Before Kabul became synonymous with violence and devastation, Afghanistan’s capital city was considered one of the most fashionable places in the world. From the 1920s to the 1970s, Afghanistan celebrated its rich culture – the December 1969 issue of Vogue even ran a cover story on Kabul fashion called “Afghan Adventure.”
But decades of war have erased the Western influence on Afghanistan’s style and destroyed much of the vibrancy of the country’s fashion traditions.
In an attempt to revive some of Afghanistan’s sartorial glory, university student Rahiba Rahimi, 21, teamed up with a group of young Afghan entrepreneurs to create Laman, the country’s first locally produced and marketed fashion label. Launched in 2015, Laman – which is Pashto for “skirt” – fuses Western and traditional styles and highlights modern versions of what Rahimi calls the “almost forgotten” ethnic handicrafts. The goal, says Rahimi, is to “reintroduce Afghan fashion to the rest of the world.”
From its first official catwalk show, which was hosted in Afghanistan’s U.S. Embassy, Laman has grown into a label worn by everyone from young girls to government officials. Rahimi and her team have also designed clothes for some of the judges and participants in the wildly popular TV show “Afghan Star,” a singing contest modeled on “American Idol.”
Women & Girls spoke with Rahimi, who lives in Afghanistan, about the changing attitudes of Afghanistan’s young generation and the empowering nature of fashion.
Women & Girls: What inspired you to start Laman?
Rahiba Rahimi: Quite a few things. I was always fascinated by the beauty of our traditional customs and the rich history that lies behind an item of our handicraft. I grew up seeing my mom wearing dresses and scarves with Afghan embroidery and jewelry. Ever since then, I wanted to have my own design company and my own brand to claim our cultural heritage, to help Afghanistan have a brand and to make room for traditions in modern Afghanistan.
Women & Girls: Who is your target market?
Rahimi: Our target market was initially middle-class to upper-class Afghan citizens, both male and female. But, today we have foreign customers inside and outside Afghanistan. We have women who hardly step out of their house as our customers. Other customers include young Afghan boys and girls and government officials.
Women & Girls: How is fashion empowering for women in Afghanistan?
Rahimi: I believe how we dress communicates to others the person we are. It is a form of expression. How we choose to dress makes a statement to the world around us. So with that comes a sense of power and confidence.
We use bold colors and patterns in some of our designs. This is a big change, as most Afghan women wear muted colors like black, brown or navy to not stand out in a crowd. Fashion in a way helps our women come out of their shells and tell society, “I am here. See me. Hear me.”
Women & Girls: When you launched Laman, it was a tough time to start a business. The Afghan economy had started to fall into major crisis following the withdrawal of foreign troops. Did you ever think it would be too risky?
Rahimi: When we first started Laman, it was a critical time for any business to survive. Many investors started to shut down their businesses and leave Afghanistan due to the political uncertainty. But we couldn’t wait for the right time. We believed in what we were doing and what we wanted to achieve.
Women & Girls: Do you have a message for other entrepreneurs facing the same challenges?
Rahimi: It is always hard for a woman to lead, especially in a country like Afghanistan. Keep your head high and push forward, and at the end those who are against you will respect you. I have had great support from my family and friends, because I have shown them what I am capable of. It’s all about hard work, and thankfully Afghanistan is in a situation right now where most people’s mentality has changed and the new generation is more active in contributing to society, which belongs to both men and women equally.
Women & Girls: How do you see the role of Afghan women changing?
Rahimi: I feel this feminist intellectual awareness rising. I see families encouraging their daughters to pursue education and careers. I witness Afghan women tapping opportunities in various arenas like business, politics, sports and singing. Women in Afghanistan have incredible strength and have come a long way to gain back their rights, and they are determined to continue their fight for gender equality.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The previous version of this story incorrectly stated that “Laman” is the Persian word for “skirt”; it is actually a Pashto word.