Kabul – Cheap, Chinese-made nylon burkas are flooding Afghanistan's north as consumers turn to affordable, mass-produced fabrics – but in Kabul a small, determined fashion house is fighting to preserve the traditional textiles once integral to Afghan culture.
Launched in 2006, 'Zarif' – 'precious' in Persian – commissions traditional cotton and silk from artisanal weavers, then employs more than two dozen people – mostly women – to tailor and design the fabrics into handcrafted, embroidered clothing. But with cheaper imports saturating the market, they are struggling to keep local traditional methods afloat, says founder Zolaykha Sherzad.
Only decades ago, the textile industry was on par with Afghanistan's legendary carpet trade, famed since the days of the old Silk Road. During its heyday textiles were more than just fabrics, with their patterns, colours and embroidery illuminating the origins and tribal history of their makers. "In the past, the fabrics were entirely embroidered, on the walls, the cushions… the wedding dresses," says Sherzad.
"But now, we are trying hard just to keep them as ornaments on jackets and coats, to maintain the know-how," she adds, saying the decline in the craft has put large numbers of women out of work who once were able to make a living at home. With Zarif, she hopes to fill the gap while aiming to preserve Afghanistan's textile traditions and designing contemporary takes on Afghan fashion staples.
A visit to the bazaar in northern Mazar-i-Sharif shows the challenge she faces. There, bundles of striped and padded coats, or 'chapans' – popularised in the West by ex-President Hamid Karzai – pile up in stacks at stalls. 'Too bright,' she says, discarding the synthetic fabrics.
For many consumers, however, they have their appeal. The cheaper knock-offs are printed on nylon, rather than silk, closely replicating traditional designs but at a third of the price. "These cost 800 to 1,200 afghanis ($11 to $18), compared to 2,500 ($36) for a traditional chapan," explains Abdullah, a merchant.
Now only the rich can afford the handmade silk chapans, often buying them as wedding gifts, while middle-class and working people opt for the synthetic designs. Markets across Mazar also burst with the polyester burqas Afghan women are forced by tribal culture to don. But even the fabrics used for this ubiquitous garment come increasingly from abroad.
"China, India, Pakistan, everything comes from outside," Hashem, a dyer and weaver for Zarif, tells AFP in the courtyard of his mud house on the outskirts of Mazar from where he manages the 10 women who weave for him at home. "In the old days I had 10 families working for me, today I have four," he says while squeezing a skein of freshly dyed cotton.