TÊte-À-TÊte with PR Maven Frieha Altaf
How does one describe Frieha Altaf? Style icon? Trailblazer? Businesswoman? She’s actually a mix of all of the above, a glamorous, intelligent, inimitable concoction of sorts. Frieha belongs to the rare breed of models that ruled the roost in Pakistani fashion’s heyday. Later, she blossomed into a dynamo that steamrolled and helped shape the fashion industry into what it is today. From the days when Pakistan was trundling ahead with a single television channel to the rampant media coverage of today, Frieha has always been around, bringing about changes and setting benchmarks.
For one, the prestigious Lux Style Awards, the country’s only credible entertainment-based annual awards, are her brainchild. She also orchestrates the cerebral annual Engro Excellence Awards. Back in 1993, she created Pakistan’s first fashion-based reality show, ‘Lux Style ki Duniya’ and now, for the past three years, she has been the mastermind behind the hugely popular Veet Miss Super Model contest, a reality show that picks out potential models and grooms them to become bona fide supermodels.
For many years now, she has been training models through her agency, ‘Cats’, while her company ‘Catalyst’ has set her apart as the ‘it’ organiser for any event worth its mettle. Corporate giants, fashion gurus, musical maestros, international brands setting up their first outlets in the country name it and Frieha’s worked with absolutely anybody who’s anybody in Pakistan.
People either love her or hate her; the road she walks on, after all, involves bruising some egos and boosting others; screaming at some, applauding others. People who love her call her a livewire with irrepressible energy and a unique style of her own; an independent woman who knows how to work hard and get things done. Her detractors, predictably, view her as ruthless and difficult. Frieha couldn’t be bothered.
Frieha is also a connoisseur of the arts. Her house, in fact, is a veritable art gallery, stocked full with art pieces that she’s bought in Pakistan as well as during her travels around the world. Invaluable artwork by the likes of Nahid Raza, F.N. Souza, Ahmed Pervez, Tassaduq Sohail and Salman Toor graces Frieha’s walls. It intermingles with a few of her own sculptures as well as the work of new, contemporary artists that she picks up at student shows and art galleries – among them, a sculpture constructed entirely out of keys and a tall, metallic, interactive contraption composed of turning wheels, screws and handles, that stands in her entrance gallery. Exquisitely carved furniture from interior Sindh holds court in one room, gorgeous Sri Lankan chairs take center stage in another and a solitary armchair with a shamiana printed on it, by local brand ‘Veranda at Five’, lends colour to a corner. Even Frieha’s bed is a work of art – a wooden creation with intricate carvings and painted rectangular screens.
“When I was younger, I would save up money to buy art pieces that I liked,” she recalls. “Sometimes I’d even buy them on installments! Art was always my first love. I actually wanted to be a sculptor and painter while modelling was just something fun on the side. Destiny had other plans. I’d grown up and gone to school with many of the people who were working in the fledgling fashion industry back then; the others I got to know through my modelling work. What started off as a single fashion show, organized for friends, eventually grew into a career in PR and event organising.”
But the path to fame and fortune wasn’t always smooth for Frieha. Balancing a career in Pakistan became difficult when marriage made her ricochet back and forth between Pakistan and the US, and as she dealt with her two subsequent divorces, the deaths of her father and brother and the ever-demanding requirements of motherhood – there’s only a year’s age-difference between her son, Turhan, and her daughter, Parishae.
“I have never shied away from hard work. There were times that were unnerving and extremely exhausting, but I just persisted on,” she says.
It all worked out in the end, though. Frieha now lives with her mother and her two children, both teenagers. Long gone are the days when she had to save up to make hefty purchases. Frieha Altaf, now, is a rampant shopper who buys whatever catches her fancy. She has a highflying career that has her traveling to exotic locations all over the world; she and her sister, Neshmia, are the first licensed female scuba divers in Pakistan and cameras whirr whenever she stalks down the red carpet. Also, she has a delectable wardrobe chock-full of a mixed array of the latest designer-wear, vintage clothing, accessories and a whopping collection of 70s swimsuits!
Contesting the swimsuits is an assortment of dresses and casual-wear by Michael Kors, Gaultier, BCBG, Pucci and Marc Jacobs, among others. Similarly, she has a collection of shoes from a myriad different labels ranging from her favourite, Michael Kors, to D&G, Yves Saint Laurent, Louboutin, YSL, Marni to casual chapals and flip-flops.
“Heels look great on the red carpet but they’re not usually very comfortable. I take them off the minute I am off the camera and running backstage,” she laughs.
And despite her exquisite wardrobe, Frieha insists that she’s not very brand-conscious.
With a strong sartorial sense, a penchant for standing out and a natural knack for glamour, it is no wonder that Frieha found her niche in the fashion industry. Long before she had become the grand dame of modeling, highflying events and all the razzmatazz that goes with it, Frieha still had a predilection for making heads turn. While she was studying in London, she would often go to the String Fellows Club along with her Pakistani friends. Once, while she was there, she had British singer George Michael come up to her and ask her to dance.
“This was back when he was still with his band Wham! and was a pop heartthrob,” she remembers. “My Pakistani friends refused to let me get up and dance with him although they still tease me about it now!”
At another time, while dancing at a friend’s wedding in Dubai, she had Indian director Sanjay Khan and his brother, actor Feroz Khan, offer her a role in their upcoming movie.
“I was completely taken aback, and of course, I refused,” she says. “I’ve never aspired to work in movies. I like my work here, in Pakistan. We have an inherent elegance and so much talent. I enjoy bringing it out, giving it a platform and broadcasting it to the world.”
It is the privilege of her career that Frieha has many such moments to share. She remembers filming qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the Lux Style ki Duniya show in the early ‘90s. The car that was supposed to take them to the filming location was late in arriving and she had to ask Nusrat to travel in a cab.
“I was very scared because I thought that he would feel insulted. He was one of the biggest musicians in the country, after all,” she says. “Instead, he just nodded and sat in the cab. I was so touched by his humility.”
The 20th anniversary of Catwalk in 2010 was, of course, yet another emotional memory. With the stunning Mohatta Palace as its backdrop, the anniversary show earmarked the many ‘firsts’ of Frieha’s career.
“The very first fashion show I had organized had been for Maheen Khan and her clothes were part of the show’s fashion segment. Tariq Amin, who had done my make- up for my very first fashion shoot back in 1986, was there. The music included songs sung by Vital Signs. I remember organizing the band’s very first concert back in the late ‘80s. I’d dressed them up in long coats and plain shirts.”
From a series of ‘firsts’ to a range of ‘many, many mores’, Frieha’s career continues to charge ahead.
“There is still so much I want to do and so many plans that I want to eventually carry out,” she professes.
Knowing Frieha, always a woman with tall plans and the strength to carry them through, the future, like her past, looks bright.
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