Threads of culture: unveiling the rich tapestry of Central Asian fashion

When we think of fashion, our minds instinctively conjure up images of famous global brands such as Giorgio Armani, Valentino, MaxMara and other influential fashion icons. This leads us to ponder the connection between these international fashion powerhouses and the distinctive fashion landscape of Central Asia. However, the relationship is not a straightforward one of equal collaboration. While we readily consume products from these global brands when they are available in regional stores, a prevalent trend sees people opting for counterfeit items due to their more affordable prices.

Yet amidst the allure of global fashion, Central Asian cultures boast patterns, symbols and forms that remain underutilized in the broader fashion narrative. Contrary to the notion of a single ‘true’ or ‘pure’ culture, the world is a tapestry of interconnectedness, woven with patterns, motifs, colors, sounds and tastes. The challenge is to incorporate these elements respectfully, without divorcing them from their cultural origins.

There are concerns about the effectiveness of the efforts of the Ministries of Culture across the Central Asian region to increase global recognition of their cultures. There is a perceived need for increased initiatives to reduce regional obscurity and disseminate information about the unique patterns and symbols that could serve as reference points for global audiences. One potential way of achieving this is through the integration of local patterns into the designs of world-class brands, thereby contributing to the wider recognition of the region, provided that such use is appropriately linked to its cultural sources.

Magazines dedicated to representing the region, such as VOCA, play a key role in showcasing Central Asian cultures. Through articles and analysis, these publications shed light not only on the development of the fashion industry in each Central Asian country, but also on the ongoing cultural and socio-political dynamics. Topics range from fashion in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to insights into the region’s distinctive jewelry.

Looking at the development of the Central Asian fashion industry, it’s worth noting that the profession of fashion designer emerged after the collapse of the USSR, when the former republics gained independence. The current role of a fashion designer merges two previously separate professions: costume designer and designer or fashion designer.

The term ‘designer’ has evolved into a language that accurately reflects the multifaceted role of a fashion designer, encompassing not only functionality and practicality, but also a commitment to artistic expression.

A common thread unites Central Asian fashion designers – their deep inspiration from existing traditions of national dress. Across the region, designers incorporate elements such as Kurtai Chakan, Chekmen, Beldemchi, Chapan, Kurte or chirpy into their creations, representing the rich diversity of clothing culture within each Central Asian state.

While the article acknowledges that it’s impossible to comprehensively detail every aspect of each country’s wardrobe, it underscores a unifying fact – the development of fashion industries in these countries began with a keen focus on their origins and roots. However, the emergence of globally recognised Central Asian fashion designers who can authentically convey their culture through fashion is a phenomenon that has yet to fully materialize.

The narrative touches briefly on Gulnara Karimova’s attempt to promote Uzbek culture through her Guli brand. Despite the controversy surrounding her methods, Guli’s influence extended beyond Uzbekistan, shaping the fashion industry in Tajikistan and illustrating the powerful energy of imagination inspired by traditional fabrics.

Environmental awareness also emerges as a unifying aspect among Central Asian representatives, with a collective emphasis on upcycling, vintage materials, craftsmanship and artisanship. This approach not only demonstrates a commitment to the environment, but also contributes to the uniqueness of fashion items and supports local economies.

The article concludes by highlighting the ongoing developments in the Central Asian fashion industry, and the efforts of local brands to gain recognition. Events such as fashion weeks, although more locally focused, are contributing to the growth of garment production, although prices for such goods remain consistently high. The piece anticipates increased awareness and recognition of Central Asian fashion, thanks to the attention garnered by Modic magazine and Feeric Fashion Week. Ultimately, this amplification aims to promote cross-cultural dialogue and offer a glimpse into the diversity of Central Asian fashion, which contributes to the global mosaic of cultures.

Kazakhstan: Aijan Abdubait

Aijan Abdubait (1962) a certified artist and clothing technologist from Kazakhstan. She was a Member of the Union of Artists of the USSR. She runs the Aijan Abdubait Fashion House, which is about 800 sq. meters. Her work is based on gold embroidery, which she began to do shortly after the collapse of the USSR. Talking about her professional path, she recalls her past, when there were no bright clothes, when they tried not to show national clothes, when it was a natural desire to remake purchased clothes for themselves. She is considered one of the best craftswomen in Kazakhstan, the author of traditional embroidery carpets (shpalers), the winner of various competitions, where these carpets were awarded various awards.

In those years, national self-consciousness began to grow, to wake up with it, there were commissioning for clothes or interior items with gold embroidery. Tapestries, chapans, traditional dresses and headdresses became very important for the population.

Aijan enthusiastically talks about spun gold embroidery, that it is a metal spring (Zardust in Persian), not a thread, how to use it. She spent three years learning how to embroider a gimp. She says that the metal spring (Kanitel in Russian) can be of different textures: faceted, matte, smooth. She believes in her mission of preserving her culture, the traditional costume and embroidery. Therefore, fashion for a fashion designer is more about preserving the roots, pride in her culture, and colorful clothing.

Kyrgyzstan: Mirrahim Oposh

Mirrahim Oposh (1988) came into fashion in 2013 as a mature researcher with a master’s and postgraduate degree in philosophy, as well as various additional education courses. His first collection consisted of men’s shirts with ethnic colors and was presented at the

Oimo festival in Bishkek 10 years ago. In those years, Mirrahim did not have clear goals for his path in the fashion industry, but had a strong desire to realize himself, to leave his mark on life. They were driven by a desire for self-expression.

