We talk about fashion as a means of self-expression, but how often is this really the case? Designers certainly have a point of view; and customers may identify with that point enough to choose their clothing, but it is seldom the customers own. How much of fashion is about identity, and how much simply about conformity? Zarif is a clothing brand that designs for the customer, and shares their story through each piece. Rather than design a collection and wait for the customer to come to them, Zarif takes the customer as the inspiration for the pieces that they design, and as a celebration of individuals identities.
Zarif is the brain child of Ula Rustamova, who turned down a software engineering internship to focus on her creative passions, and develop this brand with her mum, sister, and a small team back in Azerbaijan. I first had the pleasure of meeting Ula in Scotland, when we collaborated on a photo shoot for Label that aimed to capture personalities through the elements. Her passion for story telling was clear from our first meetings and she has an eye for personality and beauty that is quite unique. However, Zarif is fundamentally a collaborative brand and Ula describes it as ‘bringing my own dreams and her [mother’s] dreams together.’ Ula is the founder and her mother, Leyla, the designer; together they are making fashion meaningful and giving women confidence in what they wear, how they look, and the way they live.
Leyla has been designing clothes for most of her life, in her atelia in Azerbaijan. Ula describes the process of design as being something akin to magic: women come in with their insecurities and by the end of the experience, they love their clothes and themselves. It’s all about creating how you want to see yourself; taking a dream and bringing it to life. The business, Zarif, has grown out of this and it all stems from a desire to empower women. After so long pursuing her passion, Leyla has an almost instinctive sense of women’s personalities and is able to guide them towards the perfect piece for them: even if that’s something they didn’t know they wanted when they walked into the room.
Zarif is iconic for giving women what they want, not what they are expected to wear. Each piece is special and designed to make the owner feel different when they wear it- it’s not about other’s approval, or social conformity, but to craft a statement piece that reflects how you want to be seen. More than how you want to be seen, however, the piece also draws on how you feel, or want to feel when you wear that item.
Each piece of clothing is unique, but the connecting thread throughout Zarif’s designs is ‘the vibrant and colourful soul of their line’. In Azerbaijan, most people still wear dark colours and select from within a neutral palette. Ula found this conformity wearing, but through founding Zarif she has realised how many vibrant and colourful people the country holds. The creativity required to make Zarif such a success has given Ula hope for the feature. That talent was always there, but it took a movement like Zarif to bring it out of hiding. It is easier to conform but, given the chance, I think most people would jump at the opportunity to have a piece designed for their personality alone.
Zarif empowers women, and Ula says that, in turn: ‘there is something about hearing stories that empower me… When I am at my lowest, I go back to these stories.’ Zarif is never about what you shouldn’t do; whether that be in the process of design or the photo shoots that are Ula’s speciality. The team have a talent for picking up on the way people move, speak, act, their confidence, style, sense of self, and, crucially; how they would want to be seen given the chance. It is this that translates into the clothes and pictures that empower the women involved, and inspire those looking at them.
In the future, Zarif will potentially be expanding outside of Azerbaijan to Georgia, Turkey, the UK, US… and we can only hope to many more places as well. A long-term goal for the company is to open a boutique and, all I can say is, that a boutique for fashion designed to empower women sounds like heaven on earth. For Ula, the empowerment of women is part of a broader goal and Zarif is part of the ‘palette of different things I want to create.’ Ula is a true artist, and has already inspired me and many others, so I cannot wait to see the direction her future, and that of Zarif’s will take.