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Afghan Fashion Hits London's High Street

Afghan fashion designer Zolaykha Sherzad looks through clothing from her label Zarif Designs at a London boutique
Afghan fashion designer Zolaykha Sherzad looks through clothing from her label Zarif Designs at a London boutique

An Afghan fashion designer named Zolaykha Sherzad has given a contemporary edge to traditional Afghan style. She's recently brought her designs to London and they're proving quite a hit with the British.

Zolaykha Sherzad launched her fashion label Zarif Designs in 2004. It started as a way, she says, to provide work for eight women who had skills, but no way to earn a living.

Fashion design helps Sherzad reconnect with her roots

Now, just half a decade later, she's selling her designs at a boutique in London.

Sherzad, who was born in Afghanistan but moved to Europe at age 10, says the project has helped her reconnect with her roots.

"I think I was looking for something to connect me back also to Afghanistan," Sherzad said. "It was not just going and helping, I think it was also something that I wanted to search my own identity and my own culture."

Women entrepreneurs

Her company now has a workforce of 50. They're all based in Afghanistan and 60 percent of them are women.

Sherzad says she uses traditional Afghan fabrics and styles and works them into a contemporary design. Colorful wools and silks are woven and embroidered by hand. Some are etched with verse written by a 16th century Afghan poet.

Afghan fashion designer Zolaykha Sherzad
Afghan fashion designer Zolaykha Sherzad

Sherzad says since the end of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan, women have started to experiment more with their own fashion. The burqa, she says, is not the whole story.

"The burqa is not a fashion. It's almost like a raincoat; you just cover yourself to go from one place to another one," Sherzad added.

But most of Sherzad's designs are hitting the overseas market - in fact, 90 percent of her apparel is sold outside of Afghanistan.

And they're proving popular.

Mannie Serpell manages the London boutique where Sherzad's designs are on sale. She says they're selling quickly.

"I think everybody is aware that it's a unique piece. It's not mass produced. It is made by women by hand - hand-dyed, hand-woven -- and so it gives it that something special. Every garment has got its own story," said Serpell.

Customers find her works inspirational

The customers here told VOA it's nothing like what they normally see in the shops.

One woman said she found the project inspirational.

She said, "We only hear bad news and bad things about Afghanistan, mainly about the war, and it's nice to know there's actually some positive things coming out of their country."

It's that kind of response that Zolaykha Sherzad says motivates her.

Fabric used in Zarif Designs
Fabric used in Zarif Designs

"I think that in any country that's in crisis creativity is a means to transform, is a means to change things, to provide hope and I feel like it's an important time for Afghanistan, for the Afghan people to be recognized by outside of Afghanistan but also for the outside to see Afghanistan with a different eye," said Sherzad.

Sherzad's designs have already spread to Paris, Dubai, New York and now to London. It's a start to making her vision a reality.