There’s a steady stream of customers coming through the doors of Rahiba Rahimi’s fashion studio. The 25-year-old’s bold, intricate designs are fitted on mannequins and hung on rails around her showroom in Kabul.
Rahimi is the lead designer and co-proprietor of Laman, a clothing label she helped build in the Afghan capital five years ago.
Her customers are mostly Afghan women and men, together with a few foreign nationals who work in Kabul’s aid-driven economy.
“A lot of times we collaborate and co-design with customers because Afghans are very good at fashion. Even now, if you see on the street, you will see how Afghans express their creativity in colours and styles. We are here to help with the quality of that expression, with design, details, fabric,” she says, walking around the multistorey building that doubles as a workshop and studio.
“I haven’t studied fashion designing, this came about based on my love for colours and patterns and, in a broader sense, my love for the culture and heritage.”
Her designs are a world away from what might be considered, outside the at least, the norms of Afghan fashion. Clothing styles in the country have traditionally been influenced by social norms formed over decades of conflict, violence and extremism. Yet that hasn’t deterred a younger generation of Afghans from pushing the boundaries, while also attempting to revive traditional handicraft and art.
“Fashion for me represents a strong statement in a conservative society. It is an expression of myself as a woman and as an Afghan youth. I should have the right to wear the colours I want to wear. It is a sign of freedom,” Rahimi explains.
Rahimi talks about the new Laman designs, many of which featured in a fashion show in Milan in June.
The clothes aren’t entirely traditional, but a fusion of modern styles using lighter fabric. “We are making Afghan fashion global while also keeping certain things and values the same,” she says, picking up shirts with vintage Baluchi-Nuristani hand embroidery and coats edged with embroidered leather. There are brightly coloured long dresses adorned with intricate beadwork and a very specific embroidery design with sharp edges, like a dagger.
Despite the immense diversity, colour and variety, Afghan fashion is not well known internationally. “The image you see from far is one with women in burqas and chader [a long black outer garment]. But go to an Afghan wedding and that image will be broken,” Rahimi says.
However, she has noticed a significant shift in how Afghan fashion is perceived since she first started the company. “I do get a lot of surprised reactions to my designs when I am abroad, but that is changing. Even in international fashion, there is so much diversity – and Afghanistan’s fashion is finding its place,” says Rahimi, who employees two dozen Afghans, including female designers, tailors and sales staff.
Rahimi, who is also completing her undergraduate degree in business management, admits that despite their growth, profit margins remain low. “Finances are not always [a] lot, but we have so far managed to break even. It is still a small to medium business, with investment from my family, particularly my father, who believes in me,” she says, adding that her female employees are central to her drive to keep going. “It is not just about the fashion, but also about creating jobs and empowering other women. They have grown so much with the brand; some of them are breadwinners for their families,” she says.
Hasina Aimaq, 26, another designer breaking taboos and stereotypes, also showcased her work at the Milan show, held in the historical Salone Dei Tessuti.
Aimaq’s bold designs attracted both acclaim and criticism. Her signature piece, a hand-embroidered blue dress inspired by the traditional blue burqa worn by women in , was much discussed in the country, and stirred the ire of many conservative Afghans.
Sitting in her small studio in the basement of a house in the west of Kabul, a much more basic operation than Rahimi’s showroom, she shares the motivation behind her most controversial, yet also most commissioned design from the Milan set.
“My aim was to share a positive image of Afghanistan and specifically showcase the talents of Afghan women through these designs,” she says, sitting next to a large working table where samples from the Milan fashion show are laid out. “Everyone recognises the blue burqa as Afghan clothing, so I thought: ‘Let’s make something else out of this and show them what Afghan women are capable of.’”
Dismissing the critics, Aimaq says she was encouraged the support she got, especially from women in the rural north: “I also received some positive comments, because many Afghan women acknowledge that the chader is not really part of our culture. It’s just a fabric and we can make anything out of that.”
All of Aimaq’s work is inspired by traditional Afghan handicrafts and designs, and uses locally sourced materials, even precious stones, for which the country is known. Her designs, like Rahimi’s, are a fusion of the traditional and contemporary. Another dress displayed in her studio has separate cuffs, reminiscent of Wonder Woman, with detailed embroidery. “Without saying anything, she [a woman wearing the dress] says she’s so powerful,” says Aimaq. “Each piece in this collection has a message and a story behind it.”
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She started designing in 2011, inspired by her mother, a widow who secretly worked as a tailor during the years of the , defying its prohibition on female workers. “She taught herself to sew and stitch, got better with practise and set up her small, discreet business,” Aimaq says. “My mother would stitch clothes for the neighbours and slowly started to move her products to the local markets, despite risks of being punished by the Taliban. Since I was young, I have known that she wanted to turn this into a proper business and together we did it,” she adds proudly.
Aimaq’s business provides work for more than 100 women across the Kabul and Afghan provinces, who work from home and help produce wholesale quantities of regular clothing, as well as specially designed dresses and boutique garments.
“[At the] beginning of every month, we collect all the raw material and drop it off with our home producers. They do the embroidery and sewing as needed. At the end of the month or around deadlines, we collect their work and bring it here, where two or three tailors finish the production,” she says. The system offers many women who are unable to leave home due to social restrictions the opportunity of financial independence. Each can earn 20,000 and 35,000 Afghanis (£200-£348), a substantial contribution to an Afghan household.
Being women pioneers in their field comes at a cost for Aimaq and Rahimi. Both have received threats and intimidation on- and offline. Aimaq was forced to move her studio because of the threats. But they remain determined. “We survived worse times during the Taliban regime. We are more empowered now than we were back then,” Aimaq says.