It’s not everyday you can say something hasn’t been photographed in NYC. It’s the city of a million snapshots and a thousand fashion editorials – but where haute couture has been photographed on the lakes of the Dal in Srinagar – Kashmiri Embroidery has never been captured in a photoshoot on the streets of New york.
I’ll tell you a story. When I lived in New York City back in 2010 – I had this secret desire to meet Brandon from Humans Of New York (like who doesn’t?) I had it all figured out, I’d be wearing one of my gorgeously embroidered pherans (of course) and he would ask me ‘What are you wearing? Or the ever favorite of everybody I meet – ‘Where are you from?’ and I would say something super poetic about being from the UK but my soul belonging to Indian Occupied Kashmir (yeah, I know, so unique) I’d tell him the story about the first time I proudly wore ‘me’ …like I said, I had it all figured out.
Well, I never did bump into Brandon but that desire to exhibit these gorgeous pieces of traditional embroidery worn within a modern framework- put the Pheran on the map of New York City so to speak – was a deep one.
Now that I have embraced this third, American identity, living, and raising a family in the USA, the idea of photographing Kashmiri clothes with NYC as a backdrop was instinctive, exciting, and with iconic potential.
The Valley of Kashmir itself, is the photographer’s dream. It has too often been a backdrop to portray another nations fashion or beauty, whether it be decades of cultural appropriation by Bollywood or the iconic images of photographer Norman Parkinson for British Vogue in 1956.
Even when the subject of the photograph has been Kashmiri – the eye behind the camera often isn’t. In recent years I have seen an explosion of Kashmiri youth owning their own stories and taking the tools with which to tell them into their own hands. There is something magical and empowering about ‘Own Voice’ stories. Two of my absolute favorite photographers from the Valley – The Other Rumii and Kashmir Through My Lense exude this magic like no other.
I wished to add to the ‘Own Voice’ story of Kashmiri fashion and design- to upend those colonial-esque images of 1956 (British) Vogue and show the Kashmiri woman as center stage -in an explosion of color and floral motif. This time with a western city as the back drop, one where she is born or lays claim to residence. Unlike those, patronising, albeit beautiful images, of white women in impossible gowns posing on shikaras.
The LA Long beach photoshoot did this to a certain extent but it was still dreamlike in its evocative call to nature. This time I wanted to tell the story of the Real Urban Kashmiri Woman, an affirmation to my teenage self – where however much I wanted to ‘assimilate’ and shop the high streets of London, I always knew I had something too precious and valuable to let go of in the worn tilla threads that scratched my face every time my grandmother lovingly took my head to her chest in one of her epic hugs.
All three Models here wearing Pherans with Tilla Embroidery. From left to right ; Suemyra in Mendhi Green Velvet Pheran with Gold Tilla on Deep Red, Mehrunnisa in Mustard wool Pheran with antique gold on maroon tilla and Faiqa in Burgundy Pheran with Silver on Blush Tilla.
At Mamanushka we love bringing women together. I certainly had the photography, storytelling and styling covered myself. However, I wanted all the apparel to be modeled and designed by women who, like me, are at home with the hallmarks of many cultural identites rooted in being Kashmiri, and I wished to celebrate the best of these worlds.
For the beautiful clothes I reached out to Kashmiri New Yorker Nousheen Afzal, the designer behind the ‘Hamzaara’ label. Afzal started it as a way of making Kashmiri clothes available to Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris in the USA . She and her sister, Shazia Gojwari, work with a team of fifteen Kashmiri based artisans, and take their time to carefully select materials and choose the designs and combinations of color and embroidery for each shawl and pheran. They typically design a total of six pherans or shawls per month – but the time that it takes to execute those designs varies depending on whether the embroidery is done by hand or by machine. Afzal happily curates and designs for both.
‘I order plain pure pashmina shawls from my trustworthy vendors and then I employ artisans from remote villages in Kashmir who make a living through this work. I personally visit them when placing an order and we work together on the color schemes and the type of threads to be used.’
She says she always wanted to bring Kashmiri fashion to her now native New York and took a bold step in leaving her career in the medical field to pursue this growing sense of entrepreneurship! ‘
Within less than a year of starting, my work got noticed and my clients appreciated me for my sensitivity in blending modern colors and trends with traditional designs’ Hamzaara boasts clients in UK, Canada, Saudi Arabia and of course all over the USA
Nousheen warmly invited me to her home to take my pick of any designs I may be inspired to photograph for this project. For someone like me, it was like being 5 years old again and my mum telling me I could take my pick of all the jelly sweets I wanted in the pick n’ mix counter ! Under her banner of ‘Hamzaara New York’, I could see what she meant by the blending of modern and traditional- which many newfound Kashmiri designers aspire to but few get completely right.
That is the spirit we tried to capture in these images of models Sabreen and Mehrunissa. Sabreen is wearing an electric blue pure Pashmina shawl & brick red silk Aaari embroidery on a cream Kaftan and Mehrunissa has this very cool color blocked semi-pashmina along with a mustard wool Pheran with antique gold on maroon tilla.
