From Roberto Cavalli in Milan to Mac in Paris to Toni & Guy in London, Haffsah Bilal has not left any iconic fashion house unturned. And she is creating waves in Melbourne.
Haffsah Bilal’s main memories of her childhood spent in Botswana and later in her home country of Pakistan were about being obsessed with make up much to the chagrin of her mother. “Go and wash your face,” her mother would sternly tell every time she was caught with her face painted. The fixation with hair, make-up and dressing up circumvented her mother’s traditional views that education was key to being successful. Having lost her father at the age of 11, her mother was the authority she listened to. So Bilal did her MBA and began working in a bank in Islamabad. When it was time to marry, her family found her a man who was working and settled in Melbourne.
Within a month of arriving in Melbourne, Bilal got a job with the Commonwealth Bank and started working as an assistant manager. For one and half years, she sat behind computers hating her work and being miserable every day. What she did love was the few leisure moments spent in the company of women workmates assessing their make ups and giving them tips on how to enhance their good points and conceal what was not good.
One fine day when she was actually offered a promotion, she hung up her banking boots. It helped that she had a supportive husband. “He asked me what do you do well? I said make- up. I can stand and do hair and make up for 12 hours and not get tired but I can sit in front of a laptop for an hour and get exhausted. Because it is just what I love,” she says.
Enjoying a new-found freedom, Bilal started off by enrolling in short courses in make-up and hair in Victoria University. Not quite satisfied, she did another course from Elly Lukas Beauty Therapy College. After this, she started doing make-up for friends and people that she knew for free from her home. “I just wanted to do it. Then I started charging just a little bit. But the word of mouth spread and people started calling me.”
Meanwhile she also completed a diploma of advanced make-up from the Australian College of Hair Design & Beauty. “It is the highest qualification in make-up artistry so I know how to do prosthetics, for instance in films. So if you want to have a broken nose I can give you a cut and a broken nose, if you want glass sticking out of your hair, if you want to have a photo taken of bruising – I can do all that.” However she was inclined to the glamour side of the business. “I did work for a music video and had to create bruises on this guy but it’s not my forte and not something I quite enjoy,” she reveals.
Bilal’s accreditations show she has studied and trained a lot. She did a Certificate III in actual hair dressing – cut, style, blow wave – everything to do with hair. She also did a diploma of beauty therapy because she wanted to understand skin and nails, a knowledge she passes on to her clients today especially brides who want to look beautiful on their wedding day. “I did my beauty therapy which was more to maintain my own self, to know what the skin is made of, to study biology, anatomy and so on. It’s not just what you put on your face, it is also what is in the inside. So now I make a plan for my brides and recommend certain facials before their wedding so that their skin remains beautiful – before and after the wedding.”
But Bilal wanted to discover more about the beauty industry and equip herself with the latest in the field. So about four years ago, she went to Europe and trained at the big fashion hubs of Milan, Paris, London and New York bringing a renewed modernism to her work. “I trained with the creative director at the main hair centre with Toni&Guy in London. I did my diploma of editorial hair styling, which is a vanguard of hairstyles, those out of the ordinary hairstyles that you do for magazines, fashion shoots, something very different; I don’t think Melbourne even has that course.
“Then I went to Milan and did a fashion show for Roberto Cavalli. I was the make-up artist there. Then I went to another fashion academy in Milan called Up To Date Fashion Academy which offers a component of make-up course for the catwalk. I had always been interested in fashion and dress designing too, so I did a course there. It was just full on and I learnt everything that you can do to get someone ready for the catwalk in 15 mins. In Paris I trained with Mac. I finished off my trip with Barcelona where I chilled out,” she laughs adding, “It was hard, I had to leave my family behind.”
In short, Bilal has trained with international makeup artists from NARS, Ellis Faas, Hourglass, Stilla and MAC. She has graced the floors of iconic fashion houses namely MAC in Rue de Passy, Paris, Toni & Guy in New Oxford Street, London, Roberto Cavalli in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Milan and Napoleon Perdis in Australia.
With an extensive and diverse portfolio of qualified makeup artistry, spanning over a period of thirteen years across the fashion capitals of the globe, Bilal’s focus is the score: that a woman with the right make up can be a pretty powerful woman.
In Melbourne, she has an upmarket clientele, some of whom are Real Housewives of Melbourne star Lydia Schiavello, Del Irani from the ABC shows, Hawthorn player Cyril Rioli’s partner Shannyn Ah Sam, high end couture designer Silvana Tedesco, to name a few. Interestingly, she also did a Loookbook for Tedesco which went to Hollywood. Her Indian clients have been Honey Singh, Money Aujla, Sunidhi Chauhan, DJ Rink and actor Sarah Roberts from the film UnIndian. “Whenever some of these celebrities from India come here, they contact me.”
Three years ago, Bilal started Lajeen Artistry, named after her daughter. “I established my business now that my kids are older and they are ready to be left alone. I am ready to take on a lot more work than I was initially.”
In her home studio, Bilal carries out bridal trials. “That’s the only thing that happens in the studio, the rest of the services are provided to them at their location. For instance when we did Equality Fashion show for the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM), the models couldn’t come to us so we had to go there.”
