He Thread, She Thread: Afghan men and women worked side-by-side at Hashimi’s Herat-based dress factory. Credit: Photograph by Pilar Vergara

Roya Hashimi’s sunlit shop in Old Town Alexandria is a trove of fancy white and cream-colored dresses, some featuring beading and others with intricate embroidery. The 39-year-old designer’s gowns are usually custom orders; the 96 dresses currently filling up her store, however, recently arrived from Herat, Afghanistan, and are the handiwork of approximately 20 Afghan men and women Hashimi recruited.

Born and educated in Hamburg, Germany, with 15 years spent in Afghanistan, Hashimi has run Elegance Fashion Boutique in Alexandria for the last decade. In April, she returned to Afghanistan for the first time in almost 25 years and opened a temporary factory where local workers, particularly women, could earn some extra income over the course of 12 days sewing dresses based on her designs. Hashimi intends to use the profits from those dresses to eventually open a school for the village’s girls.

“My first goal was to go there and open the factory and hire women,” Hashimi says. “Then, I went to the little village, and I met a lot of little girls…and they were all running behind me saying ‘Roya, can you do something? We want to sew, and we want to go to school.’ I asked if they could read and write, and they showed me a barn—and one part was totally destroyed from war. There’s one class; ages 6 to 13 all go to one class—third grade for everybody.”

Getting materials for the workers to use was relatively easy, Hashimi says, because Afghan women “love fashion; there are fabric stores, believe me, that you don’t have in Virginia—next to each other. They are coming from Korea, Dubai. They are fancy fabrics.”

Because Hashimi primarily makes wedding dresses, the color palette for the fabrics proved to be the troublesome point. “In Herat, people are not buying that many white fabrics; it gets dirty,” she says. “I went from one store to another store and asked for white fabric. Next day, we wanted to go to another part of the city to find more white and cream fabrics, and they said the price of the white fabric jumped up. I asked why, and they said ‘A girl from Canada or USA is buying all the white fabric,’ and I said ‘Stop! That’s me!’ ”

The fabric’s used for dresses Hashimi designed and made patterns for in Virginia, and the styles sometimes caught the workers off guard. “They said, ‘My god, they are wearing all strapless!’ ” says Hashimi, who compensated her workers at rates higher than those typically offered locally. “They asked me for 1,000 Afghani, about $20 per day, which is a good money for them, and I paid them more than that. I said, ‘They will work better.’ ”

Hashimi was right but was surprised nonetheless at her workers’ productivity. “I didn’t count on [manufacturing] 100 pieces in 12 days,” she says. “I had three [professional] dressmakers; the others…whatever I showed them, they learned it so quick, and they wanted to know more.”

Since her return to the States in early May after the monthlong trip, Hashimi has sold four of her dresses made by the Afghan workers, which range in price from $350 to $1,300. The faster these dresses, strapless and otherwise, sell, the closer the factory is to being able to stay open more often. “Even if I sell half of them, that will be OK, then I could pay my trip,” Hashimi says. “Maybe next time the factory will be two months open, maybe another time three months.”