For many westerners, the word “Kurdistan” brings to mind one thing — conflict. The region, located in northern Iraq, has been mired in civil war and external threats for decades, and until recently that’s the only side of their story we were hearing (do a quick image search for “Kurdish”, and you’ll see what I mean.)
But a group of Kurdish Millennials is rising up to offer a completely new narrative. One of creativity, entrepreneurship, activism and, of course, selfies.
Meet Mr. Erbil — Iraq’s First Fashion Club. The group of 30 fashion-forward men launched last year as a clubhouse for all things style and culture. Several times a year, the men don their finest tailored suits and gather to take photos, plan creative ventures, and exchange ideas on how to revolutionize Kurdistan.
Like any modern movement, Mr. Erbil was born online. Founders Omer Nihad, Goran Pshtiwan and Ahmed Nauzad met through their mutual love of European style and took to Instagram to find other like-minded Kurds. The response was staggering — the group has garnered over 100,000 followers on social media and millions of views on their videos.
“After we went viral, we demonstrated a better image of Kurdistan to the whole world — there were a lot of misunderstandings about how people live in Kurdistan,” a rep told Buzzworthy.
The social buzz has been “a good way to introduce people to this,” Pshtiwan notes in Vocativ. But his co-founder Nihad chimes in, “Now that people know us we are trying to work to resolve everyday issues here.”
One of the gents’ main focuses is providing economic stability to the region. This starts with jobs for local tailors — the men find design inspiration from the west and enlist local clothiers to bring the pieces to life in a distinctly Kurdish way. “The fabrics are very authentic,” Nauzad told The Times of Israel as he adjusted his goats’ hair tie. “They may have a slightly rougher feel than you’re used to, but they are very good quality.”
The group also plans to launch an exclusive line of ties next month, and eventually branch into “[their] own physical place with a cafe, tailor and a barber all combined under one roof,” they told us. But funding remains an issue — in spite of their global acclaim, Mr. Erbil has struggled to raise the capital necessary to expand. “We are trying to fund ourselves with the small amount that we have,” they said. With a financial crisis leaving entrepreneurial loans on hold, the men are facing an uphill battle.
Nevertheless, Mr. Erbil continues to harness their online presence for social good. One of the aims of the gentleman’s club is, oddly enough, to uplift women. Though Kurdistan is relatively tolerant and increasingly modernized, Kurdish women still struggle to navigate a deeply patriarchal culture. Each Thursday, Mr. Erbil chooses a woman to highlight as their “Thursday inspiration girl,” showcasing the entrepreneurs, fashionistas and activists reshaping Middle Eastern culture.
“It’s about showing people that we have to respect women,” Nauzad says. The supportive online community they’re building not only elevates the work of women, but shows the rest of the world that our preconceptions about Iraqi men are outdated.
Mr. Erbil, named after the capital city where they host their meetings, stands at the crossroads of Middle Eastern culture. Sporting eclectic suits and perfectly groomed beards, the men gather in the clay colored citadel that has “the air of an abandoned film set.” Years of conflict with the Islamic State have left the town center empty and neglected.
But this striking contrast between the men and their environment speaks to the region’s spirit: conflict-ridden yet hopeful, traditional yet bursting with modern energy, beige with pops of color.