Reviving Afghan Tradition Through Fashion with founder of Zarif Design, Zolaykha Sherzad
Zolaykha Sherzad is the founder and creative director at Zarif Design. Zolay has been featured in Vogue Italia and The New York Times, and her work exhibited at the MoMu fashion museum in Antwerp, Belgium. Her company, Zarif Design, is an Afghan fashion brand based in New York, Paris and Kabul whose mission is to economically and socially empower Afghan artisans, revive tradition, and shape the future. Zarif builds bridges locally and internationally and builds peace through connection and creativity.
When Zolay was 11, her family fled Afghanistan, eventually moving to Switzerland after they were also forced to leave Iran. Zolay took refuge in her studies, graduating from the School of Architecture at Lausanne, practicing in Switzerland, Japan, and New York City. But her thoughts, her heart, always returned to Afghanistan. Zolay transitioned to fashion, determined to build bridges between the East and West and open people’s eyes up to the beauty of Afghanistan and its people, which has been overshadowed by media stories of an embattled, war-torn country.
Chelsea talks with Zolay about her journey to Zarif, how hope lifted her up, and how ‘hardship becomes the very thing that empowers us, and fear the enemy that keeps us behind’.
Learn more about Zarif Design or purchase a handmade piece from the Zarif collection at @zarifzyc, Zarifdesign.com.
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Zolaykha Sherzad: Within the context of clothing, the makers are extremely important, especially today where we have this globalization. We don't know anymore where the product is made, by who, and it's extremely important to know what you wear that it is ethically made.
Chelsea Brown: My guest today is Zolaykha Sherzad, founder and creative director of Zarif Design, an Afghan fashion brand based in New York City, Paris, and Kabul.
Zolaykha: Within the context of right now, Afghanistan, there is a sector of the population that still have that old century skills and crafts that are so precious.
Chelsea: When Zolay was 11 years old, her family fled Afghanistan and became political refugees in Switzerland. Zolay graduated from the school of architecture in Lausanne, practicing architecture in Switzerland, Japan, and New York City, where she was a professor at the Pratt Institute of Architecture.
Zolaykha: We had to leave Afghanistan because of the war, as many families. People left for Pakistan. People left for Iran. Despite this hardship, despite those challenges, there was people out there that assist me.
Chelsea: During this time of heightened creative output and professional accolades and success, her thoughts and her heart kept coming back to Afghanistan. In 2000, she founded the School of Hope, a not-for-profit that sponsors education in Afghanistan. And in 2005, Zolay returned to Afghanistan to launch Zarif Design.
Zolaykha: Zarif is really creating this connection with the people who are the makers, in which context those makers are producing these products. What are their needs? What are the importance for them?
Chelsea: Zarif Design uses fashion with ethical values to connect and empower communities of weavers, tailors, and embroiderers to help revive tradition, shape the future and restore the sense of dignity, pride, and confidence that Zolay has always associated with Afghan culture.
Zolaykha: It's through the products that we tell the stories, by just being creative and being empowered by this practice.
Chelsea: Thank you very much again for joining us. It's such a pleasure to speak with you today, Zolay. Let's start at the beginning. Why did you create Zarif?
Zolaykha: Zarif was born out of a desire to give back to Afghanistan. I left Afghanistan at the age of 10, 11, and after 30 years almost, I would say at that time in 2001, I really felt the need to give back to this country that I left. It came out of a project that was started in 2005 after really going and visiting Afghanistan. It was a project that was related to empowering a group of artisans, giving them back a sense of dignity, a sense of integrity and identity.
Therefore, I feel in that sense, ethical fashion for me is fashion that has ethics, that has values. Fashion for me was a mean to build all those relationship and create those change value between the weaver, to the tailor until to the market.
Chelsea: Can you tell us more about ethical fashion and what elements have you incorporated into your designs with Zarif.