Whether with minimal embroidery at the borders or flourishingly full embroidery all over – Kashmiri shawls have a charm that has lasted centuries. First pic shows a pure pashmina shawl in its un-dyed natural state, embroidered in a pink tea colored Sozni silk border. simplicity and grace at its best. I couldn’t resist styling it worn as a head wrap tied in a distinctively quintessential Kashmiri way. It’s not often we get to see this silhouette on a modern young woman as it’s mostly grandmothers who wear this style in Kashmir – but I say all ages need to embrace this!
With the second and third images I wanted to show you this Floral Motif Jamawar Shawl now in a close up before I show you the modern way in which we styled it later, just so you can appreciate the design and dedication that goes into hand stitching such a piece of art. In Blushing Shades of Lilac, Mint and Orange Blossom – the whole shawl is almost completely covered in embroidery. Also this way of layering the shawl with a hat underneath was the way I have seen my great Grandmother wear it. Yes I am blessed with very few, but very fond memories of a Great Grandparent!
Mehrunnisa is one of my best friends and Faiqa, who you will recognise from my previous LA shoot, is the best friend of a friend, and along with Sabreen and Suemyra we all became new found friends! Basically friends upon friends and we had such a blast together. Sabreen Haziq, a Digital Media and Content Specialist by day, may as well add comedy to her list of talents as she had us all in stitches after every next sentence! Sabreen turned out to be a powerhouse at vlogging and captured the behind the scenes in this super cute and fun one minute video.
Thank you Sabreen!
I love the fact that we disrupted traffic and turned heads (a very difficult feat in NYC)!
Reclaiming the Pheran and traditional Kashmiri embroidery in its many forms (which some Kashmiris still dismiss as old fashioned) and bringing this heritage into public view is an important statement for me. Pherans in particular are so much more than just a piece of outerwear particular to Kashmiris in Indian Occupied Kashmir. It is a piece of clothing that is worn by both men and women and is so quintessentially Kashmiri that it – like its wearer- has been the subject of scrutiny and state policing. The pheran has come to represent a symbol of resistance and is a call to remember a land that is as vulnerable as it is beautiful.
Across the world, particularly in Europe and America, Kashmir is often only spoken of in terms of conflict and this seemed even more reason to remind this part of the world about its vibrancy, relevancy and contribution to fashion and culture.
Enjoy the gorgeousness peeps. As they say in ‘the city’ – everything’s a photograph in New York.
This deep turmeric shawl with blush paisleys embroidered all over is everything!
When a happy coincidence matches a random lady’s hair with the model’s embriodery!
This location in Dumbo, showing the Brooklyn bridge in the backdrop has been in countless fashion photos and not long after we left, there were more ‘fashion people’ taking up this space. I felt proud of us taking up this space for the first time and captured a real moment here with Sabreen.
Walk away like a Boss.
Talking of Boss…
This was one of those shots that came out EXACTLY as I had envisioned. There are few things more New York than a halal food cart!
The only thing fake about this photo is the fake reading!
Kashmiri silk scarves. This old school way of tying the scarf also needs to come back in style.
Can we take a moment to appreciate this hand embroidered crewel stitch handbag by Kashmir based brand ha_traders ? This gal pals image was taken by my gal pal Mehrunissa and yes thats me in the royal blue velvet, I was reluctant to be in front of the camera, however my friends were adamant that my look and visibility here were relevant to this project.
The same Kani shawl styled here two different ways. As a wrap around shawl and as a turban style hijab. Picture credit for this one – Sabreen Haziq.
I’ll leave you with this perfect blend of modern and traditional. Heres that same Jamavar shawl from before styled in an ultra modern chic look. We tied in the new with the old by using a traditional silver Kashmiri necklace as a belt.
Thank you HAMZAARA for the opportunity to showcase your beautiful designs and thank you to my gal pals for being there for me for every edit and piece of advice with regards to this shoot. You know who you are!
As to our readers – where would you like to see me take the Pheran and Kashmiri designs next? Tell me what you loved and what you want to see more of!
Kashmiri readers can tag their photos with our hashtag #BringingKashmiriBack
#BringingKashmiriBack is about elevating Kashmiri images in the media and showcasing ‘Own Voice’ stories by Kashmiris in all forms.
Clothes: Hamzaara New York by Nousheen Afzal
Jewelry: Hamzaara New York & Stylist’s own
Hats : Hamzaara New York, Manejeh Yacoub, and Model’s own
Concept design: Sumaya Teli
Styling: Sumaya Teli
Photography: Sumaya Teli & Mehrunissa Wani
MUA : Anaam Afaq
Videography: Sabreen Haziq
Faiqa Anbreen, Aerospace Engineer
Sabreen Haziq, Digital Media & Content Specialist
Suemyra Shah, Media & Entertainment Lawyer
Mehrunnisa Wani, Professor at City University Of New York & writer at Forbes