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Columbia College Today November 2005
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Sewing Clothes, Mending Lives

Sarah Takesh ’95 employs Afghan women to bring her clothing creations to life.

By Laura Butchy ’04 SOA

It seems like the perfect cover for an undercover agent: An extroverted woman with a natural command of Farsi and English roams Kabul claiming to run her own business, befriending locals and expats alike. No wonder her parents’ friends think she works for the CIA.

In reality, Sarah Takesh ’95 uses her knowledge of Farsi and her local contacts to run a growing apparel and accessories business, Tarsian & Blinkley. Housed in a workshop in the center of Kabul, Afghanistan, the company employs local women to bead, embroider and crochet silk, cotton and wool womenswear for sale locally and in the United States, as well as worldwide via the website.

“I not only like my job but I love it,” says Palwasha Siddiqi, a woman from Shamali, Afghanistan, who has been Takesh’s assistant since 2003. “This is a very big and good opportunity for me to work in here, especially with Sarah. She is the best, I think … very kind. Her so much kindness has won these poor Afghan women’s hearts.”

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of Afghan women who are benefiting from working for Tarsian & Blinkley (they are allowed to come and go, picking up goods to work on at home then dropping them off), Takesh estimates that more than 300 women have worked for her during the past two years, with 50–60 employed at any given time.

“Suddenly, they are earning incomes possibly two to three times higher than their husbands, or they are the sole income earners in the family.”

Initially, Tarsian & Blinkley’s employees, all local women, came from the Afghan Women’s Vocational Skills Learning Center, an organization run by Takesh’s Afghan business partner, Nasrullah Rahmati. Soon, however, word of mouth led women to come from all over the country to earn a comparatively huge salary of about $5 per day.

A steady income is not the only benefit for women who work for Takesh’s company. The role of a breadwinner gives the women improved stature at home, providing them with some independence, personal power and respect from male family members.

“Suddenly, they are earning incomes possibly two to three times higher than their husbands, or they are the sole income earners in the family,” Takesh says. “Also, the younger girls acquire some purchasing power to lead more normal, fun and possibly slightly mischievous young lives. As long as it’s within certain perimeters, I think that’s good.”

Though the Tarsian & Blinkley workshop is in the center of the city, the area is a mix of residential homes and offices. There, the workshop produces a few hundred pieces of women’s clothing per month, ranging in price (in the U.S.) from $60–$300. Though the company has showrooms (by appointment) in New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as stores in Texas and Pennsylvania that carry the clothes, most sales are generated through the website and the shop in Kabul (selling to expats).

With her office in her new home nearby, complete with satellite Internet, Takesh can create designs anytime. “It’s a beautiful old adobe house with living and work quarters,” Takesh says. “Thanks to the luxury of being self-employed, I’m in my bathrobe till 9:30 most days! But everyone here, expats and locals alike, works six days a week (Fridays off).”

Most of Takesh’s designs reflect what she would like to wear, mixing the locality of Kabul with contemporary visions: sequined halter tops, beaded tube tops and more traditional designs are both modest and modern, combining Takesh’s experience in New York City and the talents of five tribes of Afghan women. Many ideas are inspired by images Takesh sees and then translates into design, from antique photos, or sometimes, “just straight out of my head, with no reference to anything whatsoever,” Takesh says. “Some of my most popular styles were done like that.”

Equally creative is the company name, Tarsian & Blinkley, based on two androgynous characters of Takesh’s childhood imagination. Born in Iran, Takesh comes from land-owning families involved in agriculture and real estate development. Her family moved to the U.S. just before the 1979 revolution, planning to return once the chaos died down. “We didn’t realize that regime change in Iran was going to be such a dreadful and permanent thing,” Takesh recalls. “I remember being at my aunt’s home in Honolulu, where we were rather comfortably holed up, waiting for the tensions to cool in Tehran. The days turned into weeks, and weeks into months.”

With the system they were accustomed to gone and Iran unstable, Takesh, her parents and her sister relocated to La Jolla, Calif. Her parents settled into early retirement, keeping up with hobbies in antique and textile collecting, which mesmerized Takesh as a child.

“The fabric they use [in the Middle East] is something no one can deny is beautiful,” says Zarin Takesh, Sarah’s mother. “I had things in the house from my mother and grandmother and Sarah grew up with it.”

Still, Takesh’s decision to establish herself in Afghanistan came as a surprise to her parents. They naturally are concerned about her safety, though her mother says she began to understand her daughter’s decision on her third trip to visit Kabul.