Zolaykha: Today, even with COVID and all of that, I think people are much more cautious and I think it's extremely important to know what you wear that is ethically made, that climately it's not being an issue for the world. It's very important to be able to revive those traditional, the fibres, for example, the silk, the cotton, natural dyes, all of that. It's a renewal almost for many brands to go back to, and have this connection, that is a direct connection to the makers. I think even in the US, people are trying to see how they can connect closer to the makers. So that's why I feel like it's very important today to really have this awareness about who are the makers and in which context those makers are producing these products, what are their needs? What are the importance for them?
Chelsea: Yes. Oh my gosh. Absolutely. Now what does Zarif mean?
Zolaykha: Zarif means fine, precious. When you describe something that is very intricate and fine, fine work, we say it's zarifas, it's a work of zarif. So for me, that was so kind of self evident that I wanted to reach to that quality, when something is delicate and precious. It was a goal as a start looking for that, so that's why I called the brand Zarif.
Chelsea: This might seem like an obvious question, but how does what we purchase or decide to wear, make a difference?
Zolaykha: It's huge. I think it's huge in the sense that it really empowers a group of people. And I think this mode of exchange, if we start with food, it's in relationship with nature, with the environment. It's really an exchange. I think clothing, it's an exchange between yourself and your environment. In that sense, and within the context of clothing, the makers are extremely important, especially today where we have this globalization, we don't know anymore where the product is made, by who and I feel like within the work of Zarif is really creating this connection with the people and that product carries not only the shape of your body, but it has more, it has really the story of those people, that those artisans are spending their days, their weeks on their life in creating something that is as much valuable for their empowerment, their economy, but also something that is beautiful, that is done with care and love.
Chelsea: Can you tell us a bit more about the artisans who brings Zarif designs to life? Who are the faces behind maybe the war-torn country of Afghanistan?
Zolaykha: Yeah. Zarif has been very lucky in a way to be able to work with different, almost layers within the fashion industry. Like we have that opportunity to work directly with the makers of the fabrics. And I think that was for me quite an important part to be able to really go to the yarn and design the colors and really meet those weavers and understand that practice that is century old practice that connects us to Central Asia. It's something so precious, that is endangered right now because of globalization, because of the market, the way it is right now, unfortunately, the handmade, it takes more time, it's slower, it's more expensive as well, it's done by hand.
So I think to really be able to see this process so closely, on a human level and spend time with them and be able to discuss colour and dice, being able to really create the community of tailors, embroiderers and weavers, by itself it's a world, it's like it's humanity. It's not really any more about the product, it's through the products that we tell the stories by just being creative and being empowered by this practice.
Chelsea: Actually talking about collaborations, you have many ambassadors and many global supporters. And one that I'd love to talk to you about is Deepak Chopra. So how did you connect with such a global figure and how does it feel to see him wearing your clothes?
Zolaykha: Yeah, Deepak Chopra, I have met him a couple of years ago through another friend of mine who has been wearing Zarif clothes and I think he mentioned something about the clothes. Anyway, I was able like a chance to do a couple of pieces for him. And since then, he has been really supportive. First of all, he's an inspiring being. He has been very supportive throughout those past few years by wearing the clothes and ordering jackets. And recently I made a request and he kindly accepted by making a personal post on his Instagram. And I'm hoping to build more of that kind of relationship with people that are out there that have a similar message of coming together, building peace.
In the case of Zarif it's really, how do I build peace locally in Afghanistan to this brand, but also a cultural exchange on understanding to the brand awareness. And so I am really looking forward to meeting more individuals that could be ambassadors for Zarif, wearing a piece, speaking about the story about the artisans, about the woman embroiderers and what it takes to do that piece that they're wearing, and on how much important it is for them as well, to be part of the reconstruction of a country like Afghanistan on a smaller scale, how valuable it is, all this work anyway.
Chelsea: What is your creative process? What inspires you?
Zolaykha: The creative process, I think really, for me, it happens when I'm in Afghanistan doing my travels. It is by finding with the elements that are existing, either it's a vintage piece of embroidery, or it's a vintage piece of fabric, for me, the process, almost rediscovering what's there and recreating something slightly different. The relationships are different. It's not probably the same shape of code. So it's being inspired by what's already there. It could be a painting, it could be miniature painting that I love the colour combination or that I bring back, or it could be calligraphy work that I bring to the clothing, using embroidery and flowers, how nature has been important in all culture, how human being has always tried to represent nature and the kind of re-representing it in a different way with all those flowers that are used for the coats on a larger scale, for example. So the process is really working with the material that is out there and speaking with artisans, creating something that makes sense and has this story behind.
