From Refugee to Fashion Designer: How Anjilla Seddeqi Is Breaking The Bias This International Women’s Day.
When you think of Afghanistan, fashion might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s exactly why Afghan-born designer Anjilla Seddeqi found solace in fashion in the first place. “There’s so much tragedy and upheaval going on around us it’s very important for me to focus on beauty, joy and hope,” she says. Born in Kabul, her earliest memories of fashion came from her mother, who Anjilla describes as “always stylish and put together. I’ve seen some of her photographs from the 80s where her hair was coiffed, with elegant outfits and manicured red nails, always looking impeccable. She often talks about Kabul and how they would shop in one of a few of Kabul’s department stores that would import the latest fashions from overseas. I’m always mesmerised by these stories and it’s incredible to hear how fashion forward the capital city was back then.”
And although clothes formed part of the magic of celebrations like Eid, Anjilla never considered fashion as a career. “It just never was on my radar. I had a huge responsibility to pave the way for my three younger brothers. Going to university and studying law was a way to show to my parents that the sacrifices they made for us when they fled Afghanistan did not go in vain. I had tunnel vision and all I thought about was getting into my course and finding work in my chosen field and making my parents proud.”
Despite doing exactly that, Anjilla’s career in law nevertheless influenced her interest in fashion. While working in Australia, often representing Asylum seekers whose stories weren’t so different from her own, she turned to fashion as a source of joy and expression. And as a Muslim woman, it was also a matter of need. “I began designing dresses and gowns for myself simply because I couldn’t find any pieces that catered to my needs…As a lawyer you have to be well dressed, it’s part and parcel of the work and helps instil confidence in your clients. Image plays an important role in the work we perform.”
And, like so many side hustles, Anjilla’s began to outshine her day job. With her designs more sumptuous, vibrant, and rich than you can imagine, it was only a matter of time…
Here, we speak to Anjilla about what International Women’s Day means to her, about being a Muslim woman in Australia today, and about why a structured Wittner heel pairs so well with her ornate designs…Anjilla wears Quendra in New Flesh
As an Australian Woman of Afghan heritage, your fashion perspective is quite unique. Tell me, for anyone who might assume that modesty is a form of oppression, why is it important to you?
Modesty for me is not just about appearances and conforming to a particular dress code, it’s more of a holistic idea where I aspire to be modest in all aspects of life. There is a real struggle for me in this regard and I am always trying to find that balance. Modesty certainly does not feel like a form of oppression for women, like myself, who choose to subscribe to it. It is a beautiful concept and allows Muslim women to adapt the requirements to their surroundings and culture. You’ll see the beautifully dressed women in cities like Dubai with the latest designer accessories and clothing with an abaya. Or there’s Afghan women who wear the colourful traditional Afghan dresses which are modest yet a visual delight.
In the Muslim world modesty is multifaceted and is influenced and informed by so many factors including religious views, cultural norms and influences. It’s somewhat of a fluid concept in that there’s not a particular uniform that needs to be worn. For example the all encompassing black burqa the Taliban is hinting at imposing on the women of Afghanistan is not the modest attire that all Muslim women wear across the globe. Across the Muslim world you can see how culture and climate has also dictated how women dress. This is also the case for Afghanistan.
The traditional Afghan dress, think of the flowy bohemian dresses of the 70s, is a beautiful colourful design with different fabrics, embroideries, mirror work and trinkets. These dresses are a masterclass in combining colours, different fabrics and accents. I’m always fascinated by how beautifully it all comes together and tells a story. It symbolises the diversity of ethnicities and traditions of the country and is a unifying force. What upsets me about the Taliban is that they’re seeking to wipe our culture and our traditions in favour of their monolithic view. It completely sidesteps the Afghan people, particularly women, and their way of life.
You talk about returning to an elegant, grace-filled era of fashion for women. Who are the women who inspire you, who do you look to as a muse or a mentor?
The women who inspire me from the past are Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. They both had an impeccable sense of style, timeless and sophisticated. These are qualities I admire and aspire towards in my designs.
I have always admired Amal Clooney for her work in international humans rights law as well for her sophisticated and elegant dressing and demeanour. Closer to home I look up to women like Kirstie Clements (Author and fashion editor), Charlotte Smith (fashion anthropologist) and Shemi Alovic (Marketing Director for Bally) as both muses and mentors. These women have been incredibly gracious and kind in not only supporting my work but also being such wonderful examples of strong and accomplished women who lift and empower other women.
You were outspoken last year when the Taliban overtook your birth country of Afghanistan and the world watched in horror as women there had their rights stripped. Tell me what was it like for you to have to watch that unfolding from the other side of the world?
It was such a difficult time to be alive and to witness history unfold before our eyes in real time. What made it even more harrowing was the images coming out of the country. The desperation and fear was overwhelming. It was during the harshest lockdown in Sydney as well so to be experiencing these emotions without the support from family was hard. The implications of the Taliban takeover for the brave women, men and children in Afghanistan was devastating. Here is a country perpetually in turmoil due to foreign interference and forces beyond their control, who experienced some progress including in women’s rights in the last 20 years and it was all stripped from them overnight.
