Fashion and Hope

When we think about northern Iraq, many imagine a warzone, and to an extent this is true, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region has been a frontline zone in the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants. A group of young male fashionista’s calling themselves Mr Erbil, named after the Kurdish capital city Erbil, are bringing something new to the region and have founded Iraq’s first gentlemen’s fashion club. They aim to bring modern fashion and culture to Kurdistan, and promote a more positive hopeful image of their homeland to the rest of the world, and perhaps even incite social change.

The group’s launch and first photo shoot took place in early February 2016 when a group of 22 finely dressed men gathered in an ancient citadel, also a UNESCO world heritage site within the city of Erbil.

The photos of 20 men sporting hipster style clothing in the form of well-tailored suits, tighter trousers and well-pruned, perfectly groomed beards, took Instagram and Facebook by storm. Mr Erbil members emphasize that their clothes are a fusion of modern style and cultural heritage, a throwback to the ‘effendis’, the traditional Kurdish higher land owning class known for wearing fine clothing and attending cultural events and teashops.

First inspired by Pitti Uomo, a men’s fashion focused congregation of dandies (dandy: men that place importance on appearance, sophisticated language, and leisurely hobbies) based in Florence, Italy and famed for extravagant male peacocking and bringing modern dandyism into the mainstream.

The group envisages fashion as a form of ‘aesthetic expression’ and intends to plan trade shows and cultural events. Although they won’t stop there, they want to spread more than just style and wish to challenge traditional attitudes particularly with regard to women’s issues. Group members provide leadership seminars to female survivors of the Islamic State massacre on the Christian Yazidi people. They also regularly post about women’s issues in Kurdistan, raising awareness internationally.

Mr Erbil represents a young dynamic generation of Kurds who grew up with more than their parents and want a better life and to put Kurdish culture on the main stage. In many ways they illustrate the tone of modern development in Kurdistan; they’re smartphone using, English speaking, online shoppers, much like modern young people throughout the West.

Previous generations having endured a decade of isolation from the rest of Iraq and the world from the 1990s through failed uprisings in the first Gulf War, the rule of Saddam Hussein, and international sanctions, leaving Kurds little hope or expectation for something better. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was a major catalyst for change in the region and after the fall of Saddam Hussein the rest of Iraq was full of violence and instability. But the northern Kurdish region was stable and business thrived and foreign investment flowed, which provided a taste of globalization to Kurds and raised expectations for opportunity and living standards.

Tragically the good times came to a grinding halt in the summer of 2014, when the war against Islamic State led to violence, instability, and an influx of approximately a million refugees fleeing fighting. After a decade of prosperity came to an end, young Kurds wondered what to do, with a faltering economy and little employment opportunity.  So why not look fabulous and promote social and cultural change while you’re at it?

Now nearly a year on since launch they are 30 members strong and believe they’ve started a movement, and having in excess of 25,000 Instagram followers this really isn’t an exaggeration.

In sum, keep going Mr Erbil; you symbolize optimism and hope, with fabulous style of course, during a time of fear.

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