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

Joseph Altuzarra is the latest to incorporate the country's traditional designs into his work

Anna Wintour, right, with Jared Leto, red cap, and Lil Nas X at Vogue World: New York on September 12, 2022 in New York City, wearing a jacket by Joseph Altuzarra that seemingly draws inspiration from Afghan designs. AFP
Powered by automated translation

When Anna Wintour showed up to a star-studded event celebrating the 130th anniversary of Vogue magazine earlier this month, she was wearing a jacket from designer Joseph Altuzarra’s spring/summer 2023 collection resting on her shoulders.

To most fashion watchers, the coat was another example of Wintour championing designers from their earliest days. As the 2011 recipient of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award and as someone whose work has appeared at several Met Galas, Altuzarra certainly fits that bill.

To Afghan fashionistas, though, Wintour had committed the ultimate fashion faux pas, giving her much-coveted stamp 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 who goes by one name, says the influence was not only obvious, but yet another example of fashion’s years-long penchant for taking Afghan styles without properly crediting their origins.

Over the years, she says, major brands and designers ranging 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 instances for her 30,000 Instagram followers on the account @bestdressedafghan, but says she has now lost count of the number of times she's seen it happen.

“I cannot believe just how much Afghan culture has contributed and continues to contribute to fashion, but without any credit or representation,” Safia tells The National. She says major multimillion and billion-dollar brands often pass off Afghan-inspired designs using euphemisms such as “southwestern style”, “boho” and “Jimi Hendrix”.

Safia says it’s not only the designers who are to blame, but also leading fashion journalists and editors such as Wintour, who "have no clue about cultures outside their own bubbles, so they write glowing love letters to these designers season after season".

She says that in 2022, when so many labels have come under fire for appropriation, fashion media should “take some time away from their privileged platforms and do a little research to see that most of what they are praising are mere replicas of designs from other 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 accessory brand Avizeh, who lives in Dubai, agrees with Safia. She says Altuzarra failed not only to credit the people of Nuristan, the Afghan province his designs seemingly draw inspiration from, but only vaguely labelled them as “inspired by the desert”.

Like Safia, Khan believes that fashion has embraced Afghan designs while ignoring the craftspeople behind them. She says the euphemisms used to describe pieces that are clearly Afghan inspired fails to “celebrate and acknowledge the local women from the region".

"It’s completely unfair.”

So what's the solution? Khan says these brands could simply employ and empower Afghan crafts and tradespeople, recognising their contribution to the world's global fashion stage.

“If we focus on actual Afghan design techniques, it’s clear that the quality is unmatched, the details immaculate.”

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

“Afghan designs are only seen as trendy when either a celebrity is wearing them or if a fashion label has somehow refurbished the design.” And that's only if they're recognised as Afghan designs in the first place.

Safia says there have been examples of major houses properly crediting the Afghan inspiration for their work, citing John Galliano’s 1985 debut collection, “Afghanistan repudiates western ideals”.

Safia and Khan say simply using the country's name in the collection is all it takes for it to go from outright appropriation to artistic inspiration.

“To me, inspiration is when you love, respect and honour a culture and include people belonging to that culture in your vision as a designer,” Safia says.

Appropriation is something else entirely, she says, equating it to “daylight robbery of someone else’s cultural heritage … brands who don’t have an iota of shame steal from a marginalised group over and over without ever giving anything in return”.

Both women say they want non-Afghans to enjoy all manner of Afghan culture, but that it must be done with acknowledgement and respect, or in the case of brands such as Altuzarra, at least some credit to the design’s origins.

“My problem is only with brands that keep profiting from our designs while failing to educate their customers about their roots.”

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

Updated: September 23, 2022, 6:02 PM