If you told Asheema Razak this time last year that she’d have her own collection showing at Paris Fashion Week, she would’ve told you to keep dreaming.
But since launching her own label, Ashaalia in March 2023, the Melbournian has done just that – recently showcasing eight distinct, eye-catching pieces in the French capital.
“It's definitely not something I anticipated in my first year,” Razak tells Draw Your Box. “I feel like some days I have to pinch myself when I think about the things we've achieved in a short amount of time as a brand and [especially] not being from this industry.”
After working in the pharmaceutical landscape for two decades, Razak made the big career switch earlier this year after noticing not only a gap in the market for stylish generational wear, but a gap in her own personal wardrobe.
“You're often staring at your wardrobe and thinking, ‘I've got all these clothes and you still don't know what to wear’.
“Ashaalia was created in my head for a very long time as a woman desperately still trying to find pieces to wear in her wardrobe and wasn’t finding things that connected or resonated with me.”
Born in Fiji with Indian and Pakistani heritage, Razak soon moved to New Zealand with her family, before relocating to Australia 13 years ago. As a South Asian woman, she grew up seeing her mother wearing exquisite saris that dripped in jewels, gems and delicate beaded detail. She soon realised that the intricate handiwork of these traditional garments could be applied in the creation of more western-style clothing, allowing women to channel the same elegance and charm in a contemporary way.
“My Indian background was something that was important to me, and maybe became more important to me as I grew older versus when I was younger,” says Razak. “I'm sure every Indian girl growing up has seen their mum get dressed up in beautiful saris, salwar kameez and ghagra cholis and then you’re going to a wedding or function.
“But the problem was the following weekend, you'd have another wedding or an event and you couldn't wear the same one because everyone saw you in that purple sari,” she laughs, “and then you have to find something new.”
Starting Ashaalia wasn’t just about being stylish, it was about sustainability and the creation of what Razak calls “generational wear”.
“I just thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great if there was a way that I could repurpose on modern clothing?’ I'm not going to Indian events as such… but I want to be able to do it in a way that is still authentic to me, by having the beading on modern western clothing.”
While it felt “like a waste and a shame” that many of her mum’s traditional outfits wouldn’t be worn again, Razak was adamant that there was a way to create clothing that symbolises nostalgia and culture, that can be passed down to future generations.
Razak hopes the pieces she’s created will one day be worn by her daughter when she’s older. “She might change it, or make them different. But the point is that it's something I can pass down over time,” she explains. “So there's generational wear from that perspective. But also, it's ageless and timeless. It's a classic so a woman in her 40s can wear it, a woman in her 30s can wear it, and a woman in her 20s can wear it because you wear it your way.”
This versatility in Razak’s label is demonstrated through what’s mainly a collection of blazers, crop tops, skirts and trousers that are lined in silk and embellished with hand-crafted bold, glitzy beading that draw attention to the shoulders, bodices and necklines.
“When you wear an Ashaalia jacket, you don't need to accessorise. I’m wearing this with denim and heels and just a bodysuit under here,” says the designer, who’s sporting the popular Onyx Black Sitara Jacket during this interview. “To glam it up, I can [pair it with] a sexy black dress for a night out,” she adds.
“I think about how many ways can you wear it. So then you actually go for the Ashaalia piece every time, because it not only brings you joy, but it gives you versatility that your current wardrobe is potentially lacking.”
Circling back to Paris Fashion Week, Razak says the opportunity to showcase Ashaalia at a runway show that was featuring several independent labels was one that took her by surprise, but certainly not one she could pass on. After being approached by an overseas PR firm handling international publicity for the brand, Razak quickly prepared for eight signature looks to be paraded down the catwalk.
“It dawned on me when I started telling people and they were like, ‘Oh my God’, and I thought, ‘You're right, this is a big deal. Oh my god!’” she recalls. “I did say to them [the PR firm], ‘Are you sure we're ready?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Looking closer to home, Razak says it would be helpful to see the local fashion industry “setting up more steps to help new designers in Australia to get to those platforms earlier”. Appearing at a prestigious, national fashion week show requires money, connections and time – many of which smaller, independent brands don’t necessarily have from the get go. As for showing at Australian Fashion Week, this is definitely on her radar for 2024.
“Hopefully if we get everything aligned, we'll be able to do it or otherwise maybe the year after,” she says. “I'd definitely love to be able to show in Australia and do a runway show for Ashaalia. So watch this space.”