Mr Erbil aren’t messing about. If you’re going to have a photoshoot, there are worse backdrops than the ancient citadel of Erbil. Dramatic, visually stunning, and in the midst of a stalled renovation program, it is where a group of Kurdish dandies have chosen to pose and preen for the camera.
The fashionable young men make up Mr. Erbil, a new – and, they claim, first – gentlemen’s club in the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Erbil lies just 80km shy of Mosul, and the region has endured years of extremist violence, with the economy coming to a virtual standstill. It’s in this context that Mr. Erbil was launched last year, when a group of stylish friends got together over tea and shisha and created an Instagram page filled with sharp tailoring and social commentary.
Mr. Erbil has since become something of a social media sensation. Its style-conscious members are an egalitarian crowd, with car mechanics, students, doctors, architects, engineers, barbers, and shop owners filling its dapper ranks – among them, Omer Nihad, Goran Pshtiwan, Ahmed Nauzad, and Newar Al Xayat.
Their attire has an air of relaxed sophistication: dress shirts and suits; flannel and tweed; sweaters and blazers. There are even watch chains, leather gloves, and the occasional umbrella. There’s also an appreciation of heritage and society, with Mr. Erbil’s stated goals embracing not only fashion but also social justice, women’s rights, and the cultivation of a peaceful image of their homeland.
“We believe fashion can make a difference, because you can portray your image as you wish in society, which gives a sense of freedom to individuals to express themselves,” says Mr. Erbil, which insists on being recognized as a single entity rather than a group of individuals.
“Not everyone has to agree with the style of clothes you wear. We have done a good job of attracting people from all over the world because we’ve done something new in our society – bringing gents together that care about dressing well.”
And dress well they do. For a typical evening out, a simple suit or blazer with accompanying handkerchief suffices, but something more memorable is required for a photo shoot or an Instagram post, considering the club’s 87 000 followers. Chinos, turtlenecks, waistcoats, newsboy caps, and bicycles have all featured.
Much of the club’s inspiration comes from Pitti Uomo, the twice-yearly men’s fashion event held in Florence, but it also channels traditional Kurdish culture and places an emphasis on flamboyance and sartorial elegance.
Ultimately, Mr. Erbil’s ambition is to produce handmade luxury clothes of the highest quality. Its first project, a tie made from goat’s fur fabric called krr, is already in production. Plans to design and produce pants and waistcoats, however, have stalled due to “not having enough skills from the local tailors.”
Supporting tailors is key, as is stimulating the local economy. Nihad is the founder of Rishn, a men’s grooming company specializing in beard oil, mustache wax, and multipurpose beard combs and brushes. If it all sounds a tad hipster, well, maybe it is, but Kurdish history is peppered with bearded and mustachioed men.
Beyond Kurdistan, it is Instagram that has helped raise Mr. Erbil’s profile, spreading its message of social inclusion to the rest of the world.
“Now that we have a name, when we walk on the streets we see people talk to each other and point us out to their friends, saying, ‘Check out these guys, they are from Mr. Erbil.’ Sometimes when we go to a café or a shop they approach us and say, ‘Aren’t you guys from Mr. Erbil? We really like what you’re are doing. Keep up the good work,’” says Mr. Erbil. Whether this is down to its members’ sartorial flair or commitment to Kurdistan is, however, unclear.
“We hope to show that we as Kurds exist and we have our own land, culture, language, history, and government,” says Mr. Erbil. “We’d like to change the image of Kurdistan. We want to say, we are safe here, life is beautiful and very normal. We are not the same as the media shows.
“Also, we can be productive and creative, and have a passion for the fashion industry. We want to be an inspiration and motivation for other youth, to not stay at home and complain about what is happening. Inspire then to not give up, and to try to make things better. To spread positivity, to help women get their rights, to stop violence against women, to raise awareness about the environment. To show that we have a lot of resources we can use to boost our economy.
“We want to change ideas about what is a good or bad product. ‘Made in Kurdistan’ does not mean bad or cheap quality.”