ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - Kurdistan’s high-speed development is on full display in the oil companies digging in, the buildings going up, the diaspora coming home and the tourists flying in. But there is another, slightly lower-key, indicator of the changes afoot: The way Kurdish men dress.
With its proud Peshmarga history the Kurdish suit – loose-fitting trousers with the dropped inseam, matching jacket and a wide belt wrapped or twisted out of a length of silky, delicate fabric – is more than just an outfit; it’s a cultural tradition.
Across the region, different styles have emerged within the tradition. In Dohuk, men favor a loose, sometimes flared leg and wide vertical stripes, while in Sulaimani trousers are more fitted and suits tend to come in a wider range of colors. There are the knotted Badini style belts, and the red scarf and knotted belt combination: Barzani style.
“Kurdish dress is not only tied to cultural identity, it is the origin of it,” says Snur Sleman, a 40-year-old who sells traditional scarves at the Erbil bazaar.
But this tradition and the culture it represents is under pressure, as the factors behind Kurdistan’s economic boom – the foreign workers, the tourists, the international media – open the region up to more global cultural and intellectual influences. Those who make these suits are finding themselves pressed to come up with new ways to make their wares relevant to an ever more globally-minded audience.
In Sleman’s shop, named after his nine-year-old son Sevan, this transition is already at work. While Sleman insists his son will own the shop one day and carry on the tradition his own father began in 1966, the young son, in a modern zip-front sweatsuit, isn’t so sure: “It’s boring for me.”
“Generally, the tradition is in decline,” says Omed Anwar Suleiman, a tailor from Erbil who works at the bazaar. “Young people prefer modern stuff.”
Like Snur Sleman, Suleiman inherited his calling: His father opened the shop in 1977, and Suleiman and his brother both became tailors. He recalls a golden era between 1993 and 2003, when young people took a greater pride in wearing Kurdish dress.
But these days the 34-year-old, who comes to work in black trousers and a button-down shirt, understands why more and more young people are eschewing the Kurdish suit in favor of jeans and a t-shirt. “When someone is wearing Kurdish dress, they look like they’re not modern. People prefer regular clothes.”
Suleiman stays in business by offering his customers – most of them in their thirties – a modern take on the traditional suit, with slimmer-cut trousers and a fitted button-down top. He estimates this style accounts for 80 percent of his sales.
Just across the way from Suleiman’s stall, Hawras Khdr Osman is another second-generation tailor who has updated traditions in order to stay relevant to the younger end of the market. Most of his customers are between 16 and 40 and come to him for a more modern take on the Kurdish suit.
“Every style I make is named for a Kurdish official,” he explains, highlighting the cultural significance of this style of dress. “This one, named for PM Barzani, has a zipper and a different collar. The trousers are all the same. The modern trousers are more fitted, but they all have belts.”
In an average month, Osman makes between 40 and 60 Kurdish suits, as well as another 40 pairs of trousers. Like Suleiman, he estimates that 80 percent of his output is tailored in a more modern style, to accommodate younger customers and diaspora Kurds.
Nezar Ahmed is one of those Kurds. He was born in Kurdistan and moved to Texas at age three. He now splits his time between Texas and Erbil, where he works in the oil business.
“I wear Kurdish clothes mainly to cultural events where it is suggested to wear your Jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes),” he says. “It’s somewhat rare for the diaspora to wear these.” But Ahmed is not wearing the baggy Kurdish suits of his grandfather’s era: “Kurdish clothes have managed to stay fashionable through the years, and designers are now trying to add a modern twist to them.”
For the designers who get that right, the rewards can more than make up for the long days spent hunched over a sewing machine. Suleiman’s shop profits $600 in the average week, and up to $8,000 in the month before Newroz. Osman declines to reveal how much he makes per month, but says when a friend recently offered him another job at $2,500 per month, he said no: Tailoring pays more.
Azad Sherwani of the Kurdistan Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry says there are about 4,500 tailors in the Kurdistan Region. This is split between men and women, and urban and rural settings, but he confirms that tailors with the right location and experience – and, as Suleiman and Osman have shown, the right instincts about their younger customers – can earn “a high income.”
Whether there will be as many of them around making suits for the next generation is less clear.
“It’s exhausting work,” says 28-year-old Osman, rubbing his lower back. “Even right now I feel old.” His advice to anyone considering a career as a tailor? “Don’t do it! It takes so long to learn.”
Suleiman agrees. “Personally, I don’t like it. I’m in it for the profit. And even the old shops don’t have that much profit. New people would have fewer customers.”