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PeaceTimes Edition 84. Style and Substance: 
 Women Who Make It Their Way

15 August 2008 No Comment

- by Mary Liston Liepold

This issue of PeaceTimes highlights three fashion-forward women entrepreneurs. Sharifa started out in Afghanistan and came to the US, where she has designed gowns for Miss USA contestants. Nadya started in the US and followed her heart to Bali, where she continues to learn from the culture and more than 70 skilled craftspeople produce her one-of-a-kind creations. And Adenike (who was featured in the documentary Africa Open for Business) remains happily rooted in Lagos, Nigeria, where she grew a groundbreaking business in children’s clothing while raising her own three children.

Sharifa Raouf: “Afghan Style That Is Not Too Shy”

Sharifa Raouf

Sharifa Raouf

“I was seventeen when I graduated from Rabia Balkhi High School. At that time there was a one-year waiting period before one entered university. Since my passion for fashion design began at a very young age, I decided to use this year off to learn pattern making. I applied and got accepted to Sanae School. One of my earliest memories is of designing my own evening dresses for special occasions and weddings and giving them to the tailor to sew. My life was just beginning, and it was about to take a sudden turn.

August of 1979, a beautiful morning in Kabul. Everyone was going about their own business as usual until an unexpected army roamed the streets. The Soviet invasion had begun. They marched through the streets of my homeland and targeted civilians, threatening them with their machine guns and ordering them to return to their homes. In shock, many turned on their radios to hear an unfamiliar voice welcoming the Russians into Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was beginning to fall. Daud Khan, the president of the time, and his entire family were assassinated by Parchami, a pro-Communist Afghan political group. A country that had been under a form of dictatorship its entire existence began to fail completely without Duad Khan in power. Life in Kabul was horrible. Soldiers would enter the homes of those who worked for the government and were anti-Communist and killed them immediately so they could not retaliate against them for killing their President.

Being victims of possible attack, it was time for us to leave Afghanistan. Many tried to hide and escape to save their lives, but it was difficult. My husband’s family hired smugglers to get us all out. Smugglers would sneak those who could afford it out of Afghanistan in horrible conditions into Pakistan to make passports and then send them to Europe or America. Of course many had to leave without their belongings.

Sharifa Raouf with one of the Miss USA contestants

Sharifa Raouf with one of the Miss USA contestants

I had just barely begun my married life in Afghanistan when my family was forced to leave. My husband and I already had a little girl and we were expecting a baby boy in a month. I was in no shape to travel, especially through the mountains, so I allowed my daughter to leave Afghanistan with my in-laws while my husband and I stayed behind. After about a month I gave birth to my son and we all left for Germany. I was 18 years old. Life was not any better in Germany than it had been in Afghanistan. Entering a new country with absolutely no knowledge of its culture, infrastructure, and language was very difficult. I began educating myself. I took German classes to learn the language and learn how to sew.

As soon as I knew German I immediately began going to college to learn more about fashion design and sewing. In order to be a good fashion designer it is very important to understand the basic concepts of sewing. After two years we came to the United States to start a completely new life. With the knowledge I obtained from Germany I was able to land assistant designer positions with numerous well-known designers. Wanting to continue my education, I began taking courses at Diablo Valley College, where I received an AA degree, then went to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where I received my BA in Fashion Design. My third child, a daughter, was born during this time.

I sent out a few resumes to get a job and I was approached by the Miss USA Pageant. I worked with them for a while and got valuable experience interacting with the other designers and the pageant staff. I worked very closely with title nominees and winners in designing their evening wear.

After a few years I decided I wanted to work as mainstream designer, so I opened my own business, the House of Couture in Walnut Creek, California. Today I work with different exotic fabrics to mix Afghan traditional attire with a touch of modernity, designing an Afghan style that is not too shy, conservative yet elegant.”

Nadya: An Accidental Businesswoman

Nadya

Nadya

Nadya calls her involvement with fashion “a happy accident.” The phrase reveals a lot about her approach to life.

“It all started with travel and curiosity. My traveling began when I went too far away from home at the age of seven and my father took away my bike.

My interest in fashion also began early. I started subscribing to Women’s Wear Daily when I was 16. I left college and went to Paris, not knowing anyone there, because that’s where the fashions were. I walked into the Paris office of Women’s Wear Daily and there just happened to be an editor there who really wanted to speak English. So he spoke to me, and he helped me get a job in Paris in fashion. When I was leaving Paris to get married my husband-to-be said he would buy me an apartment there. The sale fell through, and of course at the time I thought it was a disaster. Now looking back I realize that if it hadn’t, I would have made Paris my base and never gone to Bali.

I landed in Bali by accident. I was on my way to the Himalayan Mountains and I kept meeting people on the road who raved about Bali. Something they told me about the names babies were given made me think that gender roles were more equal there than in other places. Though that turned out to be not quite the case, I fell in love with Bali. I wanted to make a living so I could stay. I started to collect old silver jewelry and sell a few pieces. But staying in monasteries, learning Buddhism, I came to respect the culture so much that I didn’t want to take anything away from it without great love.

Weaving caught my attention. Many places in Bali had idle looms. People had the skill but there was no demand for it. I started putting heavy fabric into the looms, heavier than what they were built for. I started making things with old textiles, covering the worn places with embroidery and whatever came to hand. I didn’t know that I could design, so at first I gave people money to do it for me. They took my money and gave me nothing I could use. And like the apartment in Paris that fell through, that turned out to be a blessing. I started cutting out circles and squares, simple geometric shapes, and making things that way. There was a fashion for the Japanese aesthetic right then; it all worked. Later I learned to do fitted clothes, so now I do both. It’s all a great experiment.

