Champ Imi is instantly noticeable on the catwalk. Broad-shouldered and long-haired, he walks on the ramp with an assured confidence. He also immediately catches the eye when you’re glancing through a fashion editorial. His looks are unconventional but there’s also a poise to the way he poses, knowing exactly how to create drama for the camera.
But there’s another reason why Imi has often stood out. For some unfathomable reason, he is often selected for wearing the worst designs in a collection. The shiniest sherwani is set aside for him, the gaudiest trench-coat. The shapeless upside-down shirt that is the bane of a collection? Champ Imi has been the man for it.
“I am broad and a lot of times designers don’t create designs that fit me well,” he once told me backstage at a fashion week, explaining why he sometimes looked so uncomfortable, trying to make do with a sherwani that is too tight.
From my Insta-story archives, some of menswear’s saddest (and Champ’s saddest) moments from last year – from the Jazib Qamar show at Hum Showcase ’19 and the Tayab Moazzam Studio show at the PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week 2019
It’s unfortunate considering that this young model wears clothes well. He is also possibly the only Pakistani model to have repetitively touched the lofty catwalks of many of the world’s most illustrious fashion weeks. An article on Champ that was recently published by the BBC recounted his repertoire which included events in the world’s leading fashion capitals, London, Paris and Milan, and fashion editorials within the illustrious pages of Harper’s Bazar, Vogue, Huffington Post and GQ. No other Pakistani model can claim to have had as much international experience.
The androon shehr Lahore boy who made it big in the West, according to the BBC
I am curious, though: a lot of local models and designers take part in international side-events that take place at the same time as major fashion weeks and then announce that they have been part of the main event itself. Does Imi’s experience also revolve around the side-shows that ride on the coat-tails of the official fashion weeks in Paris, Milan or London? “No, I have always been part of the main fashion weeks,” he tells me. “The agency that I worked with would never let me work in a non-scheduled fashion week because that brings down a model’s clout.”
The BBC article narrates Imi’s very interesting story: he was an 18 year old from androon shehr Lahore working as a sales clerk in a supermarket in London in order to support himself while he studied abroad. A woman shopping at the supermarket asked him if he would consider modeling and when he answered in the affirmative, she took down his number and e-mail. The following morning, Champ – whose real name is Muhammad Ali Subhani – received an e-mail from a modeling agency. It was his day off and so he decided to go to the agency where he met the same woman again. She told him that her agency would like to hire him as model to which he replied that he couldn’t quit his job at the supermarket. He had gotten the job with a lot of difficulty and needed the money to pay for his daily expenses.
The woman asked him how much he earned from the job to which he replied 800 pounds. She told him that he would be able to earn a lot more from a single modeling job. Imi tells the BBC that while he did wonder if he was getting lured into a scam, he also thought that the office looked legitimate. He decided to take the woman for her word. She offered him 1000 pounds for his first project. He was required to give a 30 day notice prior to leaving his job at the supermarket and the woman told him that the agency would work on his portfolio in this duration.
Imi was asked to fill a form but the woman told him to leave the space asking for his nationality blank. She said that clients preferred to work with Western models and mentioning his nationality may create complications. Additionally, she told him that his name was too long and revealed his Eastern origins. He mentioned that when he used to play cricket back in school, his friends would call him ‘champ’, which is short for ‘champion’. Thus, the name ‘Champ Imi’ was coined.
A week later, he took part in his first fashion show at London Fashion Week. He recalls to the BBC, “Most of the models were white and they kept asking me what my ethnicity was. This made me angry. I told them that it didn’t matter where I was from. I was here to work just like they were.” Over the next five years, Champ built an impressive resume for himself in the West and simultaneously began working in Pakistan.
The politics of Pakistan … and the casting couch
But why did he even bother with returning to his home-base in Pakistan, especially when he was already doing well and international jobs must certainly pay better?
He talks to me all the way from London, where he is currently stationed while the local fashion industry is at a halt due to the coronavirus: “I was representing Pakistan all over the world but my own people did not know about me. I had developed my modeling skills with extensive international work and wanted to now also work in the fashion industry in my own country.”
Shehla Chatoor, ‘Aks’, 2019
Imi’s first job in Pakistan was going to be a show that was being planned out by FTV which, ultimately, did not happen. In the meantime, he did meet model Abbas Jaffri, whose career was at its prime at the time. “Abbas Bhai looked at my portfolio and told me that he had won all these awards in Pakistan but I had done so much more international work than him. He encouraged me to try working in Pakistan. My first time on the Pakistani ramp was at the Bridal Couture Week in 2016 where I walked for Naushad Imdad.”
“Abbas Bhai then called and asked designer Amir Adnan to take me on board his show. Adnan said that he would only do so if Abbas walked with me on the catwalk. And Abbas complied. I am indebted to him for supporting me so selflessly.”
Over time, Champ met other significant power players who were an imperative part of fashion shows in Pakistan; for instance, the team at Nabila’s.
I observe that in those initial few months, with his international repertoire, he must have thought that it would be easy to make it big in Pakistan. Was he, ultimately, disappointed? “Very,” he says. “To date, some of my best work has been in Pakistan and yet, there have been plenty of times when I have lost projects, being replaced by a model just because he is friends with certain people. The politics here bring down fashion standards. There have also been times when I have been replaced because of my long hair or my dark skin tone.”
“I have been nominated for awards plenty of times but I don’t think that I am ever going to win any. It’s because I need to be friends with certain people in order to get their attention.”
Is it also because he has stayed away from the notorious modeling casting couch? Male models have often, without naming names, hinted at how they are asked to extend certain ‘favors’ in order to build their careers. “Yes, I have stayed away from the casting couch and you won’t believe how some of the biggest names in the industry expect a model to give ‘favors’ in return for work It is something that is unfortunately running rampant in local fashion and it completely disregards a model’s merit.”
Luckily for Champ Imi, his career has been going very well, on the strength of his merit. He is now working towards building an acting career in London and has currently signed on to a short film, titled ‘Roz and Katie’, a feature film ‘For Your Entertainment’ and a Bollywood film called ‘Casual Affair’. “I have an agent who is lining up work for me and I have been auditioning.”
Once again, relying on merit, So far, so good.
(Cover image: Champ Imi in a shoot for designer Mohsin Naveed Ranjha, shot by Waqar Ahmed Butt, MUA: Ali Abbas Salon; sourced via @champimi on Instagram.)