Like many Afghan children during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zolaykha Sherzad was forced to flee her country. She settled in Switzerland where she gained a degree in Architecture and dreamt that one day she could help rebuild her homeland, but life took her to New York.
“I found myself working on restorations of loft apartments and then Afghanistan came back to mind,” she says. “In 2002 I set up School of Hope, and that was under the Taliban – there are still underground schools in Peshawar. I wasn’t able to connect to my culture except through the news, which was devastating, and setting up the school was a great journey to reconnecting back with my culture.”
Whilst working in Afghanistan she discovered a craft project making candles and Zolaykha found that there was a way to link both her creative design interests with her passion for Afghanistan.
“In 2004 there was little focus on craft and so I just started by myself with a collection of clothing as a pilot project. After six months I did a collection just using old textiles and used men’s old coats called ‘chapan’ that I found on the market.”
She chose the name Zarif as it is the Dari word for “precious”, she says.
“It evokes a revival of the old Silk Road and honours and celebrates what is precious by constructing new bridges.”
Zarif Design clothes are both about reviving traditions but also using creativity to create beautiful, wearable clothes that have an international appeal using graceful tailoring that flatters both men and women.
The fabrics used challenge a jaded view of Afghanistan. Evening gowns made of soft flowing silks in rich colours are printed with calligraphy reciting lines of poetry. Coats are made from panels of bright colours with exquisite detailing. It is “slow fashion” honouring age-old techniques of handcrafted garments and natural dyeing whilst supplying a living wage for men and women.
Zolaykha has trained women and men to develop their tailoring skills initially as apprentices, then as employees.
“Now we have 50 staff. We have 36 tailors.”
She continues to develop the brand and job opportunities for Afghan people in the company. Zarif Design has launched a collection at trunk shows around the world including a partnership with Agnès b, who have showcased and supported the work done in Afghanistan. The ethos of the company is to create fashion collections that foster artisanship and boost economic development. It is about beginning to create some stability in a troubled place whilst connecting the makers with their past and communicating between east and west as Afghanistan once did in the heyday of overland commerce between east Asia, Europe and beyond.