When Ashraf was just ten-years-old, she took her first trip to the northern valleys of Pakistan. “I vividly remember the women of the valleys adorned in their colorful and beautifully handcrafted outfits while maneuvering a challenging and difficult lifestyle,” she says. “They smiled, they had the confidence and the attitude, and there was something voguish about it all. Exquisite yet powerful. It was then that I understood the power of an artistically-crafted garment.”
Ashraf is the founder and owner of the Heritage Collection, a South Asian fashion brand she started 17 years ago. In 2022, she became one of the first Ismaili fashion designers to display her work at New York Fashion Week. The event happens semi-annually and gives designers from around the world an opportunity to showcase their latest designs and work.
Growing up in Pakistan, Ashraf found that happiness and celebrations were her key inspiration for her designs, going as far as designing outfits for her Barbies that matched her own. That sentiment shifted slightly when she immigrated to Virginia.
“When I moved to the USA decades ago, I missed that feeling of belongingness and culture, and it took me back to the sentiments that I was missing, leading me back to clothes and designing,” she reflects. “So yes, I always knew there was a calling, and this was the right time to act on it.”
She named her collection Heritage, or Virasat in Urdu, with the hope that she could highlight elements in her work that show the sentiment of celebration and happiness through the handcrafted work she saw during her visit to the northern areas of Pakistan.
Her journey to NYFW wasn’t smooth sailing, though. When she knew she was going to present on one of the world's most renowned runways, she had to make plans to manufacture and ship her clothes from Pakistan. But the preparations for the show also happened in coincide with the floods that were hurting the country.
“My team behind Heritage, especially the women crafters, were terribly affected by the devastation at the same time as my NYFW acceptance came, so I had to make a lot of adjustments to the plan.”
Ashraf still managed to present her collection with her two sons sitting in the front row, displaying eight looks, each with a unique story.
Wearing one of these outfits was Sahra Ahmady, an Ismaili model who has been working with Ashraf for ten years. “I had always wanted to model from a young age, but my parents were very much against it,” Sahra says. “The modeling world was so different when I was growing up, and my parents were very worried that I would have no voice, and that my religious or cultural choices would not be respected.”
These sentiments faded as Sahra agreed to model for Ashraf only. But she still felt like her identity played a role.
“I am a triple minority, and this plays a huge role in why my parents and I were hesitant of my passion,” she remarks. “I am a Hazara-Afghan American, Ismaili woman. Being on the runway at NYFW, I was so proud to showcase the South Asian culture that I grew up in but even more proud to showcase who I am as a triple minority. I knew it was a big deal from the beginning.”
The support of the Ismaili community helped her power through, though, with the Jamat being her’s and Ashraf’s biggest cheerleaders. Since then, she's been using her platform to help Ismailis pursue careers that are consistent with their passions, saying:
“I have wanted to model full-time for a long time but never took the leap. Now that I have opened this door for myself, I will continue to work hard and whole-heartedly knowing that I am my biggest advocate. I know now that if I put my mind and heart into my passion, I will succeed. And lastly, let the negativity or pessimism you receive from the outside world motivate you.”
Ashraf encourages folks looking into more artistic fields to do a healthy amount of trial and error. “Always test the market that you are planning to enter, do a great level of research, and always be open to feedback,” she said. “Your journey here will be full of surprises and full of risks as the path will not be paved for you, so be ready to fail quickly and re-strategize and re-evaluate.”
Sahra walked for jewelry designer David Yurman in November for the company’s cancer charity show. Now, she plans to apply to modeling agencies across the world and take whatever opportunities come for her -- print or runway.
Heritage has teamed with PORSCHE, and Ashraf says that this is “...a milestone as it’s a rare moment where a successful car company opens its door to a brand that’s culturally different and unique and collaborates in this manner.”
Ashraf continues to innovate her Heritage line with a “clothes that matter campaign” and a new handcrafted jewelry line that she first debuted at NYFW. “The unconventional areas rely a lot on the gut feeling as it did when I started Heritage,” Ashraf says to those looking to pursue a creative career:
“I often quote going to the NYFW and walking the runway as my ‘Alchemist Moment’ where the universe conspired for me to achieve something that I really wanted to. For some, these pinnacle moments may take longer to reach, and for some, the gratification may come sooner, but as long as the journey is fulfilling, keep following your dream and take that leap of faith.”