Tenacious designer of women’s line Bano eeMee crossed professions and borders in the pursuit of his dreams

Colourful tunics, created in Pakistan and carefully folded into a bag, became Aleem Arif’s passport into the world of Calgary fashion.

Arif — the creative talent behind Bano eeMee — fearlessly carried his tunics onto a bus and headed to Calgary’s popular shopping districts like 17th Avenue and Kensington on a mission: to sell his designs. He had just moved to Calgary, leaving his previous life working in the world of finance behind, and was determined to see his dreams come to life.

The first step in realizing his goal was to find a store that would carry his line.

“They would kick me out,” says Arif with a laugh.

Until — what Arif says was around the tenth try — he walked into Kensington’s Eleven Eleven Boutique, which is now closed. Then storeowner Lana Selbee saw Arif’s potential and welcomed the unknown designer into Calgary’s fashion community.

“I haven’t seen a lot of people that are able to do anything as quickly as he has been able to do it,” says Selbee. “I think it is because he has a very clear vision and he is just making it happen.”

Aleem Arif, designer of Bano eeMee, a clothing line comprised of leather jackets — as seen on the model — and mixed media apparel.

Photo by Sarah ComberArif, at age 31, is far more than the creative director behind Bano eeMee — a women’s line comprised of leather jackets and mixed media apparel. He is the face behind a brand that is rooted in risk and upholds a refreshing standard of ethical fashion.

Every item Arif designs something, it passes through his hands before being sold to consumers. His pieces are manufactured in Pakistan where his workers are paid fairly. No part of the lamb from where Arif sources his leather goes to waste, as the meat is a staple of the Pakistani diet.

Arif and I first met eight months ago. Since then he has shown at Western Canada Fashion Week in Edmonton this September and travelled the country to grow his brand. He also plans to showcase his work at the PARKSHOW Edmonton fashion show on Nov. 22 (http://www.ourparkonline.com) .

I sit across from Arif, I hear the murmur of conversation and clinking of cappuccino cups echoing around Marda Loop’s Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters. My eyes trace around the chic café Arif and I share with bustling businessmen, gossiping girlfriends and cozy couples.

Arif, who’s been designing his leather-focused line Bano eeMee since 2011, is wearing a tailored grey suit and exudes a quiet confidence. His kindness is captured by intelligent green eyes and an easy smile.

Arif says that his Fall/Winter 2014 line is a culmination of ideas since Bano eeMee began. His line is available at boutiques such as Something2Wear, ESPY Experience and Kismet Clothing. His jackets retail at $350-400.

“I’m going to build my company right,” says Arif. “I want to sell people something above and beyond a leather garment that they are just going to wear — I want to sell them a concept.”

This concept of ethically manufactured, easy to wear and tastefully stylish women’s clothing was conceived by a man who hails from the world of finance.

Arif (far right) was born in Saudi Arabia. He and his siblings travelled extensively growing up because of his father’s work. Arif eventually came to settle in Calgary after living in London, Boston and Islamabad.

Photo courtesy of Aleem ArifOf Pakistani descent and born in Saudi Arabia, Arif was raised between New York and Islamabad, Pakistan, where he attended high school. His father is an engineer working in oil and gas. As a result, Arif and his two siblings — a younger brother and sister — travelled extensively as they grew up. Arif’s mother stayed home to raise her children while pursuing a love of painting, fashion design and interior decorating.

Although fashion was his first love, Arif originally chose — with a little convincing from his parents — to pursue a career in finance. He majored in economics and management at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 2002 to 2005, took a year off to travel, and then, at 24, completed a master’s degree in international business at Boston University in 2007.

The Bank of New York hired him in 2007 where he worked in I.T. for three years. Despite the good salary and job security, Arif says that he felt like “there was something missing” and that he had a strong need to give back.

Arif chose to do something with his life. Taking nearly a year to travel, mainly in Europe and the Middle East, he fell in love with the colours and fabrics of Lahore, Pakistan and was inspired to create.