Chelsea: One of your missions for Zarif was to build a bridge between the West and the East and change any misconceptions about the Middle East and Afghanistan specifically, how do you think fashion can achieve this?
Zolaykha: On a personal level, as I mentioned that I left Afghanistan at my early age, naturally, I wanted to connect these two worlds because I was lucky to be able to study abroad and build a career and be able to learn about this culture that I am living right now. There was a desire for me to connect to Afghanistan that was beyond the media, beyond the space of civil war.
So I think the fact, the day I jumped on the other side saying, "Okay, I will take the leap and go to Afghanistan to discover it for myself." I really saw another window about this country. It was about the people, it wasn't really any more about the politics. And I think Afghanistan has been also confined right now with this Middle East that is defined by war on terror. Unfortunately, we have forgotten about Afghanistan and Afghanistan is part of Central Asia, about a culture. It was part of the silk road that once brought the silk from China to Venice or the colour blue from the stone that was taken all the way to Europe. So those are very important aspects that we need to revive today, because unfortunately with globalization, again, to be able to connect so fast to different worlds, but not be able to connect on a human level, it becomes a problem.
Chelsea: Absolutely. For those of us who can't physically be in Afghanistan, can you take us back to what it was like, from what you remember living there when you were 11 and younger?
Zolaykha: It's very subjective in a way, if you ask me or ask somebody else, but what I remember myself personally, it was a landscape that was much more peaceful. I remember almost the nature, the flowers, the perfume of the flowers, the gardens, there was a sense of peace that I felt, of course there was probably issues between the urban life and the provinces and all of that. But Afghanistan was a country that was open, that was a passage again in the sixties, seventies, a culture that was inclusive. So yes, this is what I remember. It's a fragment of moments of spaces and images.
Chelsea: Wow. Can you talk to me about your experience fleeing Afghanistan at age 11 with your family and growing up in Switzerland, a country that would appear to be the opposite of Afghanistan?
Zolaykha: Once we had to leave Afghanistan because of the war, as many families, people left for Pakistan, we had to transition, we went first to Iran, where there was another coup and we had to leave again, Iran as well. So coming to Switzerland was a total again, a shocker from where we were, but in a way I feel like again, we were very lucky to be able to be in a more peaceful country where I was able to focus on my studies and have the basic needs and security and safety. But nevertheless, within that context of a safe place, there was a lot of challenges of learning a new language, learning from ABC at the age of 11, 12 was extremely difficult and having a whole, especially for the generation of my grandparents who have lost everything to find themselves in a different context.
I think I saw through their eyes, what we lost. As a child, you can live those experiences through your grandparents or your parents. So I kind of took refuge to my studies in school, that became kind of heaven because there was too much challenges within the family to just adjust yourself to different culture and different world. Yeah, it was challenging. But also that time, that kind of build me who I am today in a way to be able to use those skills and do something that is meaningful for me.
Chelsea: When you were just a kid, going through this, was there something specific that got you through it?
Zolaykha: For me, it's the hope that I really saw that despite this hardship, despite those challenges, there was people out there that assist me. And there was a group of teachers, the school was there to be the home for me. The first project that I started in Afghanistan in 2000, in fact, before Zarif, which was 2005, was to create an organization called School of Hope. So it brought me so much to be able to find that safe space, to project a future for myself, that I felt like I needed in a country like Switzerland, how important was it for the Afghan, this young generation, which is the future of Afghanistan? So I really felt the need to do something, that experience really created this space for me to project, and I found people that were there to support me into that dream as a child. And therefore, I think, 12, my life, I was able to look for that opportunity or for that possibility.
Chelsea: What was it like seeing your parents rebuild their life in Switzerland, from what they had always known in Afghanistan?
