspiration from?

MA: “We take a lot of inspiration from old paintings and our lighting is also like that — very moody and romantic. For human portraiture, using yellowish tones is more flattering and we use warm tones rather than the cold, white light that studio lights provide. It’s also because we’re girls — the romanticism is there!”

Tell me about your New York studio.

MA: “Abroo got married and she’s settling there, so we didn’t want the work to end. A lot of people thought that, ‘oh, she’s married now — these guys are finished’ but it’s not going to be like that at all. We will still be working on that scale and even though it’s just the beginning, it’s a good start as she’s living there and approaching people there.”

So you won’t be working together?

MA: “It’s not like we’re doing shoots day after day, but when a big project comes up, we will be travelling back and forth, so we will be working together. Also, everything is online now so whatever she does there, if I have to work on it in terms of layouts and all, it’ll come here and be worked on and sent back… so, the teamwork is very much going to be there.”

What are your views on the fashion industry? There has been a lot happening in terms of fashion weeks and councils coming up. Do you think this is making a difference in any way?

MA: “As such, Abroo and I haven’t been approached to do anything. But otherwise, we have a lot of friends who are upcoming designers and it’s a great opportunity for them as it’s a good platform for them to show their work. But, at the end of the day, again those mafias come in, where only certain people are asked to do the styling and people have favourites…”

So you haven’t gotten into that aspect…

MA: “We don’t mind doing it. We’ve done many shows. They know we exist but we haven’t really been approached and we’re not the sort who would run after them that ‘please, let us do it’. If they think we’re worthy, then they should just let us know.”

And you also do bridal?

MA: “Yes, we do. That is a cash cow, isn’t it! For all of us! But, it’s very selective. I don’t have a factory set up where 10 people are coming in and 10 people are going out. That’s because it’s only me who is handling it so I take maximum two or three brides a day as I do believe that, at the end of the day, it’s that girl’s wedding so she should be given the right treatment and atmosphere – she’s already so stressed out! You can’t just tag a woman and say, ‘Number 5, come and sit here now!’”

My cousin was getting married recently and she told me how, at this certain salon, there were 60 brides present at one time!

MA: “Well, it’s good for the ones who are doing it, but as I said, I don’t have that set up. A lot of people have told us that, with time, we’re going to become really commercial — but we haven’t done that so far and I don’t intend for it to happen either. When that happens, quality suffers. At least over here, I know I have these three brides and I have my signature style so it’s not like my assistants are doing the make up. I’m happy with it this way – and I’m not expensive either. I think I’m the only person left who is reasonable, pricing-wise.”

What would you regard as the challenges that you face in this line of work?

MA: “They don’t let us come ahead. No one lets you come forward and that’s the biggest challenge. I don’t know how I got this Shoaib Mansoor project. It’s a really big thing and he approached me himself — I wasn’t expecting it. Especially since there are such big names out there, but he approached me so I feel very honoured. I’m directly involved in the whole thought process behind every role — it’s a lot of fun and a great learning experience. You never know, we might get into film-making at some point!

But here again, I would mention that a lot of the advertising agencies don’t approach us directly. I don’t know why, because they do know about us and they still don’t come. A lot of the time, we have to hear things like, ‘they are girls, what can they do’ and that’s not right because we can produce good work, sometimes we’re much better as well. But, I suppose there are a lot of things that happen and we don’t ethically encourage those things. But we are professionals and we can deliver. This attitude needs to change. One of our clients told us how when he mentioned to people that we did some work for him, he got this reaction: ‘oh acha, girls nay kiya hai’ — and we’ve heard this so much that we’re sick of it! I don’t know why people don’t think we can handle our work, because I think we are working even harder to prove that we can and we give attention to every small detail. And honestly, we’ve never gone to anyone and begged them to let us work for them. People have come to us ourselves and we appreciate that.”