As the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold in Pakistan, much like the population, businesses are going in retreat, curling up in a corner and trying to brave out this unexpected storm. Things were bad as it was, and there were only moments of hope and small glimmers of businesses fighting back and trying their best in an otherwise faltering economy.
Even before Covid-19 has reached its peak globally, signs of the most major recession in a century are setting in. The worst hit have been retailers, with exports halted, stores shut down and online delivery systems in disarray. Small businesses will shut down, there will be mass unemployment, and empires will crumble.
In the middle of it all, the only businesses that have a chance at making it through without complete destruction are the ones that will keep calm, keep their eye on the ball, and see this time through with as much poise and grace as possible.
One retail brand mulling these questions is So Kamal, the trailblazing fashion company that has made its presence felt in Pakistan’s constantly burgeoning lawn and clothing market. Had the current pandemic not reared its ugly head, So Kamal and its competitors such as Gul Ahmed, Sapphire, AlKaram Studio and others would have been heading into an ugly battle of competitive winter clearance sales and new prints hitting their stores for the summer season. And even if the fear of illness had not deterred those hunting for the best lawn deals, the fact that all stores are closed now will mean eerie silence.
No videos of customers jostling and pushing to get three piece suits and queues outside Sapphire stores will just be another small way that the world will be different this year. And while there should be little doubt that eventually things will return to normal, one wonders just how debilitating this virus will be.
Will the same brands still be around by next summer if the virus is gone by then? More importantly, even if the brands are still around, will there be the same demand? Or will we see a slow death in what was until last year a significant assertion of local women’s fashion interests?
Profit sat down with So Kamal’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Erum Ahmad, to talk fashion, the retails market, the future, and how the brand is planning on staying afloat during this pandemic, and what silverlinnings they are possibly looking at.
A Chinioti story – sort of
“I feel this season, we will see more tailored silhouettes and pleats with lots of volume. In prints, I foresee a dominating movement towards lured florals and ombre designs,” Erum Ahmad tells us. For her, it is all about the fashion, and she speaks as if the season is still alive. “Our fashion research department has worked very closely with the design team to create very unique fabrics weaves and finishes this season.”
For Erum Ahmad, she is still thinking about business. Things may be bad now, but her philosophy remains the same, think about fashion and you will end up selling clothes. Already, she is thinking about how to ramp up after all this is through and using this time to increase So Kamal’s online shopping presence.
The bug for business is a matter of blood and soil for the So Kamal CEO. She is the daughter of the late Sheikh Ejaz Ahmad, who was a Senator during the Zia Administration in the mid-1980s, and one of the leading textile mill owners in Karachi. He was one of the leading members of the Chinnioti business community that has over the years come to have an unusually large presence and impact on business, particularly in Karachi.
Back in 2017, Profit’s first business editor and a giant of the English press, the late Agha Akbar, had chronicled the rise of the Chinnioti Sheikhs in a masterful feature that is still worth reading today.
And while Erum grew up a product of Karachi, she carries the Chinnioti tradition proudly, and was married at age 18 to Ahmad Kamal, another Chinnioti businessman and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Kamal Ltd, one of the oldest textile vertical industries, and the last business group’s to be featured in Profit’s 2017 feature. By Karachi upper-class standards, she married early, but well within the norm for the Chinnioti community.
During the first two decades of her marriage with a leading textile miller, she completely devoted her time for her children at their Faisalabad home. But that never stopped her from pursuing other interests, and she studied interior design from Rhodec International along and continued to keep up with the world of fashion and textile design. Soon after the kids were grown up, she joined her husband’s business, and within a few years established herself as the head of a successful design house.
It was after three years working on international markets that Erum made the move to bring the Kamal group into retail, which materialised in So Kamal in 2012, which is now a significant fashion retailer in the country.
Kamal Ltd is a vertically integrated textile company, with in-house spinning, weaving, processing, printing, finishing and stitching facilities. They initiated their first domestic initiative with the now critically acclaimed Kamal lawn by Elan, followed by Kamal Lawn by Zara Shahjahan in 2013. This was followed by the introduction of So Kamal-their first retail space, A lifestyle store located at 10Q (flagship) in Lahore.
In a few years time, Erum managed to expand So Kamal to 30 outlets nationwide. 11 in Lahore, two in Islamabad, two in Rawalpindi, two in Faisalabad and one each in Multan, Shahkot, Rahim Yar Khan, Sargodha, Swat, Sahiwal, Hyderabad, Muzaffarabad, Okara, Mardan, Azad Kashmir and Sialkot.
The story is a fascinating one, especially given that the Kamal group delving into fashion retail was initially seen as an against the grain decision. As previously mentioned, it is a Chinnioti empire, started by the grandfather of Ahmad Kamal when he returned to Lahore from Calcutta after Partition in 1947.
While the company has in the past taken different turns, such as switching to the chemical side, they have always come back to textile exports and are one of the oldest vertical textile concerns, with operations related to textile starting from spinning, weaving, printing, processing, home textile, garment manufacturing, socks manufacturing and retail.
In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, Kamal Ltd was the 32nd largest exporter of Pakistan with exports worth $92 million. But more importantly, they were still going ahead with their expansion of So Kamal, and thinking about how to make this side of the business bigger and better.
Right before the current Covid-19 pandemic, Erum was already thinking about how to dominate this season in summer and spring, and to ramp up So Kamal’s online retail game to attract much needed online clientele with changing times and business realities. But with the pandemic in full swing globally and just getting started off in Pakistan, So Kamal finds itself in retreat instead of on the charge, along with all of its competitors. But what can they do to stay ahead?