“I didn’t think that I was designing per se,” says Arif. “It was like, here’s fabric and I am going to hire somebody to help me make some tunics.” 
“I didn’t think that I was designing per se. It was like, here’s fabric and I am going to hire somebody to help me make some tunics.”

– Aleem Arif, Bano eeMee designer

After quitting his job in 2010, Arif’s move to Calgary was originally intended to be brief. Always good at saving money, Arif applied his business-savvy skills to take a risk and create a fresh start in a new city.

Calgary fit the bill.

Arif adds that during the ages of 26 and 27 he began to feel an internal rebellion, which gave him the motivation to move on with his life.

“I wanted to make my own mistakes, kick the stability and start over.”

And start over is exactly what he did. Little did he know that three years later he would be selling his leather jackets, blazers and mixed-media apparel to retailers in Western Canada, Quebec and Ontario.

Sandy Tam, one of Arif’s managers at the Bank of New York, says she never imagined Arif would end up in fashion.

“He did a complete 180, usually we stick to our own industry,” says Tam. “But opportunities do come up and I think a part of him always wanted to be an entrepreneur.”

Tam adds that when the office had days when the employees were required to dress up more than the usual business-casual, Arif would be the only team member sporting a bow tie instead of a traditional Half-Windsor.

“He was kind of geek-chic, not very flashy. But he would wear the bowties and there was a side of him that was fashionable.”

Today, Arif creates bow ties made out of leftover pieces of leather — he says he often gives them away as thank-you gifts.

However, for Arif, growing to his current success was no cakewalk.

When he first moved to Calgary, he applied to banking jobs similar to the type of work he had done in America — a pursuit he says his heart was not invested in.

“I was like, then why did I quit my job? I didn’t want to end up doing that.”

And there he spied them, tucked away in his suitcase.

Arif’s mother has been an inspiration to him in his development of the line. He even named part of the line in honour of her. “Bano” is the pet name his Grandmother called his mother and “eeMee” is what Arif’s mother lovingly called him.

Photo courtesy of Aleem ArifThe tunics he had made during his travels. All of which would eventually sell — except one, which to this day Arif has saved hanging in his closet. His first creation was an amalgamation of some red silk Arif found in his mother’s storage and an old table lamp he had loved growing up.

“If I look at it now I think ‘What was I doing?’ Not that I think I have arrived — you are always growing and always improving — but I feel like I was so green at that time.”

Although he faced rejection, his perseverance paid off.

Since their first encounter when Arif presented his tunics in her boutique, Selbee says that it has been really exciting for her to watch Arif grow.

This past summer, Arif re-lived a similar experience. He traveled to Toronto and Montreal with the intention of getting his line picked up by retailers out east.

Drawing upon the same determination that first got his designs into Eleven Eleven Boutique, Arif drove around each city in his rental car — scouting out shops. Spotting one, he would struggle to find parking and wheel his samples in one hand while in the other he used his smart phone to Google each boutique.

Entering the stores, all smiles and samples, Aleem successfully placed orders in three Toronto boutiques and four in Montreal.

Arif says that he has always wanted to design for women because there is more room to be creative and try new things. He adds his mother and grandmother inspire his creative style.

Additionally, working with leather is an extension of Arif’s desire to be different — he chose a fabric that would be versatile and the foundation of quality, while also pushing his creative limits.

“What I didn’t know would happen was how challenging it would be from one season to the next to reinvent that fabric because I can’t play with patterns or print,” says Arif. 

Arif primarily uses lamb leather sourced in Pakistan.

“I make sure the chemicals that are used are safe and that it is treated right. I have to respect the product because it is a byproduct of our lives.”

“This is what I want Bano eeMee to be,” says Arif. Adding that when he started, he had no plan because the majority of his life he had never had to plan.

“What I didn’t know would happen was how challenging it would be from one season to the next to reinvent that fabric because I can’t play with patterns or print.”

