In the world of creativity and conscious living, Faiza Ahmed is recognised as a multi-faceted luminary, embodying the roles of an artist, fashion activist and a vegan chef.
Rubaba Dowla, Country Managing Director at Oracle for Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, was first introduced to Faiza Ahmed’s work through her best friend. It was a gift – a stunning white cotton shari.
When she took a closer look, Rubaba saw that the entire shari featured an excerpt from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore; they looked like calligraphy.
“I was really intrigued by it. What a beautiful concept it was!” she fondly recalled while speaking at Atma Bala, Faiza Ahmed’s first stand-alone fashion show, which took place at Dhaka Gallery on the evening of 13 October 2023.
It was not merely the allure of unique sharis and dresses that enchanted Rubaba when she first visited Manas. It was the philosophy underpinning Faiza’s work, which stands against the frenetic pace of the modern world in favour of a devotion to people, culture and environment, that drew Rubaba in further.
Faiza’s commitment to nurturing a lifestyle, rather a culture that harmonises with the world’s relentless tempo, left an indelible mark on Rubaba. Architect Mustafa Khalid, founder of Dhaka Gallery, shared similar sentiments at Atma Bala, praising every facet of Faiza’s work as a testament to a higher purpose. He pointed out the minimalism woven into every element of the event – from the music to food to the colours and lighting. “What sets Faiza apart is her incorporation of this philosophy into every aspect of her life,” he said.
One such facet is Faiza’s culinary endeavour, Shanchayita – a vegan kitchen where “compassionate flavours dance harmoniously with philanthropy.”
Mustafa Khalid said she extends the boundaries of her philosophy, striving to cultivate a consciousness of veganism, while allowing people to indulge their palates in delectable experiences.
In a recent interview with The Business Standard, Faiza said, “I connect with the right people through my philosophical standing for a sustainable lifestyle, and not being in a market-driven race. Most people follow the mass trend, yes. But they still have the subconscious urge to lead a more authentic life.”
A subculture focusing on sustainability and resilience
In the world of creativity and conscious living, Faiza Ahmed is recognised as a multi-faceted luminary, embodying the roles of an artist, fashion activist and a vegan chef. Her journey began in 2013 with the establishment of Manas, a fashion brand that aims to pay homage to craftsmanship and cultural fusion.
Her creative endeavours are woven with threads of sustainability and embracing life’s challenges.
She shared, “My art and designs focus on sustainability and draw parallels between womanhood and nature by celebrating the latter in its most intimate aspects.” Her focus is on contributing to society for a meaningful cause, rather than seeking fame.
From the beginning of Manas till date, she has held onto a steadfast ethos – refusing to work with imported fabrics due to carbon emission and the ecological toll often associated with fashion.
She said, “I am aware of how fashion is prone to carbon emission and what kind of devastating impact it can have on the climate. These are the things I always keep in mind while designing clothes.”
“I know my limitations. I know I can’t do everything. For example, I can’t possibly save the entire khadi industry alone. And if I dream of something that big – of changing everything on my own – I wouldn’t be able to contribute anything,” she added.
So, Faiza carries out her mission on a very small-scale, personal level. Most fabrics she uses at Manas are hand-loomed, sourced locally from artisans from Kushtia, Panchagarh, Tangail, Demra, Cumilla or Chattogram Hill Tracts.
Her commitment to ethical practices extends to collaborating with NGOs that promote local artisans, ensuring a holistic approach to her endeavours.
Cultural roots, entrepreneurial awakening and the genesis of Manas
Faiza was a student of Fine Arts at Dhaka University. She started working as a product designer in 2003 for a European Union project, a stepping stone that eventually led her to become an interior designer.
When we asked her about the inspiration behind founding Manas, she said, “I noticed many young people didn’t know Rabindranath, Michael Madhusudan Dutt or Jasimuddin. What was more perplexing was that they were proud of it.”
She added, “I didn’t understand why love for Western culture had to mean not knowing your own roots. I’m a Beatles fan, but I also love Rabindranath.”
It was this cultural shift that spurred her creative vision. Faiza also observed a growing trend – young concert-goers in T-shirts bearing the logos of Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd or Nirvana. This juxtaposition of cultures also inspired her. Another inspiration came from her profession. As an interior designer, Faiza started contributing to various magazines as a lifestyle features writer. But she grew frustrated when she noticed the written word was waning, replaced by visuals, as publications clamoured for more images than words.
She also noticed a growing apathy toward sustainability in interior design. Clients sought the trends of the moment, leaving little room for sustainable practices.
In response to these evolving cultural currents, Faiza’s vision crystallised. “I wanted to create a fusion of these two, I wanted to incorporate my love for literature and nature in my work,” she reflected.
“I wanted to design sharis made from hand-loomed fabrics and inscribe the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, as well as popular lyrics by Beatles, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd and others.”
Manas became the embodiment of that desire. The beginning of her career as a fashion designer was modest – a few sharis crafted for her own wardrobe. The turning point, however, was the day she wore a hand-loomed cotton shari designed with Guns N’ Roses lyrics to a concert. Her friends and onlookers were enchanted.
Many, including her friends and other young girls, started asking her if she could also design sharis for them. Soon she started Manas, opening an outlet in Banani after two years of toying with the idea of launching a fashion brand.
“When I started thinking about founding Manas in 2011, all I thought about was that I wanted to retain my culture. But I also wanted to incorporate other cultures in my designs.”
A collective odyssey towards a more sustainable, compassionate future
Faiza’s philosophy emphasises the virtue of “slow and steady”. She perceives her mission as a gradual and purposeful journey that cannot be rushed.
“When I want to contribute to society, I know I can’t do it overnight. If I want to go fast and grow fast, I’d have to do that by stamping on others, which I refuse to do.”
The cornerstone of her mission is thus nurturing relationships with artisans she collaborates with, ensuring a gentle, meaningful and inclusive path forward.
She added, “What I care about the most is that I can go forward while caring about the people whom I work with – especially the artisans. So this slow pace, this slow growth, is included in my plan. I know I don’t want to be part of this rat race of success. I don’t mind going slow if that means that I’d get fewer people along on this journey.”
Faiza’s creative palette spans a spectrum of eco-friendly techniques, from blocks and hand-print designs to recycled fabrics, khadis and hand-loomed cotton.
While talking about her commitment to the environment, she said, “I can’t claim that my work doesn’t harm the environment at all. I can’t work with vegetable dye or natural dye all the time; it’s not feasible. But I try to do my best to not leave too much carbon footprint or environmental damage. This is how I make sure that Manas maintains sustainability.”
Reviving our lost culture through Manas
One of the biggest inspirations for Faiza’s work is the legacy of Bangladesh’s Liberation War heroes.
She said, “Our heroes could win the war by wearing lungis and sharis only because they all became one – with vision, dreams, and passion.”
She believes that similar to this, if the philosophy of Manas touches people, then large-scale change will come. She looks forward to a day when “muslin, khadi or Monipuri clothes are no longer museum products but lifestyle products.”
“People used to wear hand-loomed sharis and dresses all the time. They used to wear jamdanis and benarashis for weddings. But these have become obsolete now; we rarely wear them,” she said, adding, “I want to bring these forgotten parts of our culture back to our mainstream lifestyle. This is what I dream of accomplishing through Manas.”