By day, Afghan-American social media fashion creator Safia models clothing for her growing Instagram platform, @bestdressedafghan, where she acts as a muse for designer brands. By night, she is a designer and fashion stylist for private clients.
The fashionista, who goes by her first name only, is the co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based luxury accessory line Kochaii. Founded in 2015, the brand sells handcrafted, embroidered iPhone covers with ornate designs.
Safia has been featured in Washingtonian magazine and named by Vogue Arabia as an It Girl. She says she is as committed to her roots as she is to her brand. By sharing with her 17,000 followers on social media her sense of style that comprises a mix of East and West heavily influenced by Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian designs, Safia’s goal is to place her country, Afghanistan, on the fashion map.
“I want our Afghan culture and sartorial designs to be celebrated in the global fashion industry, and my biggest dream is to see our people represented everywhere,” she said.
When Safia started her Instagram page in 2018, she realized there was no other social media account dedicated to Afghanistan’s fashion and textile history. “That’s when my interest grew in researching and collecting historic fashion archives, books, and magazines on Afghanistan,” she told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Safia, 26, was born in Pakistan to Afghan parents and has lived in the United States since 2002. She says growing up surrounded by glamorous women largely inspired her interest in fashion. Once she had decided to pursue it as a career, she aimed to showcase Afghanistan's rich culture by putting together looks combining traditional Afghan pieces with those from the West.
She says it was a natural choice to highlight Afghan designs in her work.
“My Afghan identity means everything to me,” Safia said. “I grew up in a family that took pride in being Afghan. My parents always told my siblings and me stories of Afghanistan’s modern and glorious past, and now that I am older I am even more proud of my heritage, and I want to celebrate it.”
Kabul's Fashion Heyday
In the 1960s and ’70s, Afghanistan and particularly the capital, Kabul, was a fashion hub for groovy and Silk Road-inspired couture. Models dressed in Afghan goat-skin coats, short dresses, and ornate jewelry posed in front of the country’s historic hotspots, an era often remembered as the golden age of fashion in the country.
Today, many middle and upper-class Afghans are passionate about fashion. The country’s plethora of quality raw materials like silk, wool, and gemstones helps continue the tradition of handcrafts and textile designs.
Safia says she wants to preserve Afghanistan’s fashion legacy and remains undeterred by challenges in her own journey. “When I started my Instagram page, I was advised by many people not to bring up my Afghan identity,” she said. “However, my family has sacrificed so much for the betterment of Afghanistan, and that motivates me to do my small part. I am proud of my heritage and would never try to hide my Afghan identity in order to get opportunities.”
A recurring issue Safia encounters is cultural appropriation. For Afghan fashion marketed abroad, most clothing designs or accessories are filed simply as “tribal” “boho,” or “ethnic.”
Safia says she hopes to use her platform to inform, educate, and hold brands accountable. “If it’s a smaller brand, I always reach out to them privately first and request they give credit to Afghanistan, and most of the time they do the right thing,” she said. “Other times, I have to post about certain brands publicly in the hope they will listen and change their ways.”
She recently posted about Re-SEE, a Paris-based luxury vintage retailer that was selling vintage Afghan dresses without identifying them. After she pointed this out on Instagram, the brand credited Afghanistan. With Safia’s help, Re-SEE then published an article on its website about Afghan fashion.
Another European brand called Zazi Vintage sells Afghan coats and dresses, but while the brand credits Afghanistan it does not feature Afghan models or work with Afghan influencers, according to Safia. She says she continues to question their lack of representation. “I have called them out many times for their lack of Afghan representation and actually got blocked by the founder, Jeanne de Kroon.”
Gandhara contacted the European designer via email, but she refused to comment on the issue.
Reclaiming Afghan Origins
Afghans living in the diaspora are pleased to see someone like Safia publicly fighting for proper representation of their culture and fashion.
Merzia Waziri is one of Safia’s biggest Instagram supporters. She says Safia’s work is what Afghans need. “In terms of fashion and culture, Safia is the best hybrid. She has paved the way for many young Afghan fashion lovers by being authentic and genuine.”
Another supporter, Narwan Sayed, who is also from Afghanistan, says she is impressed by Safia’s unique approach. “Safia is always trying to reclaim her Afghan origin, something few people are willing to stand up against. I haven’t seen any other fashion influencer with whom I can identify myself more.”
Safia maintains that rather than exploiting Afghan traditional garb, brands should honor its timeless elegance and universal appeal. For a country like Afghanistan already struggling to preserve its diverse heritage, getting credit and representation in the fashion industry would be a boost to its image, especially as it seeks to further define itself in the 21st century.