Afghan designers: breaking the norms of traditional fashion

Paris, Milan, London, New York: these are the cities that pop into most minds when one thinks of the fashion capitals of the world. Yet taboo-breaking ideas and innovative new fashion are not restricted to these places, as designers from Afghanistan have been proving over the last few years.

Rahiba Rahimi is a 25 year old lead designer at the fashion label Laman, where she’s worked at and helped build for five years now. In a country often associated with conflict and deeply rooted tradition, coming across rule-bending fashion may seem surprising to some. However, Rahiba, along with her designer partner Khaled Wardak, say that Afghans currently are not afraid to express themselves through colour and different patterns; they simply provide the means for them to do so with a modern twist.

Building a label from scratch was not easy. The pair said that because nothing like this had ever been done before in Afghanistan, there were many barriers to be crossed: including getting permits from the government, conducting research to find the right suppliers for what they were trying to achieve, finding Afghan women willing to model and work as seamstresses.

Rahimi stated that at the time, it was perfectly fine to model in Afghanistan, as long as you were not an Afghan. Furthermore, following their first fashion show in Kabul in 2015, women working for them received great threats and wanted to leave altogether, as they were looked down upon for taking up such a job. It is clear that by overcoming such barriers, Laman was breaking glass ceilings simply in its very creation.

Nevertheless, Rahimi and Wardak saw a demand for clothes with a more western influence among younger Afghans, and began tailoring their clothes as such. They have a separate line for clothes to be worn outside the home which are more traditional, and a separate line for home wear, with more modern, western cuts. They say that younger people themselves have begun altering clothes, often to make cuts lower and hems higher. They think, therefore, that Afghan fashion is slowly becoming more liberal.

Unfortunately, the fashion label is still quite deer, with single pieces of clothing costing as much as the average monthly wage (around £116 pounds), meaning the label still predominantly caters to the upper classes. On the other hand, the expanding label has managed to provide employment to a number of women, with Rahimi saying that many of her female workers are now the breadwinners of their families.

Rahimi is not the only female designer breaking boundaries with her major fashion label. Hasina Aimaq, another innovative young designer, hand-made her signature blue embroidered dress, inspired by the traditional Afghan blue burqa. The dress kickstarted a conversation in Afghanistan about social norms in relation to fashion.

While Aimaq received criticism for her taboo breaking designs, she simultaneously got a great deal of praise, not only from the huge fashion audience in Milan, but women in the rural north of the country too. While she has limited resources in comparison to Rahimi, Aimaq’s achievements demonstrate that change is occurring, and not only among the wealthy in Afghanistan, but across the social divides too.

Perception of Afghan fashion abroad has been changing since the growth of Afghan fashion internationally. Rahimi says that in the past, people abroad thought of her country’s fashion simply as burqas and dark colours, yet states that any event in the country (such as a wedding) would prove otherwise. She notes, however, that things have changed since she first started out and believes Afghan fashion is finally beginning to find its place. Similarly, Aimaq’s signature dress got a number of commissions in Milan and remains her most famous piece of work.
Instead of looking to Gucci for a designer hijab, one should look to support the likes of Laman and Hasina Aimaq. There’s no reason that one day they won’t have a store not too far from us, right here in the west.


Image: Todd Huffman via Wikimedia

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