Finding himself and raising certain questions through fashion was a top priority for Mirrahim Oposh. Issues of self-knowledge, self-reflection through fashion as a person or a representative of a certain ethnic culture has been important. “I wanted to understand how creativity actually helps to know oneself, one’s roots, one’s identity. Fashion is one of the ways to do good for mankind, to serve him; fashion helps to look deep into yourself”, says the designer. Oposh’s work is not fixated on just local culture; through creativity expresses fundamental ideas about humanity, mankind, his worldview. He can easily use Japanese, African motifs, cultural symbols of different countries.

The conservation of nature is in the philosophy of Kyrgyz culture, it is very important for any Kyrgyz brought up in the spirit of respect for traditions to take care of nature. Sustainability is at the core of Oposh’s creativity. Recycling, upcycling is very important in creativity. Not only handmade fabrics, but also the execution is completely manual.

Tajikistan: Khurshed Sattorov

Khurshed Sattorov (1981) is one of the pioneers of the fashion industry in Tajikistan. He is one of the first fashion designers who paid attention to Chakan embroidery and contributed to the popularization of the Chakan Dress (Kurtai Chakan) both in the country and abroad. To date, he is the most famous fashion designer, a distinguished guest at international events as part of the state trips of the President Rahmon. Khurshed has always been distinguished by his delicate taste and extravagant style. He is one of the first designers to integrate embroidery into fashionable contemporary clothing. He was also the first to create a men’s clothing collection, incorporating the fashion trends of modern men’s clothing with national ornaments. Sattorov’s clothing models have entered the wardrobe of many Tajik brides, whose financial viability can afford to purchase clothes from SK Collection. He is one of the most popular fashion designers for guests of the country. In addition to the imposing costume version of products, Sattorov has various utilitarian types of clothing, such as coats, raincoats, dresses – which are very comfortable to wear in everyday life.

Sattorov dreams of creating his own museum and theater, which would collect all the Suzane (national carpets) embroidery, dresses and headdresses from all regions of the country to promote the art of Tajiks. The fashion designer has his own showroom in Dushanbe, where it is possible to buy clothes. There are no online sales yet.

Tajikistan: Zarina Anvar Oripova

Zarina Anvar Oripova (1986), a China based Tajik clothes designer has been a visual artist, filmmaker. ZANN Zarina Neelson brand was created in 2019 with herself and her partners, and this name has the lettering of all her partners.

Living in China for many years, Zarina began to understand that the beauty standards had swallowed people up. People put a lot of effort into changing themselves to certain standards.

“The commercial component was not the reason for creating a clothing brand. We didn’t have to create a brand for the sake of clothes. There are a lot of clothes here, China is drowning in clothes, tons of different clothes, but there was a desire to stop the moment, to keep a person in a person, with his originality. We wanted to create clothes with meaning. Perfection is imperfection was our slogan.”, says Zarina. A Wabi Sabi life style of Japanese culture, where ugly is beautiful, has become an inspiration for Zarina.

The eco-component is an important attribute of the brand. Manual labor, piece goods, which contributes to the protection of the environment. “There are so many clothes in China that you can buy cheap clothes every day. There are no second-hand clothes at all. Minimize the wardrobe, better less is better, so that there is less clutter in the wardrobe”, says the designer.

Zarina has become the face of the brand. “Our clients have become part of our family. They buy the whole capsule step by step. Our main customers are foreigners in China. Initially, we wanted to produce for the local market, but it was expats who responded to the concept of our brand”.

Turmekistan: Sheker Akiniyazova

Sheker Akiniyazova comes from an intelligent family in Turkmenistan. Her father was a professor in technical sciences. He always loved architecture and influenced his daughter to learn it. Due to education in the field of architecture, she can easily navigate both in design and in other areas of visual creativity. Architecture has given her the impetus to make clothes.

Sheker emphasizes on importance of a basic art education as a must for a fashion designer. She believes that a clothes designer needs to know the right combination of colors, proportions, styles, even when mixing, you need to know the basics do the anti-style. Neo-Folklore is the main direction of her collections. This style allows her to create clothes using traditional Turkmen elements of national clothes in a modern interpretation, adapting them to the modern rhythm of life. She considers Turkmen ornaments and patterns as her autograph.

In 2017, she opened my own sewing studio due to the support of the British Embassy to Turkmenistan. She considers small sewing companies that each has own individual style. “There is no malicious exploitation of labor in small scale companies, as often happens in large clothing companies”, suggests Sheker.

Uzbekistan: Kamola Rustamova

Kamola Rustamova (1982) is a graduate of fashion schools in Seville, Spain and in her own country in Uzbekistan, started her activity already in the 2000s. Kamola embroidered patterns on her grandmother’s costumes, collected beads, and at the age of 10, Kamola knew for sure that she wanted to create her own clothes.

The brand name Azukar Morena (brown sugar) has Spanish roots. It hints at cane sugar, the sweetest, healthiest sugar. Sustainability is a basic principle in the activity of the fashion designer. She creates the clothes that are the least harmful to the environment. There are two source lines for the brand’s fabrics: one line is hand-woven Margilan fabrics, Ikat. The second line is vintage fabrics. This project started in 2019. At that time, few people paid attention to vintage fabrics, but Kamola had already begun to buy up old materials.

She often recreates old drawings on fabrics and her goal is to urge young people who buy her clothes not to forget their traditions, history, and roots. She is convinced that there should be a choice for a woman, that if she wants to put on a veil, let her put it on, no one should forbid a woman the clothes that she wants to wear. For example, there are women who wear a Hijab, let them wear it if they want. Previously, it was not a choice, it was a duty, and I am for the choice of a woman.

Kamola has no ambition to create his own empire. Fashion for her is self-expression, and a favorite pastime that satisfies both materially and spiritually.

Written by Lolisanam Ulugova

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