Zolaykha: I found it extremely challenging because the culture context is very different. The systems are very different. Again, I think this is something that has been going on for many other countries that have been on war and had to leave, today we see how much the life of refugees, we were lucky to not be under tents. But it's very fragile as a situation, as a human being, it can breaks your sense of humanity, your identity. I think I recall some of my uncles being lawyers or other family members, doctors, and suddenly losing everything or having my cousins who were almost at the level of finishing their studies and coming out with nothing. I was too young to have any degrees, but it's very difficult. And I think it's important for the whole world to acknowledge that those war creates really a gap within that society. Suddenly, you lose so many talented people becoming refugees and have to restart all zero.
Chelsea: We've collectively gone through a lot of hardship in the past year with COVID-19, nobody wants hardships in their life, but how does the process of overcoming hardship help rebuild resilience and strength?
Zolaykha: Again, it's all about your own personal perception and your desire to make it through. When I see that there really is a resilience within Afghanistan, that is either from my coworker, that are able to take the risk to come out, and despite the challenges that they have everyday they're able to see beyond that, that they have the courage. That's why I feel like hardship becomes an empowerment almost, to go beyond that moment, I think as a human being, we go through those moments of difficulties, of challenges, of fear. I think the fear is the enemy in a way that keeps us behind. And also in regards to Afghanistan, on regard to my experience of meeting Afghans and my workers to see, they have a faith that is beyond what's happening, they're not caught into what's happening in the moment in term of politics and changes, to keep looking beyond all of that and I think that's their fate.
Chelsea: How did this experience shape who you are now and what you value and appreciate. Do you think you would have become a designer if that wasn't your journey?
Zolaykha: Strangely, I studied architecture and I felt like architecture had more power to really support a society. In fact, early on I wanted to do something that was related to the arts, but it was able to contribute to society. So for me, architecture had that power. Once I was in Afghanistan, I really felt that the challenges of architecture within the context of war, destruction, politics, and economy, lack of budget, and I did study fashion. I think I was always interested into fashion and to the process of making of textile. It's the same process that architecture you work on a 2D and then you create a 3D form that are totally different skills, but the same way that architecture, I think clothing is a way to layer, to protect a layer of identity.
So therefore, when I was in Afghanistan, it kind of came organically to the architecture and clothing. How could I create this identity that I envisioned for Afghanistan, or as a fashion using traditional material, reviving traditional skills and empowering a group of artisans. And I felt like it was much more accessible to me to do this work in fashion than architecture. I had access easily to the artisans, the weavers or the tailors. I felt like the communication was more direct and it was more personal.
Chelsea: What was your transition like from architecture to fashion?
Zolaykha: Just before I left Afghanistan, I was teaching architecture at Pratt Institute. There was already a transition when I was looking at doing a project that was more humanitarian, which was schools, supporting education. In that time, when I was really kind of assessing what are the options for me to do something more personal. I really was struck by what was out there in the market. First of all, I had a hard time to see what was the Afghan fashion or Afghan identity. It wasn't anymore the burka, which is the veil, that was another way of using fashion and such a charitable way to take away all identity of a woman.
So in a way this challenge of who you we are, how do we present ourselves? So that became something that was interesting to me. And I wanted to create that brand that would represent something that was contemporary, but at the same time using traditional skills and traditional material.
Chelsea: Yes, certainly that's incredible. I'd love to learn more about what were your steps between rebuilding your life in Switzerland and teaching architecture at Pratt. And I'd love to know more about what that journey looked like for you.
Zolaykha: During my studies of architecture, we have a one-year kind of an internship, a gap year that is mandatory, but you can either do this internship in Switzerland, or you can do it in Europe. I decided to do this internship, this one year first in Japan, and then in New York. I think there was desire of exploring something larger than Switzerland.