“As an organisation, we have had to take some unfortunate measures, the first of these has been tightening our belts and hoping for the best for the country and the world at large,” Erum tells us. “However we are still trying to develop new ways to serve our customers without compromising on our employees’ safety and well-being.”
This is clearly as bad a time as any for anything, but retail is being hit particularly bad across the country. In a situation like this, the priority should be to take care of one’s workforce, particularly those daily labourers that are most affected. Because once this is through, businesses will still need people around to help them get back on their feet, and a devastated workforce will not be able to do the needful.
As individuals, as organisations, as a nation, we will all have a story to tell about how we presented ourselves in this almost primitive moment of raw humanness. We will all want to be proud of how we behaved, and it will be a worse world if we come out of it ashamed. On the front of it, Erum Ahmed seems to agree.
“It’s important for us to stay united and take care of each other during this challenging phase. We can only hope for the best at this hour,” she says. One can only hope the same kind of ethos is present in the rest of the business community, and that the weakest segments of society are looked after as they need to be.
But despite this message and feeling of responsibility, So Kamal does not have any scruples about just how dire things are going to get. She knows that the impact of Covid-19 on Pakistan as a whole and especially the textile sector and retail market will be massive. And as she confesses, the longer it continues, the bigger the impact will be, including losses, small businesses completely closing and people losing their jobs.
“While businesses can step up and do everything possible to take care of their people, we are also looking at the government for support like other governments around the world have done for their industries,” she hinted. The government, however, is busy, or at least should be. And the scary reality may just be that businesses are on their own.
The world has essentially been stopped in its tracks. Along with it, so have Erum’s plans for So Kamal and for the larger direction of the historic Kamal group. If this feature were being filed even a month ago, it would be about a major textile industry as old as the country investing in and paying considerable attention to a fashion retail business set up less than a decade ago. It would be about an ambitious woman making her mark in the world of business, and about her aggressive plans for expansion.
Instead, we are in a position where we can discuss little more than how these unexpected times we are living through will affect all of us and the things we hold so dear. But whether it is hopeful or naive, Erum still seems to hold that So Kamal will still expand the way it was always meant to in her eyes.
And the most important part in this for So Kamal is to first and foremost place an aggressive approach not only when it comes to opening more retail outlets, but also developing and strengthening their online sales platform.
“While it’s great to be physically present for customers to see the products, online sales gives you the edge of reaching clients that want to shop from the comfort of their homes due to different reasons,” Erum says. “And you can see just how important it is now more than ever. Currently, brands across industries are almost entirely keeping their heads above the water because of their online sales platform.”
In addition to wanting to open more outlets in the south region, around five more in the next couple of years, she said that her true passion right now was to make So Kamal the leader in online services. “Our plans have not changed at all, in fact, we have just learned that this is even more necessary” she says.
She is not wrong, even in a best case scenario where we are in a position to exit lockdown in a couple of months time (a magical, wonderful, brilliant hope), it is becoming clear that life as we knew it will not continue as it did before this time. We will still need to be careful, and distancing will be the way to go for long after any hope of measures being eased, not even lifted. If brands like So Kamal are to survive, online will have to be the way to go. Especially if this is one of those moments, and it very well could be, where the nature of the world as we know it is at a liminal stage.
When asked how they are strengthening online sales operations and what procedures are being adopted, Erum said that they have developed a very strong e-commerce team over the years.
“Our aim is to make more and more customers use the online services by offering them perks and making the interface as user friendly as possible,” she claimed. “We are also investing in training of our staff, development of a simple and efficient interface and automation.”
“All the major retail brands abroad have shut down as of today. On top of that not only it is difficult for businesses to carry on business as usual, governments have also imposed bans or export controls on exports,” she noted.
When asked what the future of the fashion retail market is, the leading fashion retailer said that no one can exactly predict the future but we can say that by definition, it’s always changing.
“It’s an industry that needs to keep moving to survive. Collections come and go with the seasons, bringing with them a fresh wave of trends that may lose their allure by the coming year,” Erum said.
She said that some of the trends every brand is adopting globally are digital fashion collections, experiential retail, 3D printed garments, trend-predicting AI, robots, and an ever-growing awareness towards social and environmental issues. The fashion industry is changing fast. What seems a good sign for So Kamal is that they want to change with it, and just that may put them in a good position.
Why So Kamal?
Erum is clearly proud of her brand, but there are some very specific reasons why she thinks So Kamal will beat out its competition and own the fashion retail market in Pakistan, perhaps making it a bigger cashcow than the Kamal group’s export oriented production. And with the economy crippled globally, and weak for a long time to come, focusing on domestic retail coming out of this might not be the worst idea in the world. She also thinks that So Kamal has an edge over Sapphire, Gul Ahmed, AlKaram Studio and others because of their “design policy, experience and vertical integration.”
“Our products are almost instantly recognisable and different from all other brands in the market. We have been in the market for a few years now and we would like to consider ourselves as trend setters, particularly when it comes to textile designer partnerships that were very popular a few years back,” she says. “Our vertical integration – unlike most brands, we have an edge with our vertical integration capability,” Erum stated.
“Better online sales service, competitive pricing and streamlining of our vertical integrated supply chain which enables us to control the entire process from raw cotton till the stitching of the final product, offering the best quality of fabrics to our customers.”
Every department at So Kamal is continuously improving its efficiency and reducing overheads on a daily basis she claims. “Some of the measures that we are taking include but are not limited to enhancing online sales focus on both new customer acquisition and old customer retention and implementation of a more automated retail system.”