High stakes in a fashion forward world

August 07, 2022


Most first-generation Pakistani immigrants living in Italy have limited education and training. The majority are stuck in low income activities such as picking fruit and vegetables, managing livestock, working as un-skilled or semi-skilled workers in factories, and selling trinkets often on the beaches during the summer. However, second generation Pakistanis are beginning to break out, creating new lives, and reaching for success.

Farwa Zulfiqar arrived in Macerta, Italy in 1995 when she was five years old, moving with her family from Bhurewala, near Multan. Finding herself in a new country, unable to speak a word of Italian, she was frightened and disoriented, scared of even leaving the house. While at elementary and middle school she struggled to learn Italian and make friends. She often felt isolated and marginalised. Soon after 9/11, when she was still only 11 years old, Farwa began facing racist bullying. Her class mates began taunting her and calling her a ‘terrorist’ and saying hurtful things such as, “Why don’t you go back to Afghanistan?”

But hard work and strong support from her family helped her overcome the myriad difficulties. At 14, she enrolled in the local school of art and fashion and graduated top of her class; several of her creations were showcased in the school’s end-of-year fashion show. She then went on to get a top class degree in fashion styling from the Academy of Fine Arts in Macerata. After two years of hard work building up her portfolio, she now works as a fashion stylist in Milan – one of the world capitals of high fashion. Although still working to establish herself in this cut-throat world, she is being increasingly called upon by various agencies who work with the top fashion houses. She has also launched her own fashion line specialising in high quality, eco-sustainable children’s clothing.

I met Farwa through a common friend. I have been doing a series of articles on the Pakistani diaspora in Italy with a particular focus on documenting success stories – stories of those who were making a new life here and not forever hankering after the old country. However, most of those I interviewed were men and despite my best efforts I could not identify many successful women.

Young Pakistani women in Italy often find life difficult. There is little family support for education, social restrictions are stifling, and often working outside the house is frowned upon. And then there is the question of marriage – many families have a strong preference for marrying their daughters to cousins or other close relatives in Pakistan. This serves two purposes – it makes sure the girl is ‘safely married’ and at the same time gets a visa for the boy to migrate legally to Italy. If young women rebel against such arranged marriages they are browbeaten and harassed by their families. In some cases, such rebellion has ended up in honor killings too.

How did you come to Italy?

My father had been an art teacher in a university back in Pakistan. He came from a well-off family of propertied professionals but there was little prospect for an artist – neither as a teacher nor as a practicing artist. He left Pakistan in the early 1990s and worked as a house decorator in Paris where his brother lived as well. He then moved to Milan and Rome. He did false ceiling and stucco work as well as painting. There was much demand for his service as he combined skilled hands, an attention to detail, and strong work ethic.

Moving around Italy, he somehow ended up in Macerata in the central Italian province of Marche. The Marche is famous for its shoes and many top brands such as Tod’s are based there. There are plenty of rich people with fancy apartments and villas. Father started working with a company specialising in top-end home remodeling. The pay and prospects were good enough to ask his family to join him.

Why did you choose to study fashion and design?

I first heard that there was such a thing as a fashion and design school when they came to my school during an orientation visit. I saw some of the designs, photographs and materials they brought with them. It seemed like a magical world and it was love at first sight. From that day on, I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer.

Looking back, I think that my love for fashion was an expression of who I am – a combination of my mother and father. My father’s is an artist at heart and his work has to do with colours, materials and form. My mother used to stitch clothes for the family and there has always been a sewing machine in the house. Also textiles and clothing runs in our blood. Bhurewala has a long association with textiles. The Bhurewala Textile Mill (renamed Laurencepur) – is the largest textile mill in Pakistan. The area is well-known for its embroidery work, which most women are taught at a young age.

At high school I finally ‘found myself’. I was no longer the only foreigner in the class. More importantly I was a star student. Having helped my mother with her stitching I knew to measure, cut and sew – something that most other students had to learn from scratch. I loved the design work and used to work on my drawings for hours and hours. I topped my class with a final grade of 94% – quite an achievement for someone who a few years ago could not speak any Italian.

