For many people, fashion in Afghanistan means women in burqas and men with full-length beards, not dynamic young fashion designers. Yet in 2015 two young designers in Kabul launched a high-end, ready-to-wear fashion line, which has blossomed, despite both criticism and threats towards their staff.
Laman is the word for “skirt” in ancient Persian. It’s also the name of the brand launched two years ago by two Afghans in their twenties - Rahiba Rahimi, a law student at Kabul University, and Khaled Wardak, who studied fashion design in London.
In Afghanistan, men traditionally wear loose trousers and a kurti, a long shirt, in simple colours like white, black or beige. Many Afghan women wear a full covering the burqa in public spaces. Yet Rahimi and Wardak noticed a growing demand for fresh style with more Western cuts, especially from young Afghans.
The two designers think that fashion in Afghanistan is being influenced by the foreign TV series that have found success in Afghanistan, including the American show "Prison Break" and the Turkish series "The Valley of Wolves". In both series, the protagonists wear Western-style clothes, which are often much more form-fitting than traditional Afghan clothes.
Rahiba and Khaled invested their own money to start their business. They’ve been so successful that now, two years after launching, they employ 30 people.
"Our style is modern, but inspired by traditional Afghan patterns and clothing styles."
In 2015, we partnered with Afghan Star [a TV talent show]. We were responsible for dressing both the contestants and the jury. It really helped us make a name for ourselves right from the beginning.
I’ve always loved to design clothes. I’m self-taught. I am responsible for designing the women’s collection and Khaled takes care of the men’s collection.
For me, the cut of the dress is extremely important. So is the quality of the material. I’ve always wondered why we don’t have a wider selection of designs for sale here. Traditional Afghan clothes are very colourful and decorated with bright patterns and I’ve also always wondered why we stopped dressing this way.
"We design clothes that are acceptable in Afghan society”
When designing clothes, we make sure to make them long enough and loose enough so that they are acceptable in Afghan society and no one finds them shocking. We also make sure that our designs don’t show a lot of skin. In Afghanistan, even a dress that shows just a little bit of skin would be considered unacceptable.
That said, we’ve divided our women’s collection. The clothes that have a more conservative cut are meant to be worn in public. However, we also have a line of clothes meant for women to wear at home. The dresses in that collection are a little less conservative.
Most of the clothes for sale in Afghanistan right now are imported from Pakistan, India or Turkey. Young people in Afghanistan really love celebrities from these three countries and want to dress like them. Our aim was to create modern clothes inspired by traditional Afghan patterns and styles.
We faced a lot of challenges when we were starting out. Being a fashion designer in Afghanistan is like starting out on a long journey on an unpaved road. No one has done anything like this before, so we had to figure it all out ourselves. We had to get all the proper government authorisations. We had to do a lot of research to find suppliers and set up our a line of production. We also had to take care of the marketing aspect of launching a brand, right down to finding models to show off our clothes.
"You can be a model in Afghanistan… but only if you aren’t Afghan”
We’ve also had trouble finding employees with the right skillset. A lot of the dressmakers here all come from the same school of thought and design. The way that they make dresses is really different from what we have in mind. We had to convince our employees to follow our designs.
We got a lot of criticism after our first fashion show in Kabul in 2015. Some of the criticism was directed at us but some was directed at our seamstresses. Many Afghans disapprove of women doing something like this and four of the girls working for us said that they had received threats. They never wanted to work with us again.
Once, during an event we held at one of the embassies in Kabul, we asked a few women working for the American Embassy if they would consider modelling for us. They agreed. Recently, a Lithuanian woman also agreed. In Afghanistan, you can be a model… if you aren’t Afghan.
€150 for a suit
The clothes made by Laman remain out of the price range for many Afghans a men's custom-made suit costs around 120-150 euros, and a woman’s T-shirt costs about 125 euros.
Rahiba says that their prices are “a bit higher than average”. That said, other Observers on the ground in Afghanistan said that, usually, a men's suit costs around 34 euros and a woman’s T-shirt for four euros. The average monthly salary in Afghanistan is around 135 euros, which makes it clear that the bulk of Laman’s customers come from the upper class.
There are a few small Afghan businesses that focus on clothes and textiles, but nothing major. While the textile sector here is still under-developed, we are seeing consumer demand grow. Many young women have started altering their own dresses making them shorter, for example. For us, that’s proof that things are moving in a new direction.
While Laman’s two founders say that they haven’t received any threats directly from the Taliban or any other groups that operate in the region, they do admit that they were worried about their security when they first launched. Their success has made them feel “stronger”, according to Rahiba.
In 2015, Afghanistan spent close to 208 million euros importing textiles and clothes, mainly from China, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.