We begin with a riddle: what do Afghan widows, molecular biology, and Angelina Jolie have in common? Matin Maulawizada. As founder of non-profit Afghan Hands, he works with destitute widows in Kabul and Jalalabad to teach embroidery and to sell their top quality work in the US and Europe. He has two degrees in molecular biology. And, as her make-up artist, he sees Jolie when she is preparing for the cameras. Jolie was Afghan Hands’ first customer, with an order for fourteen gorgeous shawls.
Maulawizada, born and raised in Kabul, left Afghanistan in 1982 – in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He put himself through undergraduate and graduate science programs by working behind cosmetics counters in nearby San Francisco. When beauty guru Laura Mercier offered him a place in her company, Maulawizada put his scientific and aesthetic powers to work as a maker and marketer of cosmetics, but also as a highly skilled make-up artist. When Gilles Bensimon asked him to join him and Liv Tyler on an Elle Magazine cover shoot, Maulawizada quickly became one of the most sought after make-up artists in the US.
The lure of his birthplace remained with him for over twenty years, and stayed strong enough that in 2004 Maulawizada returned to Kabul to do something positive for Afghanistan. Afghan Hands was born after a few trips where Maulawizada gathered groups of women to adapt motifs from a small library of antique textiles he brought with him. They mixed and matched motifs at will, gravitating to florals and also to sun-shapes with ancient Zoroastrian roots. Women from cities made chicly somber scarves, while their more rural sisters reveled in riots of color. Maulawizada edited the results into a line of very consistent quality and took it back to NYC to sell.
His focus on embroidery “of a Dries Van Noten level of quality” is fueled in part by Maulawizada’s knowledge of the influential women who sit in his chair – and in turn, the luxury marketplace of the 21st-century. “I see something happening with my clients, as well as with young, inventive women in stylish places like New York. Luxury and style are less and less associated with a logo or a brand. That’s passé. People are turning to thoughtfulness, love, and individuality in what they buy. It’s getting more metaphysical. Sustainability plays a part here, too, because people want to feel that all their actions are constructive, including their purchases.”
Pair this smart take on luxury with a commitment to helping Afghan widows gain independence, and you understand Afghan Hands. Is it an odd pairing? Not for Maulawizada. “If our great product offers enjoyment and some lessening of guilt to our customers, fine. It affords too many people with good incomes and educational possibilities to reject it. In fact, the more expensive the better. I would rather encourage the best handwork imaginable and get top prices for it than devalue the deep culture and the hours of work that go into the textiles by charging low prices.”
The proceeds from sales of Afghan Hands’ assortment of scarves and throws help establish centers in Kabul, and elsewhere in Afghanistan, where women learn to embroider, and also take classes in literacy, and in basic human, legal and religious rights. Afghan custom makes widows and their children little more than the chattel of their eldest male relative – and their circumstances are often painful. Maulawizada says of the combination of income and education, “With what we help them earn and learn, no one can to trap them with the tools of poverty, law, honor or religion. Over time they gain the tools for more independent and fulfilling lives.” His next project involves a women’s prison, whose inmates, he says, are guilty of indiscretions rather than crimes. “They stay in the prison because it’s safer there than returning to the judgment of their male relatives.”
It’s not easy working in Afghanistan’s turbulent environment. And 2009 was not an easy year for anyone, anywhere, in the luxury market. Slow sales and a huge lost shipment of intricately worked textiles eroded the financial picture for Afghan Hands. But Maulawizada is undeterred. Actress Clare Danes is planning to help to get the word out and promote the collection. Other friends and colleagues will join suit.
With these kinds of alliances, Maulawizada will continue to achieve his goal of helping Afghan women. And he may well also push the idea of sustainable luxury into a new realm. You would expect nothing less from a man of so many skills.
For more information, or to purchase, please see www.afghanhands.com.