The effortless elegance of Italian fashion and design

By Afshan Shahid

“I could have been a ballerina.”

My tall, slim  daughter, a Smart City consultant, calls me from London  to let me know her routine medical check went really well. She is fit in every sense, her bones are strong and her core muscles are flexible, she reassures me. 

“Mummy I could have been a ballerina,” she adds accusingly.

I’m not surprised with her medical results because she is regular gym goer and careful with her food. But her remark about her dream profession  takes me aback —she still remembers, I think.

A villa in Rome

Twenty six years ago,  I had asked her what she would like to be when she grows up . She replied almost immediately, and with a strong conviction, “a ballerina”. My chubby four year old  was playing in the courtyard in our home in Rome, lining up her Barbies against her dolls’ house  to wage war on her brother Omar’s Power Rangers and whatnots.

We were living in an old villa overlooking a valley which was the route known to have be taken by Napoleon and his army when they invaded Rome in 1792. Located just off Via Cassia, a  main road that leads North from the city, it was an ideal location overlooking the countryside and just minutes from the city.

I was busy stenciling  grape vines on  the uneven dinning room wall  — a converted  verandah. The huge wooden shutters opened onto the courtyard, where brother and sister were playing under the cool shade of the pine nut tree.

Listening  to the sound of the breeze through the pine needles, I paused  to think. How could I answer her without being discouraging? Not knowing what to say, I made an excuse about her physique not being quite right for that profession.

Professions in Art Forms & Cultural Activities

In fact dancing is not even considered a profession in our culture or our family. Pakistani culture is a melting pot of Indian, Persian, Afghan, Central Asian, South Asian and Western Asian influences. It dates back more than 5000 years. While literature, notably poetry, is the richest of all Pakistani art forms, music and dance have received very little attention.

My daughter was obsessed with ballet for quite a few years afterwards. I didn’t encourage her or discourage her and she grew out of the obsession in her own time. But when I think back to my response, I realize that although family influence on career choice is strong in our Pakistani culture, we were bringing up our children in a different environment and the culture in Europe, though different, was  just as rich as ours.  

Italy is one of the birthplaces of western civilization and a cultural superpower. The famous elements of Italian culture are its art, music, style, and iconic cuisine. Italy introduced opera to the world before exporting it to France. Ballet also originated  here. I am sure being a ballet dancer would have been a prestigious profession in Italy if she had chosen it at the time.

Even though I can only sfiorare (touch very lightly) on the  culture of Italy,  I know that it had a big influence on my daughter’s final career choice. In fact, on winning a scholarship from her university in the UK, she chose  to go to Politecnico di Milano, the most outstanding technical universities in Europe, and the largest Italian university in engineering, architecture and design. We, my husband and I, just had  to go and visit her there.

Me and my daughter
Me with my daughter, the Smart City consultant

Milan, the center of design

Italy is one of my favorite destinations in the world. Not only is it bel paese (a beautiful country) its just an open-air museum, around every corner there is  something of historical significance. There is no end to the things we can do there. Walking around the familiar city streets in Milan brings a wave of nostalgia.

”Remember I went into this shop to buy silk for the lining of my fur coat, and you stood outside eating gellato with the kids,” I  reminisce with a smile to my husband.

Shahid and the kids

I had spent hours in Tessuti Raponi Sas just off Piazza Monte Titano. There was an endless variety of fabric to chose from, different textures, prints, and colors. I had designed a jet black faux fur coat with deep red pure silk lining for a fashion design course I had taken in Rome. This was the best place to buy the red silk I needed.

Italy is the ideal place to do a course in design. At the time I was determined to learn the effortless elegance of Italian fashion, life-style, and manners — that  perfectly imperfect look, that fashion statement with a  laid back confidence. Have I achieved that unique style in my designs?

Italian fashion

Milano, Italy

For more of Afshan Shahid’s insight into life, click here: Beautiful Imperfections: Interlocking Threads with Memories

Afshan Shahid

Afshan Shahid has an apparel design studio in Cambridge, UK and a manufacturing unit in Pakistan. She travels extensively searching for inspiration. Inspired by Italian embroidery, Irish crochet, Scandinavian knitting, Russian soutache work, lace-knitting from Eritrea, she seeks them out in her travels. In addition to Business Management and Information Technology from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, she has an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and Biology.

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  1. Hello, your design is very elegant and stylish, you are very artistic and have a “good eye” for design in clothes and also interior design. Your grandfather would have been impressed and proud.
    My granddaughter attended ballet classes at one point of her young life and we have a photo of her , looking very sweet and excited after dancing on stage for the first time. As proud grandparents, we have it displayed at home. One day as she entered the room, she said ” Oh that’s when I was a Ballerina” Now she has other hobbies and a good posture. I enjoyed ballet classes briefly, but mainly because I loved the music, I think.
    You must be so proud of your daughter and her achievements.
    Greetings from Liza

    • Whenever there is something good to share, I think of the people who are no longer with us (or perhaps they are, and we don’t know) and hope they can share the joy. I know Abu would be so happy to know that his daughter is a successful international business woman.

    • Thanks for liking my design and appreciating my thoughts . I’m sure Sophia looked beautiful as a ballerina .I’m proud of all my family members achievements. They have worked hard to get where they are now.

  2. The best thing in children’s upbringing is leaving an open space/choice for them to excel in what is natural for them.. how much i wanted my daughter to be a fashion designer but she picked up dentistry instead, enjoying fashion and money both. All creative arts for females are in their mother nature .. you can pick up a shop/studio in NYC / USA, where still Pakistani brands like JJ doing roaring business and maulana with MTJ sweating to join the bandwagon.. Any how USA does provide a huge space to talent to bloom, irrespective of field, tone and milieu.. nest of luck to her!

  3. Beautiful narrative of a Mother, I must say but you’ve mesmerized us about Italy’s beauty, as well.
    A must read. 👍

  4. Beautiful takes me back to memory lane when I had my first original taste of Italian spaghetti
    You introduced me to the world of Italian flavours

    • Thanks Rabia glad you still remember the spaghetti .Italian cuisine is not only tasty but healthy too particularly Southern Italy with high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein (particularly fish), and olive oil, and low consumption of red meat and sugar. Italians pay much attention to the “taste-matching” of ingredients and quantities too.

  5. What a lovely read! Much obliged to you for strolling us through one of the brilliant periods of your life. 👏🏻

  6. No doubt it was a lovely read. The way you narrated the insight story, it easily catches attention of the reader.
    Looking forward to read such pieces in future as well. 🙂

  7. How fortunate to have lived in Italy it’s a beautiful country I long to visit as soon as the pandemic has subsided. I enjoyed reading your article and look forward to more.

    • Thanks Farida for liking my article. Italy is worth visiting -a dream destination . As I said in the article there is so much to see. We were lucky to spend over three years there and still want to go back and see more.

  8. We appreciate, Afshan Shahid has not forgotten her home land and established a manufacturing facility in Pakistan. It’ll help open a window of opportunity in tough Covid times for the Pakistani workers. Abbas Nakai

  9. Enjoyed reading this interesting piece. Revived my nostalgic memories of visiting the beautiful and historic Italy. Surprisingly, there are many discernible cultural similarities between Pakistan and Italy. Beautiful narration, indeed; thought like having a country / city tour focused on culture and couture.

  10. Beautiful and historic Italy. Surprisingly, there are many discernible cultural similarities between Pakistan and Italy. Beautiful narration, indeed; thought like

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