On the day of the deliberations around the FTA Prize 2022, we saw our judges stop for a long time in front of Kazna Asker’s booth where they paused to discover her unique creations, where traditional Palestinian and Yemeni embroidery collides with tracksuits and urban clothes. We heard them discuss among themselves the meaning of these hybridizations. We listened as they concluded that they were seeing something new, a sneak peek at the clothing of the future, a symptom of a humanity that is increasingly embracing migration and cultural mixes and that is on the threshold of dramatic, inevitable climate change.
In the evening, after the judges had deliberated, it was a bundle of joy that burst onto the stage to receive the Debut Talent Prize from the hands of the great Egyptian actress Yousra and the iconic dancer, choreographer and singer of Syrian-Canadian origin, Paula Abdul. At 25 years old, Kazna Asker, one of the youngest candidates for an FTA award, ran, laughing her way through the crowd, sending out an infectious wave of euphoria.
“Fashion is a powerful tool to make a change!”
This moment of grace was, however, the culmination of a less light-hearted story, that of the immigration of a family, in fact several Yemeni families, to the United Kingdom, more precisely to Sheffield, an industrial city where a large community from “Happy Arabia” has lived for the last century, and of which Asker is part of the third generation. In this story, there is also a great deal of active generosity, an outlook transmitted by the community’s elders: “My aunty plays a huge part in the Yemeni community and I would always tag along during her jobs and spend the summer with her and my family. And then when I got older, we would co-organize charity events in the community to fundraise money for Palestine and Yemen. We raised over £10,000 in one day, which helped build a health center in Palestine. I would attend protests and it really inspired me to raise awareness and prioritize charity within my work. I really enjoyed this type of work and continued to gain more experience working with communities in Nepal and refugees in Amsterdam and then I brought my values and knowledge back home,” says Asker.
“Also, when I left Sheffield for university, I realized how important, strong and selfless the Sheffield Yemeni community was from an outside’s perspective. I realized there are so many people that haven’t experienced community values like I did, so I would always showcase the beauty of my people through my work.
“I think young people are really focused on fighting for injustice through all forms of liberation and the spirit behind my message is really my main driving force within my work. Whether it is selling graphic designed T-shirts to raise money for humanitarian aid in Yemen, collaborating with my community and printing their personal answers [more on this later – ed.] on the back of my garments, or referencing my religion through my collection – I think fashion is a powerful tool to make a change!” explains Asker.
“Drawing all over the walls”
The daily life of the designer, her routine and her hobbies are mainly focused on her family circle, “I have two sisters and one brother and there is only year between all four of us, so I grew up very close to my siblings! We were born and raised in Liverpool and I remember most of my childhood we would draw all over the walls. My family say that I would always get markers and draw all over the wallpaper and then rip it off and draw all over the walls again. Most of my childhood memories involve spending time with my entire family – brother, sisters, parents, cousins, grandparents, aunties, uncles! I would spend all my summer holidays with different family members”, she recalls.
Of the Yemeni vein that fuels her creations, Asker says to Pulse, “I have never been to Yemen! It’s definitely one of my goals to visit with my family, however, my grandparents and cousins go often and I know it’s quite dangerous at the moment, but hopefully one day I can tag along on one of their trips! Where my family live in the UK, Sheffield, has a really big Yemeni community so I was raised with a strong Yemeni culture. My favorite thing about my culture is that I love Yemeni food! I also like the traditional Diracs we wear to weddings and the gold jewelry! And I love Yemeni people, they are the kindest people I know and I know I can walk into any Yemeni household in my community and they will look after me like I’m their own daughter.”
“Watered by one Water”
The idea of her collection is a natural result of the journey she continues to take, “My collection is called Watered by one Water and focuses on the values of community. I combined my British upbringing with my Yemeni heritage and designed a mixture of tracksuits, streetwear and outerwear with Islamic abayas, thobes and hijabs, as well as combining technical sportswear fabrics with traditional woven Middle-Eastern upholstery fabrics and scarves. My main muse was the local Muslim community in Sheffield that I grew up around and I would always see a combination of our traditional cultures with our new perspectives as the next generation in the UK. My goal was to challenge any negative stereotypes associated with the Muslim community, so I purposefully designed in pairs to show the true brother and sisterhood of our community, as well as focusing on Islamic modesty and I have hijabi models – to show that we’re actually cool people!
“I collaborated directly with my local community and created graphic designed posters featuring the questions: What are you fighting for? Who inspired you today? What does “community” mean to you? Different genders, races and ages filled out the posters with their personal answers in different languages, which I printed on the back of my collection to showcase the voices behind the members of the community in places where we are not usually represented – such as London Fashion week!” says the young laureate.
Streetwear inspired by the Arab and Muslim world
Today, she shares a studio in London with a friend and spends most of her days designing and sewing. Living with her siblings, she goes out with them most of the time, and whenever she gets the chance, she takes the first train to Sheffield to spend time with her family and grandparents and walk with them through the countryside. When she can’t go to Sheffield, she takes time to visit London’s museums and galleries – especially the small independent exhibitions, she tells us. Well-traveled, Asker also tells us that her favorite places are Nepal (due to the friendliness of the Nepalese people), Morocco and Egypt. She also tells us that she enjoys visiting Muslim countries and learning about the history of tribes, Islam and cultures, as well as listening to music, watching movies and interviews and listening to podcasts.
On the new chapter, the one that began with her FTA Debut Talent Award, she comments candidly, “I feel so grateful I was even able to participate in the FTA competition and visit Qatar – it was an experience of a lifetime and I don’t think I would have been able to have this opportunity if it wasn’t for FTA. I’m super grateful to the jury for awarding me the Debut Talent prize and I’m so happy they were able to see everything beautiful about my local community in Sheffield! Also, I feel so honored I was able to receive the award and represent Yemen!”
And now? “My goal is to start my own fashion brand and continue to build on the creative platform I have already created – combing my cultures and creating streetwear inspired by the Arab and Muslim world. I have a lot of experience in community work, so I would like to combine fashion with community through my brand and create a platform for people to take part and listen! My biggest ambition is to create a brand based on sincerity and authenticity, and representing people that look like me is always cool!” Kazna Asker concludes, flashing her ever refreshing smile.