How the world’s major fashion brands are appropriating Afghan culture – with no credit

When Anna Wintour attended a star-studded event marking the 130th Fashion Magazine Earlier this month she wore a jacket from designer Joseph Altuzarra’s Spring/Summer 2023 collection, resting on her shoulders.

For most fashion watchers, the coat was another example of Wintour championing designers from the start. As a recipient of the 2011 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award and someone whose work has appeared at multiple Met Galas, Altuzarra certainly fits that bill.

For Afghan fashionistas, however, Wintour had committed the ultimate fashion faux pas, lending her coveted seal of approval to a design they see as Altuzarra’s uncredited appropriation of traditional designs from eastern Afghanistan.

Safia, an Afghan-American style influencer and assistant designer with a name, says the influence is not only obvious, but another example of the fashion industry’s long-standing penchant for adopting Afghan styles without properly acknowledging their origins.

Over the years, she says, major brands and designers from Isabel Marant to Celine, Christian Dior, Gucci, Etro and Saint Laurent have been guilty of using Afghan designs in their work.

Since 2018, she has documented many of these cases for her 30,000 Instagram followers on the @bestdressedafghan account, but says she’s now lost count of the number of times she’s seen it.

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“I can’t believe how much Afghan culture has contributed and continues to contribute to fashion, but without recognition or representation,” says Safia The National. She says major multi-million and billion-dollar brands often pass on Afghan-inspired designs with euphemisms like “southwestern style,” “boho,” and “Jimi Hendrix.”

Safia says it’s not just the designers’ fault, but also leading fashion journalists and editors like Wintour, who “have no clue about cultures outside of their own bubble, so season after season they write ardent love letters to these designers”.

She says that in 2022, when so many labels have come under fire for appropriation, fashion media should “take some time off their privileged platforms and do a little research to realize that most of what they’re praising are just recreations of designs others are cultures”. And these are often cultures that are often not well represented in the hallowed halls of high fashion.

Marina Khan, an Afghan designer and founder of clothing and accessories brand Avizeh, who lives in Dubai, agrees with Safia. She says Altuzarra not only failed to pay tribute to the people of Nuristan, the Afghan province from which his designs were inspired, but only vaguely referred to them as “desert-inspired.”

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Like Safia, Khan believes fashion has embraced Afghan designs while ignoring the artisans behind them. She says the euphemisms used to describe pieces that are clearly Afghan-inspired do not “celebrate and recognize the indigenous women from the region.”

“It’s totally unfair.”

So what’s the solution? Khan says these brands could simply employ and empower Afghan artisans and tradespeople and recognize their contribution to the world’s global fashion stage.

“If we focus on current Afghan design techniques, it is clear that the quality is unmatched, the details impeccable.”

Western versions are often an inferior interpretation of centuries-old techniques, she says.

“Afghan designs are only considered trendy if they’re either worn by a celebrity or if a fashion label has somehow polished the design.” And that’s only if they’re recognized as Afghan designs at all.

Safia says there have been examples of major houses rightly acknowledging Afghan inspiration for their work, citing John Galliano’s debut 1985 collection, Afghanistan repudiates Western Ideals.

Safia is an Afghan-American style influencer.  Photo: Safia

Safia and Khan say that simply using the country’s name in the collection is enough to move from mere appropriation to artistic inspiration.

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“For me, inspiration comes from loving, respecting and honoring a culture and including people from that culture in your vision as a designer,” says Safia.

Appropriation is very different, she says, akin to “daylight stealing of someone else’s cultural heritage… brands that have not one iota of shame steal from a marginalized group time and time again without ever giving anything in return”.

Both women say they want non-Afghan people to be able to enjoy all kinds of Afghan culture, but that it has to be done with recognition and respect, or in the case of brands like Altuzarra, at least the origin of the design.

“My only problem is with brands that continue to capitalize on our designs while failing to educate their customers about their roots.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see work by Afghan fashion designers

Updated September 23, 2022 at 6:02 p.m

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