In February 2016, 22 young men created Iraq’s very first gentleman’s club called ‘Mr Erbil,’ after the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq that has been at the frontline of the struggle against the militants of the Islamic State (IS) group for years. The three co-founders of the group, Omer Nihad, Ahmed Nauzad and Goran Pshtiwan, use the power of fashion to change the way their region is perceived internationally, while simultaneously provoke social change and challenge traditional attitudes locally, particularly on women’s rights. By promoting fashion as an aesthetic expression, they aim to create a movement representing young Iraqi Kurds who are looking for a better life while simultaneously promulgating Kurdish culture to the rest of the world.
Their fashion identity is inspired by the hipsters movement, consisting of sharp suits, tight and narrow trousers and perfectly-manicured beards, mixed with local Kurdish garments and aesthetics. Referencing the Pitti Uomo trade show, they mix it with the lavish lifestyle of the local Kurdish landowning class, the ‘effendis,’ literally ‘lord’ or ‘master,’ who would dress in their finest clothes to attend cultural salons or visit tea shops. They host regular gentlemen’s gatherings, during which they are extensively photographed.
But it’s not just about fashion and perfectly groomed beards — Mr Erbil is using its status to effect social change, particularly on women’s rights by challenging traditional attitudes and the effect Iraq’s near-constant conflict has had on women’s lives. They’ve released a video made in 14 different languages to raise awareness on violence against women. “We wanted to gather people who have a mutual interest in fashion but at the same time use it as a platform for social change,” explains Mr Nihad. “We want to help women in our society to express their art, their fashion, their creativity. If the man is seen protecting women, it will be a more powerful message especially in Kurdistan.” One of their campaigns, entitled “Girl Inspiration”, is a weekly post dedicated to promoting women’s achievements in Kurdistan, Iraq and around the world.
One of their regular posts is on Kurdish pop singer and human rights activist Dashni Morad whose Green Kids charity has provided for three mini libraries for refugee children in northern Iraq. She has also been busy putting together her latest single, Love Wins (out March 3 on iTunes) with all proceeds going towards her charity in aid of refugee children. Her efforts also extend to providing workshops in leadership skills to the Yazidi women who survived the massacre and rape of IS militants
Beyond the various photoshoots aimed at trending on social media to create awareness and change mentalities, they also initiate projects to help boost the local economy. The Mr Erbil clothing line, for example, is due to be launched later this year. The members are heavily involved in the design, working closely with the city’s tailors and businesses. They have already launched some popular beard products, which are locally made and sold across seven stores in Iraq. “A lot of people were asking what we use for our beards and I guess we wanted to make something here for them, instead of them going outside for it,” says to Mr Pshtiwan.
A major challenge of the group now will be to go beyond the obvious exotic show-and-tell side of the project. Finding investors who will see them not just as “oriental peacocks” trying to imitate the excesses of the Pitti Uomo, but as a genuine enterpreneurial project which needs support to blossom within a region that is facing hardship on many levels.