I started hiring whoever had the courage to walk in the door and ask for a job. I told them to look around and see what needed to be done, not even thinking about what I needed. The community sent me people. Everybody here is artistic. Everybody was able and eager to seize the opportunity.

Models wearing Nadya's designs

Models wearing Nadya's designs

I was learning so much from them about flexibility, humor, culture, community, and responsibility. In exchange for those grand lessons, which I am still learning, I could offer them economic stability.

That was 30 years ago. For the first six years there was no electricity except in hotels. There were very few of the hotels and other service businesses we have now. There were no phones, and a letter took three weeks. Today I employ a total of 70 people. Many of them have been with me from the beginning. About half live in my compound, and there are 15 cottage industries that supply materials as well. In some families we employ two and three generations. Many love matches have been made here.

The clothes are still an experiment, and still limited editions. Each is one of a kind and everything is reversible. We use silks, leathers, hand painted detail, embroidery, beading, batiking, and weaving. Bali is now importing fabric—it didn’t until recently—so one jacket may have materials from four different countries. I sell them at special showings in seven or eight cities around the US and in Europe as well as in Bali. In each place a community has grown up around them that reflects the lessons of Bali. There is a very special party atmosphere at every showing.*

Yes, there are a few other things I still want to do. I want to get back to the jewelry and maybe write a book someday, but I see no reason to stop what I’m doing. I don’t make five-year plans because I don’t want to limit my options. If the short term makes sense, then the long term takes care of itself.”

*Editor’s note and full disclosure: I can vouch for this, because a few years ago Nadya held a Washington showing in our offices and donated a generous percentage of the profits to Peace X Peace.

Adenike Ogunlesi: Success Was the Only Option

Adenike Ogunlesi

Adenike Ogunlesi

“My father is Yoruba, and Yoruba woman have always traded. We pay lip service to the notion that men are bosses, but we learn how to take care of ourselves. The primary driving force is that the laws here won’t protect you if your husband throws you out. He can chuck you out of his house and give you nothing or next to nothing. Those things still happen.

The essence of who you are and the purpose you have to fulfill is also a motivator. When a woman has a strong sense of her own purpose, like I do, it can either make a marriage stronger or end it. In my own case it’s been all to the good. I have a wonderful, supportive husband who is also a designer.

I went to college in England and tried to be a lawyer, and I was bored. That was my father’s vision. When I left university at 19 without a degree my Mom said ‘You can come home, but you can’t just sit around. Come work with me.’ My mother’s business was making tie and dye fabric and sewing it into contemporary styles. I joined her, and life became exciting again. I was free to express myself in any way I chose.

Dropping out of school is considered shameful here. You don’t do it. So even though I wasn’t in the professions, I had to make a path for myself, and I had to make a success. I didn’t give myself any other options. I knew I had the practical skills, but at first I wasn’t sure where to go. Then, in an airport, I bought a book called Guerilla Marketing, and another one called 100 Women Entrepreneurs. I must have cried an ocean! I was so motivated by what those women had done, starting with so little. I KNEW I could do it, and I was very lucky that I could actually do something I enjoyed.

I started my own business in 1996. I had three small children and my mother’s clientele was very demanding. I took a break to be at home with the youngest until she was three. Then I got restless. I have a lot of energy and it has to go somewhere. I wasn’t finding the kind of clothes I wanted for the kids, so I made some pajamas and when the playgroup met I took them along to show. I had orders right away. I started traveling with a suitcase full of samples. I added shirts and shorts and skirts and expanded the line fast. I went to a bazaar and sold out right away. That was good market research. I started in on the bazaar trail, showing up at every one with my clothes, a cooler full of drinks, and the three kids. I made money and put it back into the business. I took photos of the kids wearing my clothes and put them on billboards. They love it! It fills them with confidence.

My kids come first. You know, when you are centered you bring up children who are functional, who can reason, talk, communicate. That is the biggest contribution a woman can make to world peace.

At first I found that shops didn’t respect my merchandise because it was made in Nigeria. This propelled me to show the world that Nigeria has good stuff. I hire only Nigerians. The Nigerian market is very diverse. People want to be part of the global culture. Most of my clothes use European fabrics and designs, though I do have a summer line that uses traditional fabrics. I now have 68 employees and we’re growing fast. Before the end of this year I’ll be opening two more outlets in another part of Lagos and one more in Abuja, the capital. My staff is a mix of women and men, but more than half are women and they’re everywhere: administration, retail, as well as manufacture.

I travel and go to courses to learn more about marketing. I am always learning, always working on the vision, the mission, the analysis. But do I want to expand indefinitely? Not at all. Can I compete with the Chinese? If I worked outside Nigeria it would be selling our traditional woven cottons … perhaps in Ghana or elsewhere in West Africa, but not beyond. My objective is having a fulfilled life.

The way I wound up being featured in Africa Open for Business is interesting. I got a phone call one day and a lady said she wanted to meet me, to come and film my work. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Are you sure you want me?’ She came from Ghana to Nigeria. Then she called back and said she was worried about her safety. I told her, “I will have you met at the airport and you can stay at my house.’ My kids moved their things aside to accommodate the crew. I cooked for them all. They were surprised at the quality of our lives.

I said many years ago that I am going to let the whole world know about Nigeria. Maybe someone heard it, somewhere in the universe, and pointed people in this direction. My success has been sheer hard work. Sometimes you laugh and sometimes you cry. And the prize at the end of it is quite fulfilling. Since the film was made I get emails from all over the world. There is a universal connection, because all over the world people face the same issues. It hasn’t been a bed of roses, but it has been one fascinating adventure!”

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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