“Last time I went thinking that I could tell her to come out because I was worried,” her mother admits. “Then we went to her work. She wasn’t feeling well, and the women kept coming to see her and I thought, they really like her and are really worried. She said it is not exactly that — they need her. She picks women whose husbands are dead or lost and who really need the work. And I understand. I think she’s doing a beautiful thing.”

Takesh credits her mother’s love for the arts and cultures of the Middle East and Central Asia with inspiring her interest in Afghanistan. “She always turned me on to beautiful things, whether it was people, places or objects,” Takesh says, though in hindsight, she admits to knowing little about Afghan culture before arriving.

Another fascination led Takesh to Columbia: New York City. The College was an ideal intersection of Takesh’s interests. “New York City was an obsession of mine since a young age, and all roads seem to point to moving there,” Takesh notes. “And the elitist within me craved an Ivy League school.”

Takesh describes the College as everything she had imagined, with intriguing classmates set against the backdrop of New York City. “The people I went to school with seemed infinitely interesting,” she says, describing her initial reaction to the College. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My head was constantly buzzing with excess stimuli.”

In New York, Takesh began sewing her own outrageous clothes. “I was young and had peacock-shaded blue hair. Harlequin-patterned pants made out of kitchen vinyl matched to a gold brocade blouse of a faux wood pattern seemed like the right thing to do,” she remembers.

Leslie Claiborne, who handles Tarsian & Blinkley’s U.S. operations from New York, met Takesh while she was studying at the College. “I think she was a junior at the time,” Claiborne remembers, “and one day she came into my shop (an interiors store in SoHo), said she loved the place, and would I give her a job. I was so taken with her that I hired her on the spot!”

Majorless the week before her junior year, Takesh wanted to drop out and study fashion. Instead, she declared architecture her field of study — the closest option to design — and began taking fashion courses at Parsons School of Design. The architecture program proved to be an inspiration, with professors Madeline Schwartzman and Joeb Moore becoming mentors.

“Joeb recognized me for what I did well and forgave my ill fit with the architecture department,” Takesh explains. “Madeline was a true artist who challenged her students to explore things beyond the conventional boundaries of the discipline.” Takesh recalls Schwartzman’s class as where she realized her future was to start her own clothing company.

Schwartzman was not surprised by Takesh’s career choice. “Sarah was smart — and original, iconoclastic, funny, creative, bright and zany. She was always thinking about her place in the world,” Schwartzman says. “Her clothing is lovely, beautifully cut and detailed. One can’t help sensing a connection to the woman who made it. As usual, Sarah downplayed her role in the aesthetics. She can be very humble and unassuming.”

After graduating from the College, Takesh went backpacking in Southeast Asia until the money ran out, then buckled down to create a portfolio. She landed a job at a fashion start-up that she describes as “a no-name private label business where I learned more in one year than I would have learned in three years at a larger firm.” After working at DKNY and Michael Kors, Takesh went to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, earning an M.B.A. in 2003.

Yet throughout business school, Takesh’s mind was in Central Asia, imagining a for-profit company that she could start in the region she had enjoyed visiting in 2000 and 2001. She first visited Afghanistan in 2002, for her business school “summer internship.” Two business plan competitions, four investors and one round of Overseas Private Investment Corp. financing later, she had the seed money to found her Kabul venture.

Having found Takesh and Rahmati through the nonprofit IFHope before departure, Takesh met her future business partner her first day in Kabul. Takesh and Rahmati, an Afghan man who speaks no English and had never traveled further than Pakistan, got along immediately. “He was very hard-working and responsive to everything I asked,” Takesh enthuses. “I took him for granted initially, but now hearing stories of other people’s encounters with tailors and managers in this town, I realize how lucky I got.”

“It’s a brand of capitalism that believes one bottom line (profit) can serve the other (social justice) and together they can work in harmony.”

Takesh’s transition was eased by her knowledge of Farsi (picked up at home) and her being a “peculiar mix of foreign and ‘one of them’.” Even so, setting up shop was no simple feat. “It took years,” Takesh says. “Until just a few months ago, I was subleasing, or rather squatting, out of the offices of a nonprofit called Morningstar Development. You wouldn’t believe it, but Afghanistan is an incredibly expensive country — a total import economy with a lot of artificial, inflationary elements at work. Rents are astronomical and electricity, generator power and so forth … it adds up to be not that different from working in the West.

“The other challenge is that most landlords want one year’s rent up front in cash,” she adds. “So you have to come up with $30,000 in cash just to rent a basic house.”