How did your family support your decisions?

Support came from various quarters.

My mother was only matric pass but she always said she would like her children to do what she could not – study and go to university. My father too was fully in favour. And there was no discrimination between boys and girls. My elder bother went to university to study engineering; I studied fashion and design; my sister is now finishing art school and will be starting university this year.

Support also came from my auntie in Bhurewala and her husband. He is a judge and she is the doyen of the family. They have four daughters, who all went to university. During visits to Pakistan they would speak to my siblings and I about our plans and ambitions, offering advice and encouragement.

What did you do after high school?

After high school, I really wanted to go to the Istituto Marangoni in Milan. This is the top design and fashion school in Italy. With my grades and performance I was sure I could get in but the family could not afford to cover the school fees as well as living expenses in Milan. It was a great disappointment for me. My father tried to console me by pointing out that success depends more on the hard work you put in than which school you went to. At the time, I did not understand the importance of his words – now I do.

I registered for a three year degree course at the Instituto delle Belle Arti (Fine Arts institute) in Macerata. My area of specialisation was fashion design but I also studied photography, leather goods, jewelry and colour design.

I worked very hard and was never afraid to take on new challenges. For example, I was one of the few that mastered the Moulaj Technique – this is where you prepare the dress directly on the manikin or a model. The advantage of technique is that you move very fast from design to display. But to do this, you need to have a very good feel for the materials you are using.

And after your degree?

The top priority was to create a portfolio of work. Sketches, photos, videos – things that show clients what can do. I was lucky to get into a national competition for young stylists. To participate I had to prepare a mini-collection or capsule collection of 12 pieces. I worked very hard on this, both to create a unique look that would combine East and West and to actually make the dresses. We used very light transparent textiles and traditional embroidery work that we had done iin Burewale. My mother was by my side the whole time and often we would work through the night.

I made it to the finals which was held in Rome and won the ‘critics prize’, which was professionally more important than the ‘popularity prize’ for which the public is also allowed to vote. As a prize winner, my pieces were put on sale in a very prestigious concept store in Milan where they sold out in a few weeks. This success led to other opportunities such as an appearance on national TV to talk about my work (which I accepted); and the offer of appearing in a reality show (which I turned down but allowed them to use my designs and dresses).

I also worked in Pakistan as a stylist with Armeena Khan during the shooting of Sherdil. It was a very exciting experience.


And when did you move to Milan?

In 2020, I decided I was ready to leave Macerta and move to Milan. I told my parents who were naturally quite surprised but supportive. I rented a small flat and had to work at various odd jobs to pay the rent. However, I always tried to work in my sector. For example, I would prefer working as a shop assistant at a top fashion shop even if the pay was low.

Slowly I started creating demand for my work – I was lucky to be able to work with several very talented people in the fashion business such as photographers and video makers. We produced quite a lot of material and built up an impressive portfolio.

What are your main ongoing and planned projects?

I have recently launched a line of eco-friendly children’s clothing. Initially, I was selling mostly online but now a number of boutiques are carrying my creations. I hope to launch other lines of clothing in the near future.

I would also love to collaborate more with Pakistani stylists and designers – be a link between Pakistani stylists, designers and manufacturers to promote exports.

What advice would you give young women of Pakistani origin living in Italy?

As immigrant women you will face problems. There are prejudices and incidents of racism. These may increase in the coming years as several major political parties are adopting an anti-immigrant rhetoric, blaming immigrants for crime and for stealing jobs. You have to be brave and face these difficulties. Remember that the vast majority of Italians have no prejudices and eventually honest hard work will bring you success.

As women you may also face difficulties within the Pakistani community here, and maybe even from your own families. They may find it hard to accept your economic and social independence and there will be painful double standards when it comes to the treatment of men and women.

But whatever happens – never give up on your dreams.

Daud Khan is a freelancer based in Italy. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.

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