Behind the locked–down walls of Afghanistan's capital Kabul, a designer addresses women joined in the name of fashion, combining traditional Afghan motifs with modern flair in the land of the burka.
The road to fashion in Kabul is a rough one.
On a hot June morning, my driver and I pass a sparse city park where police recruits tense before a scowling officer. We pass men flinging garbage at a fire. We are gripped by a knot of traffic—battered yellow taxis and bulky black SUVs and boys on bicycles and men pulling carts—then break free. We pass a jumble of police cars, a heart–stopping indication that there could be trouble. In this case, it only means that we're near the Ministry of Interior and that Le Bistro is around the corner.
In front of the restaurant, women emerge from their cars and dismiss their drivers, tugging their scarves more tightly around their hair. They let their scarves fall away as they reach the restaurant courtyard, as colorful and serene as the city outside is gray and hectic. Then they make their way towards Zolaykha Sherzad's line of clothing—called Zarif (meaning "precious," in Farsi)—which flutters under a bamboo canopy on the terrace.
Sherzad greets people with an order form cradled in her arm, gracious and soft–spoken. The restaurant owner's dog—a retired bomb–sniffing shepherd—circles her feet. She stands back to let visitors look at a rack of silk shirts, but is quick to point out another artisan whose work is on display—Mattieu Beley, whose company Gulestan makes perfumes and oils from Afghan wildflowers.
"We're trying to be creative and revive something in this culture," Sherzad says, pausing to confer with her assistant, a slight woman wrapped in a dark shawl who is stretching to take the measurements of a tall, lanky young Frenchman. "We're polishing this war zone and giving it a new look."
Sherzad's family fled the country when she was ten years old, shortly after the 1979 Soviet invasion. She grew up in Switzerland and trained as an architect there. Now an architect in New York City with her partner Frederic Levrat, Sherzad returned to Afghanistan in 2000 to open School of Hope, a nonprofit which rebuilds and supports schools in the countryside. She soon realized that the students in these schools were unlikely to move on to college in Kabul or one of the other major cities, even after the fall of the Taliban. So she started thinking of vocational opportunities for them in Afghanistan's traditional arts.
She had seen refugees stream back into Kabul from their exiles in Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring countries, and she knew the artistic traditions of these countries were springing up in their wake. Fancy buildings with mirrored windows and glitter–enhanced stucco, instead of simple structures made of white–washed mud bricks and stone. Women wearing saris and salwar kameezes, instead of long embroidered dresses. Plastic flowers instead of real ones! She worried that Afghanistan's rich artistic heritage was in danger of being snuffed out by modernization and the alluring encroachment of other cultures. "I felt the national identify was in a crisis," she says. "I think that in the long term, Afghanistan will exist because of its unique identify, not because of the geopolitical situation."
Sherzad had already studied with the Indian clothing designer, Alpana Bawa, and earned a degree from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. In 2005 she launched a project to save the part of Afghanistan's spirit expressed in fabric and thread and tweak it for modern tastes. She got together with a nonprofit that was training Afghan women to be sewers and tailors and developed her own designs. She found a simple connection between her career and this new effort. "Clothing is the first layer of architecture," she says. "You create your identity and your relationship to the outside world."
Social Lubrication Through Fashion
The mood in the courtyard is festive as it fills with customers and their many languages—English, Farsi, French, Urdu, Dutch and many more. One woman runs her hand over a blouse made from the same turban silk that wraps the heads of the men out on the street. Another inspects the kind of long red jacket you'd see on a tribal leader in the countryside, but this one has delicate embroidery banding the sleeves, collar and hem. The women bump into each other and exclaim, almost in unison, "I didn't know you were back in town!"
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