Ancient, Modern, Beautiful Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan.  In doing my research, I continued to discover this company, Zarif Design, creating high quality clothing for women and men, and I captured and stored dozens of beautiful photographs of beautiful coats, jackets, vests, dresses – in Zarif catalogs, on runways, and on the company’s website.

In working with the women in Kabul, I presented over and over this work of an Afghan-American woman, Zolaykha Sherzad, as light and evidence that the beauty and culture of their country would never die, and that they too could aspired to creating exquisite products – even as they journeyed for the first time into tailoring, embroidery, and told me again and again that what they really wished for was to DESIGN. In these small gatherings, and during the “Lunchtime Light” sessions, we projected images of Zarif’s clothing – and the details of cast metal buttons, the poetry of calligraphy incorporated into the silk evening gowns and scarves, the dense textures of authentically afghan patterns embroidered on the rakish cuffs of long coats.


Photo courtesy Zarif Design. Photographer:
Lorenzo Tugnoli and Model: Sarah-Jean Cunningham.

You can imagine my joy when, while visiting new Afghan-American friends in New York City upon my return to the US, that Zarif founder Zolaykha Sherzad had recently opened a small shop on the Lower East Side. The day after I was personally connected to her,   I cancelled my appointments to be able to meet her personally before “Zolay” headed back to Kabul and her shop and workshop and Kabul.

Thus began a friendship that quickly became a labor of love, and within weeks, Zolay and I were working with an incredible woman in Washington, DC (Patricia Trapanese) who has organized an effort with “Catchafire,” to produce two trunk shows in DC (at a private home and at the State Department). While in DC, we met with Ambassador Hakimi and his wife Sultana Hakimi, for tea at the Embassy.

Zolaykha Sherzad with Ambassador Hakim.
Photo courtesy Afghan Embassy Washington DC.

Only a few weeks later, Zarif contributed another trunk show to support Andeisha Farid’s organization for Afghan orphans, AFECEO, at a Wall Street event hosted by J. Luce Foundation (which operates the Stewardship Report).   Zolay’s clothing, alongside the beautiful home goods of her friend, Hassina Sherjan (founder of Aid Afghanistan for Education and Boumi), was sold with 20% of proceeds benefitting the children whose parents were gone but whose lives are now immensely rich given the generosity and vision of another visionary sister of Afghanistan, Andeisha Farid.

Today, in addition to continually evolving her line of clothing (after five years of success in Europe, US and Asia, as well as in Afghanistan), Zolay is designing costumes for the theatre (a story which I will be sharing soon”¦)

Zolay’s work and the exquisite craftsmanship of her team in Afghanistan – tells a story. The true story. It is a story that bridges history – past to present – with a look into the future.

Designer Zolaykha Sherzad, at her workshop in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy Zalmaï for TIME.

And as inspiring as Zolay’s story was and is to me – her path, determination and success shines a light for Afghans, in particular those widows I was so honored to share Zolay’s story with. They had no idea Afghanistan born a designer and entrepreneur like Zolay.

You will not think for one second Afghanistan is without a brilliant future, not when you see and feel and touch the clothing of Zarif. Quite the opposite.

It is only the media and merchants of war who would lead us to believe that Afghanistan is without hope and that it is only money and politics that will “save it.” There is so strong a heart and so eternal a beauty in this culture. If you wonder if there is any hope, follow this continuing story.

Photo courtesy Zarif Design. Photographer:
Lorenzo Tugnoli and Model: Sarah-Jean Cunningham.

Zarif Design (meaning ‘precious’ or ‘fine’ in Dari) creates high quality clothing for women and men, reinterpreting traditional Afghan materials, embroidery and craftsmanship such as calligraphy to render elegant modern designs that successfully merge Eastern attire with contemporary Western fashion.

Zarif line relies on traditional craftsmanship, representing decades of cultural history and development almost completely ignored in a society torn by more than 25 years of civil war. The materials and patterns are unique to Afghanistan and represent indigenous craftsmanship and tradition.

Through this work, Zarif Design introduces refined Afghan culture to the wider world whilst creating economic opportunities for Afghan women and men, while reviving and developing traditional craftsmanship and their skills.

The Zarif Design line is designed and produced in Kabul, employing the skills of local Afghan women and men working with fabrics original to Afghanistan. Intricate hand embroidery and brightly colored silk “chapans” are combined to create these strikingly unique and magnificently finished coats. The timeless lines of this elegant series of fitted shirts, coats and skirts perfectly bridge Central Asian tradition with contemporary Western sensibility.

Zarif, meaning “precious” or “fine” in Dari is an initiative started in 2005 by Zolaykha Sherzad, director of Zarif Design.

Photo courtesy Zarif Design.

Afghanistan’s unique identity and culture has been greatly afflicted as a result of thirty of war and conflict. A significant number of artisans and their centuries-old traditions have disappeared or are in danger of being lost. Zarif Design demonstrates the tremendous possibilities of intersecting new creative designs with these time-honored arts to satisfy contemporary taste. While promoting cultural preservation, this endeavor also provides a platform where traditional and high quality Afghan craft becomes a source of economic development.

Currently women in Afghanistan have very limited access to higher education, and are in need of acquiring technical skills to secure job opportunities. Zarif Design generates business opportunities for Afghan women and contributes to the Afghan economy by linking its people to profitable markets, both local and global. Zarif Design employs currently 52 people directly and work with families of weavers in Mazar and Kabul.

At its core, Zarif Design acts as ambassador, sharing Afghanistan’s cultural heritage with the world.

When Zolaykha was 10 years of age her family fled the war in Afghanistan and after a short stay in Iran settled in Switzerland. Zolaykha had most of her education in Switzerland, where she studied architecture because as she sees “Architecture as a way to blend art and reality.” Zolaykha studied fashion design in N.Y. in 1997. In 2000 Zolaykha founded the NGO ”˜School of Hope’ ( that supports schools in Afghanistan and partners them with schools in the U.S. The School of Hope since has merged with ”˜School of Leadership’

She currently splits her time between Kabul, where her workshop is, and N.Y. where she practices architecture.

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About Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan

View all posts by Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin has been writing for The Stewardship Report since 2011, starting with her column AN AMERICAN IN AFGHANISTAN. Back from Kabul, but still very active in supporting Afghan social entrepreneurs, she is now inking a weekly column on leaders in humanitarianism who are creating innovative and efficient models for positive change and sustainable impact. Cynthia is Founder and President of Artin Arts, and a James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation Global Advisor.

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