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Dignity and reform, one thread at a time

By employing Afghan women, designer Sarah Takesh is working to rebuild their world.

February 21, 2004|Nancy Rommelmann | Special to The Times

"Central Asia is exotic with a capital E, like nothing else," says Takesh. "The people are kind of white, kind of Chinese, kind of Persian, kind of Indian. It's the heart of an already very, very rich, crazy continent. You get this fabulous, difficult-to-decipher blend -- that was what was really inspiring....I turned to my friend and said, 'Dude, I am going to do something here. This is what I'm going to do at business school.' "

In 2003, the year she graduated from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, her plan for Tarsian & Blinkley won the grand prize in the Global Social Venture Competition, sponsored by several business schools and Goldman Sachs and given to socially conscious business ventures. She combined the prize of $25,000 with savings and some investors' money to open her Kabul workshop.

"The first time I went there was summer 2002 -- it was my summer internship for business school, and I met some of the women who work for me still," she says. "The Taliban had just left, and really, the women were very stressed out, they were trauma victims basically. If they smiled they would cover their mouths in shame."

Many of the women were returned refugees, and most girls of a certain age were illiterate because the Taliban had forbidden them to go to school. But they'd learned from their mothers the handwork Takesh pays them to do. Each tribe has a different specialty; one shirt might be worked on by as many as four different women, one to do the fine-gauge crocheting, another the beadwork, another the thread-counting kandahardouzi embroidery of Afghanistan, with its precise geometric floral motifs, which Takesh often puts on pants legs.

"But I don't like them to do kandahardouzi too much, because it weakens their eyes," she says.

Since Takesh opened her workshop, the women have "lightened up" to the point where they hang out and gossip -- and wonder at the ways of the West.

"Kabul is a big party town, and everybody's got to have outfits to wear when they go out," says Takesh. "These foreign girls, the expats, the U.N. crowd, will come by. So here's this Danish girl running around the office in her bra, trying on this top." She holds up a sheer mauve halter with a T-strap down the back. "The lady who made it is sitting on the floor, watching -- she doesn't even know what this top is, [the women] don't know what you would do with it....It's slowly become this sort of cultural exchange, which softens everyone's edges a little bit."

As for the future of Tarsian & Blinkley, Takesh says she has to balance what the industry wants and what is good for her workers. "There's all this pressure from the market to be super-hip," she says, "but there's no point in me making pieces that do not have handwork. They have to meet a double objective."

They also need to be affordable if Takesh is to meet her goal of employing 1,000 people by year three of the business, 2,000 by year five. "If something's $500, you're never going to wear it," says Takesh, mentioning that nothing in the line wholesales for more than $110. The line is already for sale (at retail prices) in stores in Brooklyn, Denver and San Francisco, and will be available in Los Angeles at Vionnet on Robertson Boulevard and Erica Tanov on West 3rd Street.

Packing up her samples, Takesh acknowledges that her dream might strike some as unrealistic, even dilettantish. "Everyone said, 'What you're doing is a quixotic delusion.' And I am feeding my ego in some way....I am going to get so much satisfaction if I have this place for myself over there, where everything works, this beautiful factory of operation, and it's done kind of old-style, with these mud structures with a central atrium space. I know where the kitchen's going to be, where the embroidery is done, where the sequins get attached, where the hardware gets welded. And women come and go."

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