The centerpiece of Zarif Design's studio in Kabul is not, as one would imagine, the racks of brilliant-hued clothing samples leaning against the simple white walls. Nor is it the massive carved-wood mirror that dominates one side of the fitting room. The centerpiece is a low coffee table fashioned out of an antique door, adorned with a steaming pot of green tea, handmade mugs and matching turquoise-colored bowls filled with raisins and pistachiosthe epitome of Afghan hospitality. It is here that Zolaykha Sherzad, the designer behind the label's hand-tailored coats and dresses, greets her clients. In Afghanistan, tradition holds that no business can be conducted without a preliminary conversation over tea, and while tradition does not define Sherzad's work, it is her touchstone.
The studio, on a quiet street just off one of the capital's major thoroughfares, exudes the timeless exoticism of a Silk Road bazaar. Bolts of handwoven ikat silks from Uzbekistan spill from cabinets. Silver buttons, cast from antique coins bearing Greek and Persian inscriptions, fill crockery bowls. The walls are decorated with samples of the delicate needlework of Afghanistan's Kuchi nomads. A half-finished blazer, made from fabric with the iconic green, white and purple stripes of the traditional cloak that transformed President Hamid Karzai into an international fashion darling in 2002, is draped over a stool. The crisp structure and clean lines of the jacket betray Sherzad's architectural background (she earned a master's degree in architecture at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland); the narrow waist and all-but-invisible dart work are evidence of her degree in fashion design from New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology.
"I am a bridge," says Sherzad, 38, a stunning, slim brunette with large, dark eyes, who could easily be a model. "At the base of my work is Afghan tradition, but my lines are modern. I want to create a dialogue between that base and contemporary design." She points to a military-style coat that could be from Yohji Yamamoto in its seemingly effortless precision. The striped raw-silk sleeves are edged in the sort of fine embroidery usually found in Kuchi handiwork; the lining is a warm orange reminiscent of the nomads' bright skirts and scarves. "My pieces all have some touches of embroidery or a lining that takes you back to traditions," she says. "It's almost as if something has been displaced and replaced."
Sherzad knows a thing or two about displacement. In 1978 she fled her native Afghanistan in the wake of the communist coup. Her family took refuge in Iran, only to flee again when the Islamic revolution swept through that country six months later. They settled in Geneva, but Sherzad was plagued by an exile's sense of rootlessness. Eventually she landed in New York City, where the large Afghan community gave her solace but also fed her frustration.
Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, Afghanistan dissolved into a bloody civil war that led to the rise of the fundamentalist Taliban in 1994. The entire Afghan exile community seemed paralyzed by fear and indecision. "I couldn't take it anymore," says Sherzad. "They were just discussing politics but offered nothing tangible or specific. I got tired of talking. I wanted to do something." So Sherzad launched School of Hope, an aid organization dedicated to raising money to build schools for Afghan children.
As a child in Switzerland, Sherzad had taken refuge from the alienation of exile by losing herself in the classroom. "When you go from home to school, you disconnect from your family," she says. "You are no longer the older daughter or the responsible sister. You put all that aside, and for four hours, you learn something new." Providing Afghan children an opportunity to escape from the trauma of war satisfied Sherzad's need to do something for her people.
In 2002, after the fall of the Taliban, Sherzad was finally able to go home. The return was bittersweet. Nearly 25 years of war had devastated the country. Kabul, once a fashionable city of broad boulevards, Chanel-clad women and tree-shaded arcades, had become a smoldering ruin haunted by ghosts in pale-blue burqas, the shroudlike women's garments mandated by the Taliban regime.
Sherzad threw herself into School of Hope, shuttling between fund-raising events in New York City and building projects in Afghanistan. But she was troubled by her countrymen's cultural amnesia. In the rush to rebuild, Afghanistan's centuries-old artistic traditions were being replaced by cheap imports from China and Pakistan. "Our cultural identity was at risk, and Afghans were losing their pride in their homeland," she says. "I wanted to do something to revive that pride." She also saw a need to rehabilitate women who had lost so much when the Taliban forced them behind closed doors. In 2004 she partnered with a local development group that trained women in basic tailoring skillssuch as design, patternmaking and sewingto launch Zarif, which means precious in Dari. A year later, she had her first fashion show. For Afghanistan, it was the first fashion show in 30 years.
"Somehow I knew it was all going to work," she says. And it did. Her wrap blouses cut from men's silk turbans were an instant hit among the expatriate community of development workers, U.N. employees and journalists who wanted to buy local goods but still look fashionable. The knee-length, fitted coats made from the bright silks and pebbly weaves of traditional men's chapans, or cloaks, are both stylish and suitable for the conservative mores of Afghan society. And the luminous silk sheaths, silk-screened with the arcs and whorls of calligraphed Afghan poetry, are wearable works of art that transcend geographical origin. The line's prices (coats go for $300 and up, dresses for even more) put it out of reach for many Afghans, though a female parliamentarian regularly wears Sherzad's coats.
The Zarif studio vibrates with the mingled languages of foreign clients, local shoppers and Afghan staff busy with fittings. For the moment, Sherzad's entire line is made to measure, but she has plans to expand. She is teaching her staff16 women and two mento work from patterns. Once she gets the funding (she has petitioned the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign-development organizations that have set aside funds for Afghan businesses), she will train more employees and start thinking about exporting a ready-to-wear line to niche boutiques in New York City, London and Paris.
But behind Sherzad's dreams of expansion lies another mission, one linked to her sense of being a cultural bridge between two worlds. "I want to show people that Afghanistan is not all about war and orphanages and burqas. It is also about textiles and history and culture. It is about beauty."