SEATED IN the front row of fashion week among a sea of glitterati at the Four Seasons grand ballroom in Central, she cuts a striking figure. Tall, slim, with a confident strut, she isn't chased by the tabloid photographers, nor zoomed in on for a close-up by Chinese television. Back home, it's a different story.
As she walked the ramp for a slew of Pakistani designers this past season, after a long hiatus from modelling, Aliya Zaidi, 37, was featured in every fashion magazine in the region and headlined for designers Nilofar Shahid, Kamiar Rokni, Rehana Saigal and Ammar Belal. None too shabby for a mother-of-two who thought her days of pausing and pirouetting at the end of a ramp were long gone.
'No, I wasn't nervous,' she says tossing back tresses that have been similarly tossed for a Pantene ad. 'I've done so many shows, there's excitement and thrill in the air, but that doesn't translate to nervousness or fear. Tripping on the runway is not a concern - walking down the steps on Wellington Street with five-inch heels is far more dangerous - I know, I fell and fractured my tailbone there!'
Karachi-born Zaidi modelled as a hobby while juggling her MBA program. 'I was 18, in college and approached to walk for a fashion show,' she recalls. 'I worked with the top makeup stylist and after that it was a series of shoots and shows for years. It was tough to manage working towards my MBA and modelling at the same time, but fashion became my passion and I always found time to fit it in.'
With full support from her conservative, yet progressive parents there was no hysterical reaction at home. 'My parents were proud of my success,' she says.
It paid off as accolades followed. 'I was named the Number One Supermodel in the country [in the late '90s] after an industry survey and my parents loved to tell their friends in delight. Even now, not a day goes by when I don't miss them.'
What she doesn't miss is the politics and hours standing around. 'I started at 18 but by 25, I wasn't so enamoured by the whole scene. I moved to New York and started focusing on my corporate career in technology. Working long hours at the office and rushing home to start dinner left no time for pursuing my previous career. Perhaps I had also burnt out with the crazy hours - it was less stressful to focus on my 9-7 job at the time.'
While she currently lives in Hong Kong, she sees progress being made in her home country. 'Pakistan is extremely modern - you would be surprised what the well-heeled wear at soirees in Karachi and Lahore, no different from other fashion centers in the world,' says Zaidi, who even did an occasional stint on the catwalks of Mumbai (aka Bollywood). 'It is very common to spot women in Cavalli or Chanel. Even though the majority don the traditional three-piece outfit, many have incorporated western wear in their closets.'
Pakistan's third fashion week was held earlier this year.