This Pakistani label merges traditional craft with streetwear

From hoodies featuring Urdu to upcycled jackets, Rastah is a South Asian streetwear movement.

by Meera Navlakha
29 April 2020, 4:05am

Consider streetwear labels and, chances are, South Asian brands will not be the first to come to mind. But this may not be for long. Pakistan-based Rastah is just one brand pioneering the harmony of traditional and contemporary design from South Asia. A synthesis of Pakistani craftsmanship and streetwear, the fashion house is maverick-like, occupying a niche space on the shelf of urban design. In Urdu 'rastah' means path or journey, the perfect descriptor when it comes to the culturally rich designs at hand. It also hints at how the label came to be. The brainchild of Zain Ahmad, Ismail Ahmad, and Adnan Ahmad, Rastah was launched in 2018 — a happy consequence from a path none of the founders originally intended to go down.

“We really just did it from the heart,” Zain, Rastah’s creative director, says. “It started off almost casually, but then we gained some traction. We didn’t expect that.” Nearly two years later, nothing is casual about Rastah. It is as forward-thinking as the founders themselves, who proclaim on their website that the brand is less about nostalgia than it is about reinterpretation. Each collection is designed, sourced, and created in Pakistan.

When it comes to the design process, Zain often goes to markets and surrounding villages near Lahore to conduct research — which is how he met the artisans he works with today. What truly sets Rastah apart is the label’s work with local artisans and block-printers. In what is an intimately collaborative process, Rastah’s team joins forces with artisans from across Pakistan, whose families have been familiar with these arts for generations. Aslam Mirza, a block-printer, is one such person. He and Zain share their skills, with Zain putting his artistic vision forward and Aslam providing his cultivated skills. “We learn from them, they learn from us. The artisans and printers have the technical expertise and the rawest, purest form of artisanship. So their share of skills is very present in the work,” Zain says. “Their inspiration doesn’t come from social media or the internet. It hasn’t ever been tampered with.”

Prior to working with Rastah, Aslam and the other craftsman would never have imagined their work would be catapulted to fashion. This has paved a path most artisans do not take. “Artisanship in Pakistan is viewed in a very myopic way. For example, a block printer in Gujarat would be confined to making bedsheets. You wouldn’t be able to enter the fashion industry, making beautiful clothes that speak to a wider audience. We’re shifting this path.”

As with other regions in South Asia, local artists in Pakistan can be exposed to exploitation. Some are paid inadequate wages and are given little share of profit for their efforts. Aware of these circumstances, Rastah’s founders have made it a fundamental part of their business model to give their craftsman fair treatment for their art. As the coronavirus pandemic has held up factory production globally, Rastah has also made sure to support its workers, through distributing ration packages to them and their families. “We want to take care of the people who have helped us to make the pieces our audience has come to know and love.”

Rastah’s pride in Pakistani culture is certainly pervasive. This is evident in the authenticity of its designs. Rather than simply complying, the brand and its founders are renegotiating the idea of streetwear. The fusion of East and West comes forth naturally. “There are not many of us [South Asian streewear] brands at all,” Zain agrees.

The label’s most recent line was its most anticipated to date, exemplifying Rastah’s commitment to redefining the artistic persona so closely associated with Pakistan. It takes only a glance to notice the meticulous thought that goes into blending Eastern and Western influences. There are mirror-work patches of fabric superimposed on oversized sweatshirts and the brand’s name printed in delicate Urdu letters on others. Then there are denim jackets, hoodies, and joggers: each piece adorned with Mughal-era paintings or block-print designs that find their roots in Pakistani craft. “The prints are definitely not laid out in a way you would see in traditional fashion. Instead, we incorporated those designs into a typical grunge, streetwear aesthetic,” says Zain. The creative director and his team also experiment with new avenues of sustainability, placing leftover and upcycled fabrics into handwoven jackets.

The label is developing a cult-like following from South Asians globally, as well as from an expanding Western and Middle Eastern audience. Members of the South Asian diaspora, in particular, have flocked to Rastah’s creations. “I think they can find solace in it,” Zain says. “Representing a country’s culture is an educational process, and a lot of clients who belong to the diaspora find [our designs] to be empowering.”

The brand’s resolute intention is to shift what Pakistani design is often confined to, by applying traditional artisan aesthetics, fabrics, and techniques to Western silhouettes. “For too long, Pakistan has been viewed as a cog in the global supply chain, and nothing more. We have never been at the forefront of fashion,” Zain says. “This is about changing the narrative and taking things into our own hands. And we want to be unapologetic about it.”

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