– Aleem Arif, Bano eeMee designerHowever, now he revels in living a life devoid of structure. Arif didn’t even create a business plan for his company.

“Maybe my business would be better if I had a system, but I am driven by passion and energy. If I see something that needs to be done, I just do it,” says Arif.

Arif takes two months out of the year to gather inspiration for his designs. A trip to Paris influenced his Winter 2014 collection.

Arif adds that when he travels to a new city he needs to orient himself by finding which direction points north.

“I need to know where I am at and the same goes for my jackets,” says Arif. “There is a lot of attention to detail like, why is this piece going here? Why can’t I put it somewhere else? It’s like a puzzle and you put it together and it needs to make sense.”

Arif works out of his home in Southwest Calgary — where I had an up-close-and-personal peak at his Fall/Winter 2014 line.

The collection was hanging on a clothing rack to the right of a large, contemporary fireplace. It featured colours like deep green, cognac, navy and black. Geometric patterns in leather on wool applique beautifully trace their way along the top panel of Arif’s trench coats. The design creates a look similar to a fleur-de-lis, but Arif says the shape is also reminiscent of a hamsa — a reflection of the line’s global inspiration.

Arif has also created samples for his Spring 2015 collection, which is influenced by the global sport trend. This collection features dove grey, lemon yellow, cognac and black leather jackets with unique mesh ribbing and hole-punched leather.

Aldona Barutowicz, a Calgary freelance stylist, writer and photographer, says she loves how Arif’s line is growing bolder because it is a reflection of how bold his story is.

“I think it’s incredible that he was able to take his passion and make it a reality. It takes a strong human to be able to do that and to keep trucking, because it is not easy,” says Barutowicz. “I think it’s incredible that he was able to take his passion and make it a reality. It takes a strong human to be able to do that and to keep trucking, because it is not easy.”

– Aldona Barutowicz, Calgary freelance stylist

Arif adds that now he has established his business, the company has needs that have to be fulfilled.

“I have to make money to continue what I do. So now it is getting serious and that is the boring side of it, but it is an important side.”

Arif says that he knows where his materials are coming from and who is working on his pieces. He knows all of his employees by their first name.

“It’s connecting with my culture, giving back and producing fashion. It all comes together.”

Arif adds that he has responsibilities to his manufacturers as well.

“I might just manufacture a few hundred jackets while big companies manufacture thousands, but those people are looking forward to making those jackets for me,” says Arif.

Katrina Olson-Mottahed, a Calgary based artist, traveled with Arif to Paris.

Olson-Mottahed says that Arif creates wearable, classic pieces. She adds that his business background is what will help make him successful.

Arif and friend, Katrina Olson-Mottahed, travelled to Paris together to help Arif find inspiration for his Fall/Winter 2014 line. Arif was inspired by the architecture of the city and how the light hit the buildings differently.

Photo courtesy of Aleem Arif“He focuses on his consumer and what works for women. He is concerned about fit, which a lot of designers are not,” says Olson-Mottahed. “Which is especially difficult as a man designing for women.”

Arif has also been planning to launch a men’s leather jacket line. After a trip to Las Vegas this summer to take part in PROJECT — a wholesaling convention — Arif connected with Mike Tyson’s manager and boxer Floyd Mayweather. He is designing jackets for the two athletes.

“It’s a cool way to launch my men’s line,” says Arif.

Olson-Mottahed adds that she hopes Arif continues going after his creativity, “I think he is successful when he does that and I hope to see him carried in a wide variety of retailers.”

“I can see Aleem becoming a household name,” says Selbee. “Short term, I can see Aleem being carried in prestigious stores across Canada for sure.”

“I have my doubts everyday,” says Arif with a laugh, adding that he is still in touch with his old co-workers in Boston and has seen them buy property, get married and start families.

“I could have done that, or I could be who I am right now. I get to be creative and I get to have fun with what I do, that is what my life is.”

scomber@cjournal.ca 

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