Once upon a time in the 90’s, there was a girl in New York City with a wandering mind. She lived in the Village, worked in SoHo, wore a lot of Belgian designers, and only had friends who were experimental DJ’s, Cooper Union architects, and sundry other committed urbanites. But peculiar to her circumstances, she spent an inordinate amount of time musing about places and things utterly disconnected from her immediate surroundings. She read Harry Flashman novels and books with names like “The Worlds Most Dangerous Places”, and believed that Sir Richard Burton, the dead 19th century British explorer, was her ideal mate.
There was some explanation for her affinities. Having descended from a mix of Kurdish tribal feudals and Shirazi descendents of Turkomen raiders, she had an almost genetic calling to reset the tone of her currently too-urban life. And so it was that her big break came in 2000 on a trip to Lahore, Pakistan with college friends for a wedding. She arranged a jeep trek to the Karakoram Highway, from the borders of Kashmir all the way to western provinces of China and what she saw changed her forever. A jewel-colored blue Indus river snaking through valleys of vertiginous peaks, high altitude orchards of rose-colored apricot blossoms, and chiseled-faced fair-complexioned native men so handsome that she had trouble looking them in the eye. She couldn’t fully explain why, but the beauty of Central Asia clung to her psyche so stubbornly that she finally decided she had to create a life for herself that would link her to the region forever.
This website is dedicated to the memory of Tarsian & Blinkley, a business that was born from that first trip to the singular northern territories of Pakistan. And what really made it all come together was the timing. These pretty mountain valleys were part of a dangerous game that was sliding Pakistan into the darkest chapter of its history. The only other guests in her hotels were towering European men plotting their ascents on K2 or the occasional Japanese backpacker. Despite the glorious beauty of the place, the world was visibly absent and there was a sinister undercurrent to the place. As had always been the case historically, there were many influences vying for dominance in the region. Some villages, supported by the Aga Khan Development Network, were islands of tolerance and relative prosperity. Others remained poor and inwards-looking, forced to take handouts from Wahabi missionaries that spread their ugly, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam through religious schools and purported charities. In these isolated mountain valleys, poverty and economic limitations created a vacuum that could be filled by any form of aid -- the source of that aid made all the difference in the way the community evolved. The inspiration for Tarsian & Blinkley came from a desire to not only further promote liberal attitudes in these remote areas, but to give Sarah Takesh (the girl) a legitimate excuse to live out her days in Central Asia. And knowing little about the development world, she had no choice but to execute her plan on her own terms – as a designer and businessperson.
In August of 2001, after a second jaunt to the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, Takesh packed up her bags in New York and arrived at the University of California Berkeley Business School, having been admitted on the basis of an idea to create a “social venture” with Afghan refugees in Pakistan. She had chosen this particular group because of a life-long curiosity about this similar yet different race of co-linguists – what she (mistakenly at the time) believed were just a mountainous “version” of Persians. Just before 9/11, she submitted her semester-long topic for speech class – “How the Afghans are a forgotten people, trapped and brutalized by the Taliban” and when class resumed after cancellation (due to 9/11), the instructor and students stared at her in a mixture of disbelief and even suspicion. Takesh’s strange timing with the Zeitgeist quickly transformed her initial plan into an actual move to Afghanistan, a place in which she hadn’t dreamed of setting foot. By the summer of 2002, and after being egged on by various professors and classmates, she found herself in Kabul on a “summer internship”, developing her test collection for Tarsian & Blinkley.
ALLIANCE WITH A LOCAL NON-PROFIT
Takesh came to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 and discovered Maharat, a local Afghan-operated non-profit organization that gave vocational training, mostly in the form of tailoring courses, to local women. The distinguishing feature of Maharat from the dozens of other local and international non-profits doing similar work was that it was operated by a master tailor, an “ostad”, with an in-depth understanding of garment construction and quality. Takesh began to work with Maharat’s network of tailors and embroiderers to create Tarsian & Blinkley’s collections and as the years went by, the two organizations grew together. Over the years, adventurous expats of all sorts came and went in Kabul, but her relationship with the “Ostad” of Maharat led to a lifelong bond that continues to this day.
Tarsian & Blinkley’s philosophy as a business was to:
- Create beautiful, modern garments that integrated the elaborate handicrafts talents of Afghan women, linking East and West at a unique level of artistry
- Consistently pump money through the hands of a group of people who would otherwise have little or no access to income due to poor education and non-existent economic opportunities
- Place proper monetary value on the demanding work of embroidery and compensate female embroiderers in ways that will win them higher status in their own families and communities
Back when Tarsian & Blinkley launched in 2002, “socially conscious” clothing rarely intersected with the anything coveted by true fashion consumers. Tarsian & Blinkley’s clothing not only made that cross over, but was leaps and bounds ahead of the brands that simply donated a “percentage of profits” to charity. It was fully manufactured in a war zone and paid robust wages to indigent female workers with few other prospects of income generation.
Using artisanally produced “cottage industry” textiles, every article of clothing incorporated some form of hand embroidery, crochet, beading, or sequin work in order to generate work (and income) for the producers. Instead of a plainly stitched style that took half a day to produce, a hand-embellished one could take between 3-10 days.
What made the products exceptionally unique was the collaborative process in which they were produced. Rather than etching designs on every sleeve, bodice, or shawl, the female workers were encouraged to come up with their own handwork designs based on the company’s “art direction”. The results were wonderful, often one-of-a-kind pieces exhibiting a great deal of character and originality.