I have immense respect and admiration for the courageous women who have come out and protested in the face of the Taliban. It takes enormous bravery to be able to take that action in the face of the brutality of the Taliban. It’s something I couldn’t even fathom taking part in, even from the comfort of my home in Australia.
I realised very early on that I needed to turn these feelings of hopelessness and helplessness as a catalyst for change by helping the women and children of Afghanistan. As a result a very dear friend of mine, Stephanie Boyle, and I sprang into action and launched the Arezu Doll (‘Wish’ Doll) initiative which raised funds for Australia for UNHCR’s efforts in Afghanistan. The dolls are made by Afghan women refugees living in India from eco friendly cotton that would have otherwise gone to waste. Once lockdown came to an end my good friends Kirstie, Charlotte, Shemi and I co-hosted a high tea fundraiser for Afghanistan at the Four Seasons in Sydney. We managed to raise a substantial sum for UNHCR. I am now constantly thinking about what I can do to assist Afghan women, even just raising awareness about their plight helps. I simply cannot rest knowing the suffering that my sisters over there are enduring.Anjilla wears Raven in Sunkissed Tan
And on that note, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, what does the day mean to you?
International Women’s Day is an important and significant day to celebrate the achievements of women across the world including trailblazing women like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins at home, as well to recognise our struggles and to acknowledge that we have a long way to go to improve the situation of women here and around the world. As an Australian woman of Afghan heritage IWD helps reaffirm my commitment to continue to fight the good fight, for women’s rights across the globe particularly for the rights of Afghan women which have been violently supressed by the Taliban.
You were previously a human rights lawyer, working to represent asylum seekers, and you started creating fashion as a way to escape some of the mental load from that. How did you come to start your label, and what does fashion mean to you?
My transition into fashion happened somewhat naturally and I guess as a result of my circumstances. I began designing dresses and gowns for myself for a while simply because I couldn’t find any pieces that catered to my needs. My designs were resonating with a cross section of women who were keen to know where I had sourced my outfits. I saw that gap in the market and after becoming a mum and having two young boys I knew that it was time to explore this interest of mine. It was this encouragement and timing that allowed me to transition into fashion.
Fashion to me means being able to make women feel confident, I know that when I have confidence I feel like I can conquer the world. Yves Saint Laurent summed it up perfectly when he said ‘I have always believed that fashion was not only to make women more beautiful, but also to reassure them, give them confidence’.
Your own family escaped Kabul when you were a child, to give you a better life, and you’ve advocated for asylum seekers on Christmas Island among others. Tell me, what do you wish more people understood about the plight of refugees?
I think the most important thing people need to keep in mind about the plight of refugees is that they are fleeing persecution and seeking safety and security for their families. At the end of the day we all want and hope for the same things. This is what we aspire to as human beings irrespective of nationality or race. That we want a happy and safe environment to live in and to raise our children in peace and security. We’ve somehow managed to lose that human connection in the narrative. And I believe that through meaningful interactions with refugees we can make those connections on a human level and break down the barriers between us and them. Individuals like surgeon Dr Munjed Al Muderis illustrate what a valuable contribution refugees can make to Australian society.
When people think of modest dressing and women covering up, they might think of drab or dark clothing, but your designs are so bright and colourful and creative. You play with volume and texture, and they’re really joyful clothes. Is joy something that’s important for you to express through fashion?
Joy is such an uplifting and hopeful emotion and I aspire to capture that feeling in my designs, through the use of colour, fabric and trims. My heritage very much informs my design process in this respect. I know while growing up in Australia, and through stories my mother would tell me about Afghanistan, the clothes we wore during special occasions like Eid, Afghan New Year etc were vibrant, colourful with intricate brocades and embroideries. These dresses made the occasion and celebrations even more special. There’s so much tragedy and upheaval going on around us it’s very important for me to focus on beauty, joy and hope.
You’re shooting for Wittner today so can you tell me what your favourite shoe of the day has been?
The Wittner Violeta (or Quendra not sure!) Nude leather stiletto heels were my favourite shoe of the day. These pointy pumps were comfortable enough to wear all day, the nude colour was practical and versatile enough to match most of my outfits and it effortlessly takes you from day to night.
What are your favourite shoe styles to pair with your designs and how do you style them?
I love the Wittner shoe called Raven in Sunkissed Tan. It’s an open block heel in a beautiful patent leather. They are a beautiful pair of shoes that can be dressed up or down and the block heel makes managing voluminous maxi skirts a breeze.
I also have the Wittner Valko Leather Sculptured Heel Sandal in the colour Bone on my wish list. My designs tend to be structured and these sculptured heels will elevate and accentuate the architectural elements of my pieces.
I want to ask about your perspective on Australian fashion because we are such a multicultural country – what defines Australian style, in your mind?
Australian style I feel is defined by our laid back nature, the climate and our geography. We tend towards more of a sophisticated relaxed approach in our dressing. It’s wonderful to see designers emerging from our indigenous communities as well as from multicultural backgrounds providing a different perspective and narrative on the Australian fashion scene.