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Weaving Dreams

Weaving Dreams

Issue 59 August 2009

Zolaykha Sherzad has made a life-changing career move, from award-winning architect in New York to founder of Zarif Design in Kabul. Mariam Mahir talks to the lady behind the fashion house about her faithful determination to re-awaken her country from decades of muted creative expression, preserving traditional Afghan costume.


Zolykha and kids



Coming from an architectural background, what spurred you to go into fashion design?

I have always liked clothing. I feel that clothing is your first identity as a human being; it’s your first layer of protection as is architecture on a larger scale. I wanted to do fashion but when I was studying I felt it was too superficial and the effect it had on society was not what I wanted to contribute to, so I went into architecture.

But, when I returned to Afghanistan as a volunteer teacher for projects with the School of Hope, I saw there was a women’s craft workshop that made candles and pottery. I told them about my background and they wanted my help from a design perspective. So by liaising with Mercy Corp, I stayed with the workshop for a few months as their design consultant. I drafted a proposal for a craft centre and decided to go ahead with the pilot project.

I began working with eight Afghan women, and with the help of Afghan Libre, a French Afghan NGO, the ladies were trained free for six months. After that, we held a private fashion show that showcased some pieces and it was a great success. So, I discovered then that there was a local demand for traditional textiles with a modern flair, and founded Zarif Design in 2005. After a year of launching the label, we had a formal fashion show sponsored by the Agha Khan, the very first fashion show in Afghanistan. I would never have thought that I would be doing fashion in Kabul; that was the last thing on my mind!


How do you describe Afghan fashion? Is it a fusion between various cultures because of the history of previous occupations of the past century?

Afghan fashion has its own identity. The men’s costume has not changed as much as the women’s, due to the past decades. Factors such as social backgrounds affect the fashion as well. From nomadic embroidery in brightly coloured scarves from Bamyan, to colourful pleated dresses found in the provinces. Traditional costume is always colourful, not black, as the stereotyped images depict.

Now the Taliban have gone, women have a thirst to express their personal style. If you go to weddings, women are dressed in flowery, somewhat kitsch dresses, but this is because of the economic struggle in the country. Synthetics are cheaper; it is expensive to buy good organic materials such as linen and silk, so they make do with what they have. It takes time for people to learn to own a style and be subtle. Also, it is more practical to wear synthetic fibres, as they don’t need to be ironed, as electricity is not always around. So, there is a traditional fashion. But, it is not a priority for them. At the moment, they are just content with wearing a simple jacket; they feel they have the freedom of choice.


How have you tried to preserve the traditional embroidery and weaving that is in danger of becoming extinct?

I work with a Master Weaver in Kabul. I think there are only two people left with the expertise who are in Kabul. We are also in talks with weavers from the North who specialise in creating Chapans, in order to create new variations of the garment.


The fashion industry thrives on rapidly changing trends, so how do you ensure your pieces are timeless, incorporating elements of Afghan tradition?

I don’t see myself as a fashion designer who is creating pieces to be worn for one season. Ideally, I like fashion to be timeless. I admire designers like Yamamoto and Issey Miyake who are renowned for their timeless garments. I am totally against consumer markets or constantly buying new things. It would be sufficient to own one Zarif jacket as it is a versatile and traditional piece. I use traditional weaving to create Chapans as well as calligraphic elements of poems painted on to silk dresses.



Are the poetic verses in Farsi or Pashtu? Do they have any symbolic meaning or personal significance?

The verses are in Dari; it is a poem from Abdul-Qadir Bidel, an Afghan poet from the 16th century. The verses are from a poem that inspired me to create the pieces. The verses say:

‘Weaving in straw or in velvet/ All we do is weave a veil/ Everything we have seen and conceived/ All we do is weave a dream/ The soul desired lace that cannot be found anymore/ Up on the waves of the sea, all we weave are our marriages.’

To me, it represents how our lives are weaved together like a veil; it is only an allusion for what is beneath. Clothing is a projection of our soul; you can show society who you are as an individual.


Do you aspire to help other young women achieve their goals for work opportunities in Kabul?

Ideally, I would love to have more time to train more people. At the moment, I have around 50 employees, 80% of them are women. I have been training them for three years, during which they have become very independent but loyal to Zarif as it is so hard to find work opportunities for women in Kabul; Zarif Design projects a positive environment with strong team morale.

Designer Clothing  

 fashion models


How are these working women regarded in Afghan society?

In the beginning we had a couple of issues when women would start working and just give up as it was too much for them to cope with, putting pressure on their family life. I have lost three amazing employees because their husbands didn’t allow them to continue working.


Do you think the Afghan society needs time to come to terms with cultural change, viewing a woman’s professional life not just as a secondary element in their lives?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s viewed upon as a secondary factor. Afghan society is living in fear right now due to the country’s unstable condition. The people are quite liberal; men want their daughters to go to school. But, because of rapes that have taken place, acid thrown into faces, as well as bombings, it is too dangerous.  It is not because the society has been a conservative or extremist one. Islam is the people’s religion, not their dictator.

I find there is a lack of confidence in modern society. The sudden exposure to the West through the internet has been hard for them to digest. They have been repressed on every level, from freedom of speech to self-expression because of censorship. As a result, there is a gap between the older generation, such as the fathers who have been living with the resentment of war, and the younger one, who are open to new concepts and want to reach out to the international community. But, I don’t think they are ready to absorb it, they might take the superficial levels of it, but it will take time for true change.


On a personal level, how has this venture satisfied you apart from contributing to Afghanistan’s cultural development?

Personally, I have been able to reach out and make an impact. Studying architecture for seven years and working in New York, I felt what I was contributing was not that amazing as the market was so saturated. But, by going back, I felt people were eager to learn and so I felt a lot of gratitude for giving that much. Also, because I am from Afghanistan and the West, I feel I can relate to them and understand their needs.

My vision is to contribute even more, but taking into consideration the various challenges, I feel I am constrained as I am doing a lot by myself. Hopefully, I will have more help as well as someone who can guide me to develop further. But so far, as I have reached many weavers from Kabul and the North, I am directly helping 50 families and indirectly helping 100 families through the work of Zarif Design.

With respect to work satisfaction, Afghanistan in the 80s and 90s was only portrayed through war. Now, after seven years I feel I can show another side of Afghanistan; for me this is an achievement, something I have always wanted to do.

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11 Jul 13, 04:39

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7 Feb 13, 13:28

While the original inspiration for "Dream Weaver" was spiritual, a brief snippet of the chorus has become a Western pop-cultural cliché following its serious, and later comically parodic, use as the soundtrack for sudden infatuation or love at first sight

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Peter Stevens Design

29 Sep 10, 18:37

I must say how wonderful it is that we can see such a
positive story from Afghanistan. The clothes are beautiful,
the colours are so reminiscent of that wonderful country.
Congratulations Zolaykha on getting the show to London,
keep at the work!

Peter S.

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farhana farooq

16 Aug 09, 10:32

Absolutely gorgeous. I have just started out myself into Modesty clothing and was studying the afghan culture to design our new collection. Way to go Zolaykha....just love your work. Masha Allah.

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6 Aug 09, 15:41

Beautiful work Zolaykha!
May god bless this venture and make it more and more productive ameen.
In the future it would be absolutely great if you could start exporting some of this pieces...inshaAllah
Certainly I would be interested in them :)

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