“We don’t have beards. We don’t wear traditional clothing. We sport long hair,” says 21-year-old Reza Yousufi. “Once foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban or the people who have become violent over the years will kill us.”
Yousufi is slim, fair-skinned and looks as if he might be Korean— an idealized aesthetic amongst Hazaras. His brown hair spikes up around his head like a flame and his eyebrows are perfectly plucked into a thin arch– something men here hardly ever do.
But Yousufi is not like most men in Afghanistan. A former actor and tattoo artist, Yousufi started a western-styled fashion and modeling group in Kabul three years ago called A3R, which is made up of Yousufi and his friends Ali Reza Mohammadi, Rohullah and Rahmat.
A3R started by posting a picture of themselves on Facebook and received so many “likes” amongst youth in Kabul they hoped they might build-up a following like their idols—the South Korean modeling group JYJ.
Ali Reza designs their clothing, the wife of one of their friends makes the clothes and Rahmat and Rohullah are responsible for hair and make-up.
Their dream is to have a fashion show inside of Afghanistan and present a different aspect of their country to the rest of the world. “Afghanistan is not only about wars and violence,” Reza says. “There are many young men and women who want to prosper just like everybody else and work in various fields.”
A3R has been labeled "gay" and "Iranian"
The risk in being different
But standing out is not easy in Afghanistan.
“Over the past three years, we’ve heard a lot of sarcasm and offensive words. People have called us gay. People have called us bisexual. People have called us Iranigak, (someone “acting” Iranian)," says Yousufi.
“We have heard every type of sarcasm in Kabul you can think of so we tried to make some minor changes to the way we dress to fit in better.”
Yousufi says their group’s motivation has faded over the last three years as the group has still not managed to land a supporter or sponsor, let alone a clothing production company interested in the type of clothing they wear and produce.
Yousufi, who previously lived in Iran and took part in several theatrical dramas there and freelanced as a tattoo artist, says Afghan models and entertainers have a hard time getting noticed, especially if the models do not work in other fields where they can gain publicity.
“In Afghanistan, you need support and networks even if you do modeling and commercials for clothing companies. No one pays attention to art or artists here,” Yousufi says.
Rahmat and Rohullah work at Sky Fashion, a clothing store, where most of their customers are aged between 16 and 25. When customers see their hair and makeup, they ask them where to get similar styling, makeup and hair coloring.
Western styles are all the rage amongst youth in Afghanistan, with women and girls dying their hair a wide range of colors, cutting and even shaving off their hair.
Mahan Bahrami is 24 and helps A3R design clothes and he is inspired by western designers like of Dolce Gabbana, Giorgio Armani Beauty and Michael Kors.
Bahrami designed a pair of trousers that he noticed became best sellers in other countries a few months later. “On the one hand it made me happy,” he says.” But on the other hand it is disappointing that there is no one in Afghanistan who supports such talents.”