While the company is just breaking even at the moment, Takesh hopes to expand. “We’re virtual celebs in the Kabul expat scene and don’t need marketing here. People keep raving about the stuff and saying what great potential it has, so we really need to address the matter by getting a sales agent for the U.S.”

Takesh had Columbia help for her company as well; Jennifer Ho ’95, ’02J has been critical to corporate identity work for Tarsian & Blinkley. The two traveled Southeast Asia together after graduation and have remained friends.

“I had known for a while that she would go abroad for her company, but the concept of the company based in Afghanistan came as a bit of a surprise,” Ho says. “I remember saying, ‘Afghanistan?’ multiple times. But when I started to think about it, it made sense. Sarah loved Central Asia — the mixing of the cultures and ethnicities, the arts and crafts.

“And Sarah never does the expected,” Ho adds. “It’s part of her genius; it stems directly from her creativity, drive and curiosity.” Ho has primarily served as a graphic designer for Tarsian & Blinkley, working with Takesh to design the company logo and look, as well as creating ads, business cards and presentations. “I have not visited her in Afghanistan yet,” Ho says, “but I plan to do so as soon as possible.”

College wasn’t the end of Takesh’s relationship with Schwartzman, either. “Madeline somehow tracked me down after having been out of touch for some time,” Takesh says. Schwartzman, who also teaches at Parsons, was doing a class project there in spring 2005 on the theme of globalization. Needing a destination to send the projects to and people from another culture to transform them, she sought Takesh’s assistance. “Her class ended up sending a brilliant set of projects to Kabul, where my assistants performed ‘transformations’ on them specific to Kabul,” Takesh explains.

“It was really fascinating, and the students were overwhelmed when they received the photos from Kabul,” Schwartzman says. “It was amazing to touch a place so far away, and to collaborate with a different culture … It was incredible of Sarah to do this project. It involved tons of coordination via e-mail, and a huge effort on the part of her and her assistants.”

Since her arrival, Takesh has watched Afghanistan transform. “It has become less rough around the edges, at least Kabul has,” Takesh states. “It’s obviously developed a lot — 15 construction projects on every block, skyrocketing rents, 20 different restaurants catering to foreigners. The place has gone from a derelict and destroyed place to a kind of boom town.

“But you would not believe the mess of dirt roads. During the rains, you think the car is going to get stuck in there. And we’re in the center of town!” Takesh says. “It makes me angry to think about the mismanagement that has not allowed these people, after four years of liberation, to be able to fix some basic roads in the center of their capital city. And street signs — forget about it!”

As for living in Afghanistan, Takesh couldn’t be happier. “Initially, it was the expats who were interesting to me,” she says. “Now, I am fascinated being around the old-school ruling class Afghans who have returned to reclaim their country. It’s like a flashback to the grand old days of the ’70s, when there was peace and prosperity and a wild mixture of westernized locals, hippies and a beautiful city full of trees and aviaries, and exotic Central Asian people of many ethnicities.

“I still feel very American, and feel more comfortable around Americans than anybody else,” Takesh admits. “But the general atmosphere of paranoia and obsession with ‘security’ has made Americans outcasts abroad. My friends who work at the U.S. embassy or in the military in Kabul have the fewest opportunities to experience life here. I once took a friend who is an Army major to a fabulous French restaurant — tables in the beautifully lit garden, a great crowd, people jumping into the pool — he was speechless. He didn’t realize that Kabul was a fun place.”

In addition to visiting the U.N. guesthouse pool, Takesh enjoys going to barbecues and eating out all over town. While she misses regular electricity and not having to depend on backup generators, she says she appreciates Afghan hospitality and the constant exposure to people from all over the world. “[Kabul] is quite a bit deforested and everything has bullet holes in it,” she concedes, “but there is still this charm to the place.”

And the Tarsian & Blinkley workshop has an atmosphere all its own. “It is not your typical polite nonprofit or U.N. office,” Takesh says. “There is a lot of yelling and high drama, just like any other design room in a fashion house. The rigor of capitalism is happily at work … but it’s a brand of capitalism that believes one bottom line (profit) can serve the other (social justice) and together they can work in harmony to create a successful business that accomplishes a social agenda.”

“It’s definitely chaotic and has many kinks to smooth out,” Claiborne adds, “but there has always been a pleasure in knowing that there are so many immediate social benefits for a population of people as a result of what we do.”

“I’d like to think of it as a ‘conscientiously chic’ bridge between the haves and have-nots,” Takesh says, “in a world where the ever-widening gap requires longer and bigger bridges than ever before.”

Laura Butchy ’04 SOA is CCT’s assistant editor as well as a freelance journalist and dramaturge.





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