Bilal works with 11 assistants and one professional dresser who dresses the bride. “So on the wedding day, say, if I have a bridal party of six people I book in my assistants accordingly and I will do the bride’s hair and make-up, they will do everyone else’s.”
This energetic beauty artist has set herself a few goals. By combining beauty with social causes, she has combined business with philanthropy. Growing up in Africa, she shares a special affinity with the place. “Botswana is one of the richest countries but afflicted by AIDS. When I was there it was the time Nelson Mandel was just released from jail; I remember meeting him and he had a calm aura about him. When we left in 1991, the riots were beginning to happen and it was becoming unsafe.” Bilal’s links to Africa are not only the emotional trips of visiting her father’s grave there but the fact that she has adopted two children who belong to an AIDS centre. The centre looks after children who are either suffering from the disease or whose parents have died from it.
“That is something that is important to me. That’s something personal that I do,” she says.
Closer home in Pakistan, Bilal sponsors operations of cleft lip victims. “I sponsor young children who are from a village, which is three hours away from Islamabad. The operations are conducted by surgeons who fly in for London on their annual leave to operate on these children/patients round the clock. We raise 300$ per person and covers everything including speech therapies.”
Although she chooses to sponsor girls, Bilal was struck by the story of this young man who had grown a beard to hide his lip and was enclosed in a madrassa as he didn’t want to see anyone. “When I went this March, I was told he had shaved his beard, gotten married to a girl and I thought that’s the best story that has come out of it.”
Last year, Bilal did a fundraiser to help Pakistani women who were victims of acid attack. “There is not enough being done in Pakistan for them,” she rues. So when well-known make-up artist Musarat Misbah, whose salon has been a refuge for women who’ve been attacked by acid came to Melbourne, Bilal joined hands with her to raise funds. They organised a make-up class and which was accompanied by a theatre performance by renowned Pakistani actress Feryal Gauhar.
Inspired by and reflecting on Misbah’s salon and the great work that she is doing, Bilal says, “It is so confronting to watch these women work. I look at myself and take out 10 flaws and then I go somewhere where I want to look pretty and a woman like that is helping me look pretty, it is very confronting.”
Asked to define beauty, Bilal’s says, “I have worked on so many beautiful faces that may not have been as beautiful on the inside so I don’t find them beautiful. I don’t believe it is what you have on your face, if someone is a nice person just their eyes, their demeanour – make them beautiful. I feel those things make one beautiful and not necessarily a striking face.”
However, beauty is something that is pursued through relatively affordable and temporary means such as cosmetics. This is what gives Bilal the highs about her job, transforming an ordinary face into something beautiful. “When I look at a person I tell myself I wish I could fix the make-up,” she laughs.
So do women need basic make up? “Yes a bit of eyeliner, gloss… the day I look good I feel good, the day I feel I don’t look good, I don’t feel confident.”
Her favourite tools are all kinds of brushes. “I use a brush for everything. When I start a make-up, even for the moisturiser I use a brush. My hand will not physically touch your face during the entire make up application.”
So what basics does she recommend a woman should have in her purse? “A lipstick and a mascara is a must have, especially like a bright colour lipstick. If you are feeling down and wear a bright lipstick you are adding colour and colour makes everything happy. It brightens up the whole face.”
Though much of Bilal’s techniques are based on her training, she has an innate talent to make her clients stand out. At the IFFM fashion show, Bilal had to get fashion designer Anamika Khanna’s approval for the look she had created for her outfits. At the end the well-known designer remarked that she wanted to put Bilal in a bag and take her back to India with her. “I am a fan of your work and do what you do,” she told Bilal.
“The clothes were elaborate so I suggested nude/neutral looks for the models so that the make-up does not take away the focus from the clothes. So we didn’t use any colour on the eyelids but enhanced it with long eyelashes so that whatever they wore and changed into could go with it. Even their lips were kept nude but the faces were chiselled, we contoured and made the faces sharp, enhancing the bone structure.”
Bilal is busy. Her weekends are booked for weddings especially with it being peak wedding season now. “Until February next year I don’t have a single weekend free,” she rues but adds, “I am not complaining.” She caters to Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi clients. “It takes a brown person to know one,” she laughs.
She is also an accredited trainer and assessor and teaches diploma students the design and apply makeup component at Marjorie Milner College, Surrey Hills.
Recently, she held a one-day beauty workshop along the lines of successful American make-up artist who runs by the name Dress Your Face. It was both a surprise and good start for Bilal who had 40 people turned up based on one Facebook posting. “From 10 am to 4 pm, I taught two different make up looks – a day look and an evening enhanced look.”
Looking ahead, Bilal says next year is going to be full of surprises. She is on an expansion mode and interviewing people to increase the strength of her staff. “We have so much work all over Melbourne and I am getting calls from New Zealand. So next year will definitely be a very big year for me.”
Reflecting on the trends in fashion and beauty, Bilal says Pakistan is very fashion forward. “The women there are up to date with everything from hair to make-up and a lot more particular there. Unfortunately the society there is much vainer than the society here. There are a lot more real people here.”
Bilal is a determined entrepreneur with a beautiful intent!
By Indira Laisram