Photograph courtesy of Fatimah Hossaini/Zarif Design

“Fashion, to me, is really about the people behind the craftsmanship.”

Known for its vibrant colors, detailed embroidery and exquisite silk fabric, the traditional afghan chapan, a long coat worn by many men in Central Asia, is Afghan-American designer Zolaykha Sherzad’s bestseller. New York-based Sherzad founded Zarif Design in 2005. She works directly with local Afghan artisans in Kabul, designing pieces for women and men that fuse Afghan clothing with a contemporary modern twist. Her work is applauded by many, including French designer agnès b., performance artist Marina Abramović, and acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Dr Deepak Chopra (here is a photo of him wearing the signature vest).

For Sherzad, Zarif Design is more than just fashion – it’s fashion with a purpose. It is a deep-rooted desire to help fellow Afghans economically while creating pieces that embrace authentic Afghan craftsmanship. But in August, after 16 years of effort, the investments and sacrifices evaporated within hours when the Taliban returned to power.

Photograph courtesy of Fatimah Hossaini/Zarif Design

While the first Taliban regime, which began in 1996, women have all but disappeared from the public eye. They were banned from working and were not allowed to travel without a male guardian. Violation of these rules resulted in severe penalties.

Everything changed for the better when the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, inspiring Sherzad to help Afghan artisans apply their skills in an industry that would allow them to grow and enjoy previously unattainable economic prosperity (in fact, some workers in his Kabul workshop are the main breadwinners). But two decades later, in the aftermath of the resurgence of the Taliban, Sherzad’s main concern is his team returning to Afghanistan.

Zarif Design’s Kabul studio. Photography by Oriane Zerah

“The first month, everything was upside down. Emotionally too,” Sherzad says. “Nobody knew what was going to happen…everything stopped…I worry about how long I will be able to help these people through this difficult time, and I hope things will change soon .”

Prior to August 2021, the team consisted of 52 weavers, tailors and embroiderers. Within months, this group collapsed as some members fled the country and others are now too scared to work. Production has slowed considerably and Sherzad is no longer able to export parts from Kabul. To keep spirits up despite the situation, Sherzad instructed some members of his team to focus their efforts on intricate embroidery, which typically takes longer to create. “I wanted to give them something they would enjoy during the day, from sewing to embroidery,” Sherzad says. “So that when they see these pieces, they feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Zarif Design’s Kabul studio. Photography by Oriane Zerah

Sherzad sources all of its fabrics in Afghanistan, including the impeccably detailed handmade embroidery. It also employs and trains Afghan women and men to practice “slow production” in the form of craftsmanship and detailing. Slow production, also known as slow fashion, is the approach to garment production that considers all aspects of the supply chain. This means spending more time on the design process to ensure that each garment is of high quality. This is the opposite of so-called fast fashion, in which the quality of clothing is cheap, mass-produced, and the environment and employees are exploited. Instead, at Zarif Design, tailors, seamstresses, embroiderers and weavers have a place to train and master their skills to preserve cultural designs.

“What I love is that we are all interconnected, no one does anything alone,” says Sherzad. “The goal of this project was not just the jacket itself. This is how the jacket comes together.

In addition to the brand’s signature jackets, Zarif Design also produces modest and inclusive unisex pieces. “It’s more about the character of who you are, so gender isn’t something that drives my design,” Sherzad explains, “It’s the fabrics, the flow, the details, the shapes and the sense of freedom .”

Vest. Photography by Cresta Kruger

Take for example the signature vest. Although the vest is listed separately for men and women, the design is almost identical. Straight lines, silk trim details and handmade buttons (replicas of antique coins) exude an arogynous feel. In fact, some of her fashion inspiration comes from Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto who, like Sherzad, creates timeless androgynous pieces. “I don’t follow the seasons, I don’t believe in them,” says Sherzad, who has lived in Japan for just over a year. “Yamamoto is a designer that I really respect for his ability to convey the essence of culture, tradition and to connect eras.”

That’s exactly what Sherzad does: convey the essence of Afghan culture and tradition in a timeless way. One-of-a-kind jackets traditionally worn by men are recreated in a modern way for women while staying true to traditional design. The jackets are available in red, navy and multicolour and are all hand woven. “It’s all about the past,” Sherzad says, “I was using some of these traditional fabrics and cutting them in a certain way and it became very modern, so there was this juxtaposition between the past and the present. “

In New York, Sherzad is currently setting up pop-up shops to help sell some of the clothes. For greater visibility, the Chopra Foundation, headed by Dr. Deepak Chopra, has set up a GoFundMe page to donate money to send emergency relief to artisans and their families in Afghanistan. The Page has already raised a quarter of its $100,000 goal.

While Zarif Design’s future is unclear, Sherzad continues to use its platform to ensure the brand continues to inspire and empower Afghan communities.

“Fashion, to me, is really about the people behind the craftsmanship,” Sherzad says. “It’s the craftsmen who really matter the most.”

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