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While much of Uzbekistan picks cotton, fashion-forward designers show a different side of the country, with the Karimov regime's support. A TOL slide show.by Dengiz Uralov 31 October 2012
Uzbekistan's biggest annual cultural event, Style.Uz Art Week, ran from 4 to 9 October in venues all over Tashkent. This seventh annual edition encompassed film and theater festivals, the Tashkent International Photo Biennale, exhibitions by global artists, and fashion shows featuring Italian, American, British, Spanish, and Japanese designers. There were also two shows spotlighting Uzbek designers, hosted by Gulnara Karimova – eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov, main patron of Art Week, and herself a designer with her own clothes and jewelry brand, Guli.
This showcase for Uzbek couture ironically coincides with the cotton harvest season, which began in mid-September. While the country’s elite and international guests were getting their first look at the latest creations of Tashkent’s young designers, many young people and civil servants were in the cotton fields, sent by the government from their homes and jobs to reap a crop that pours $715 million a year into state coffers, according to the national statistics agency.
Those who refuse risk losing employment or university placements. Reports that forced and child labor bolster the lucrative harvest are widespread. International groups such as Cottoncampaign.org and Human Rights Watch began calling for boycotts of Uzbek cotton several years ago. Many major retailers now refuse to buy Uzbek-sourced cotton.
The threats to step up the boycott are causing some worry among Uzbek officials, but after presenting a fashion show called “Underground” at Style.Uz on 6 October, Karimova had other things on her mind, offering some surprising criticism of the more than 30 young Uzbek designers featured in the show.
“In these collections we’ve seen plagiarism,” she told the audience. “Next year we’ll select the collections more carefully to avoid borrowing from foreign designers. I suggest young designers follow their own style and not adopt details from known world brands.”
Darina Solova, a noted Tashkent designer, had more praise for her peers, while acknowledging that they were still not breaking new ground.
“Young Uzbek designers showed good works,” Solova said. “Nothing really original, but esthetically pleasing and quite suitable for everyday wear. I’m really happy that from year to year we see fewer clothes with national elements and more with something original. Everybody is tired of the fusion of modern and ethnic styles.”
Traditional clothing remains popular with women in villages, but in Tashkent and other cities the style is European. Sightings of women in national dress are rare, in Islamic dress rarer still – through both legal and unofficial channels the government discourages the wearing of religious attire in public by anyone but clergy members. Women can purchase such garb only under the counter.
The image the government aims to present to the world is of a more modern, westernized Uzbek woman, personified by the Harvard-educated Karimova – who, along with staking her place in global fashion, is attempting to launch herself in the West as a sultry pop diva, releasing an English-language album under the name Googoosha.
The Googoosha website makes no mention of Karimova’s real name or family ties, but Style.Uz serves a more direct promotional role for the Uzbek regime, casting a more positive image of the country and its No. 1 crop. That image notwithstanding, traditional elements and materials like adras, a hand-dyed cotton/silk blend with deep roots in Uzbek culture, were prominent in the work of young Tashkent designers like Natalya Kim, who touted her use of "national patterns and natural fabrics." Some of the most striking work can be seen in this TOL slide show, with comments from the designers.