And I feel like going to Japan really opened up something for me personally, in the same way New York. For Japan was another way to discover myself and once I came in New York, I really found that this place was allowing this exploration of who you are. I was not anymore a refugee. There was so much more than that label that I had for years to be a refugee in a way. That's where I really feel like New York has provided me that space of looking back to Afghanistan, to build a vision for something that I would have not maybe dared to do it while I was in Switzerland for some reason, I think New York has opened up that dimension of being in a city where there's all those cultures and you're not defined by who you are. And that's what I love about New York. And yes.
Chelsea: I just want you to know how grateful I am right now to hear your story, because Zolay, listening to you share your journey and your story, you're so brave and you have so much courage. What advice would you give anyone right now suffering or finding themselves in a hard position? What advice would you give to them to get through it?
Zolaykha: For me, personally, through this time of COVID I saw it is kind of common because we're all going through the same pandemic, the same struggle, there is more compassion. I feel like there has been more collaboration that is huge to be able to connect more and there is an opportunity for all of us to come together and have understanding and support. So I have been reaching out to other people, other designers, other Afghans, to see how we can all come together, join forces during this time. We all have a purpose in life, but if we can join forces, that becomes, I think, a bigger game and probably a better solution that kind of, rather than duplicating the same thing each of us in our own ways. So I am looking at myself personally, I think everybody's different for more collaboration, more support, more understanding and connection. It's an opportunity to connect more on a human scale because this pandemic is very much on a scale of human, in a very physical level. And there's a power by being all together and listening and connecting and going beyond our differences of cultural language.
Chelsea: Okay. This is a silly question. If Zarif was a person, how would you describe it?
Zolaykha: First of all, I don't see Zarif as a person. For me, Zarif is about a community, so it's not so much about a person it's really about, I would say I see more hands. If I have to describe Zarif, it's the hands of people, rather than a figure.
Chelsea: I love that. Zolay, why is reviving traditional craft so important to a country's cultural identity?
Zolaykha: Within the context of right now, Afghanistan, the options for employment, for people who have not studied, there's a sector of the population that are still working in the fields, or the weavers that are in the North of Afghanistan, there's really a segment of the population that still have that heritage. First of all, they're valuable, like old century skills and crafts that are so precious and that with the global market, we have lost that value. That's the first, I think it's very important.
Then it's creating a market that values that. And I think we're today, even here we go back to slow production. We are looking at something that is handmade and that aspect is very important for me to revive those traditional skills, to empower those people who have been left aside of the society, because they were not able to study, or they were not able to have other skills to be able to empower them on their new generation, give the interest their son or to daughter to carry that heritage. There's not many opportunities right now in Afghanistan for employment for everyone. So I think the art and crafts are huge as a foundation for the society, but also as a way to empower economically the people.
Chelsea: I guess, to end the conversation. What are your hopes for Zarif, what's next?
Zolaykha: To share the experience of Zarif almost, that's one of the reason. So far, I have been lucky to be able to share my work, physically having exhibition where I meet people, the wear and the exchange. The challenge for me is how do I do that now within this new context where we can really meet and share to find a way that people are connected, not only by the image and the words, but there is something beyond. So I hope I could create that community as well, of friends of Zarif, people who would support us because it's extremely challenging right now to maintain the work. So we're looking for people to connect with us to the social media or directly to our website.
Chelsea: Yes. And how can people get involved, just by reaching out on social, purchasing Zarif clothing, sharing the story?
Zolaykha: Each piece that is purchased is supporting back in Afghanistan, artisans from the weaver to the tailor to the embroiderers, a whole team. So it is very meaningful and important that we're able to create that exchange, it's not an NGO, it's not a charity, we're proudly creating a collection that is beautifully done handmade and we would like to have people participating in return by their desire to purchase and support us.
Chelsea: Zolay, thank you so much for joining me today.
Zolaykha: Thank you, Chelsea.
Chelsea: I can't wait to meet you soon in person and hear more about your story, just the two of us.
Zolaykha: Thank you. Have a wonderful day, Chelsea.
Chelsea: Thank you for joining me for this powerful talk with Zolay, to find out more about her story, Afghanistan, or to purchase a piece from the Zarif Collection, please visit zarifdesign.com. If you enjoyed listening to this podcast, please hit subscribe, share with your friends and visit us at millie.ca.