Scheduling a phone call with Jeanne de Kroon is no easy task. At press time, our email chain had reached 57 messages—and not for lack of organization! De Kroon is simply always, always on the go: When we first connected, the designer was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; a couple of weeks later, she was back at home in Berlin, but I was on vacation; and later that month, she was “deep in the Amazon” meeting with local tribes and craftsmen (a journey that began with a 12-hour canoe trip up the river). Those were all work trips, though a far cry from the typical business-class jaunt. De Kroon is passionate about indigenous crafts and, more specifically, how she can bring them international attention through her label, Zazi Vintage. You’re likely familiar with her signature Suzani coats, which are made in Afghanistan from upcycled shearlings and embroidered rugs. They’ve made a groovy statement in many a street-style shot, but the proceeds from each one also send a girl to school for a year.
De Kroon works with artisans across Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and India, but her latest project brought her back to Afghanistan for a special collaboration with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative. Last year, De Kroon met Simone Cipriani, the head of EFI, at Nest’s summit on the handworker economy at the U.N. “I was wearing one of my coats and Simone asked me about it, and when I told him it was made in Afghanistan, he said we had to work together,” she says on a recent call (from Berlin, not the jungle!). The EFI had several ongoing initiatives in Afghanistan in collaboration with its social enterprise partner, Zarif Design, a “slow production” workshop in Kabul founded by Zolaykha Sherzad, who employs 52 local artisans to create garments using traditional fabrics, embroideries, and natural dyes. In doing so, she is keeping those crafts alive and providing safe, fair-trade employment.
Sherzad is something of a dream collaborator for De Kroon. “Zarif’s mission is to bring peace to Afghanistan through celebrating its cultural heritage and beauty, so we really align,” De Kroon says. “I thought, How can we bring the work I’ve been doing with Zazi together with the work she is doing on the silk road and personify that in a single collection?” The results are photographed here: a summertime edit of dresses and separates made with traditional ikat silk and pieced-together vintage saris. Eighty percent of the materials came from deadstock, and the rest were cut in Uzbekistan from pure silk. The collection just went live on the Zazi website today, and 5 percent of all sales will be donated to the “saffron mission,” which is helping farmers in Afghanistan change their environmentally detrimental poppy fields into lower-impact saffron crops.
One of de Kroon’s big-picture goals is to promote the beauty of Afghani crafts, not just to her own consumers but to other designers and brands. “The heritage of the silk road is really incredible, but these artisans don’t have many market links,” she explains. “In Tajikistan, for example, they don’t export anything, so it’s all kept within the country. If you look at these projects from a geopolitical view, especially when you’re working with the U.N., you can see what’s really going on in these countries and find a way to get international markets to look at them more. There is so much beauty and so many amazing women’s collectives that would love to work with international brands.”
De Kroon also understands that the true reach of these projects goes beyond beautiful clothes and crafts. “Fashion is an exciting market because we have so much opportunity to catalyze change,” she says. “This is a trillion-dollar industry that supplies 300 million people with a job every year, and 80 percent of those people are women. But they only hold the wealth of maybe 10 percent of the industry. If you look at the [global] supply chain, which is very much a patriarchal postcolonial system, it’s crazy to see the political dynamics at work,” she continues. “So how can we figure out a way to make sure everyone in this supply chain is a real member and has a real voice?”
In other words, sustainability is a feminist issue. In fact, before De Kroon started her line in 2015, she was working for an NGO in India, and was told that if she really wanted to make a difference for women, she should get involved in the fashion industry. “These women are the real stars of fashion—they’re the ones who spend eight months embroidering our coats and helping us find the vintage materials,” she explains. “I really believe that when it comes to sustainability, it doesn’t matter as much if you use organic cotton or some new sustainable fiber—in the end, it’s about our relationship to the garments.” ? “When you ask someone about their favorite piece of clothing, it always has this great story—you got it for your grandma, or you wore it on a holiday,” she continues. “Those are the items that last the longest, so to me, the future of sustainability is about having those personal relationships with your clothes. Brands can really highlight that by telling the stories behind them—the craftsmanship, the culture.” De Kroon is doing her part by sharing exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of her clothes being made in Afghanistan, here as well as on her website, where you can shop the full selection.