By Ericka Souter
Updated February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

Take a left on street 10 and go through the huge patch of mud,” designer Sarah Takesh tells a customer on the phone, who must navigate around goats, bikes and the occasional swimming-pool-size ditch to get to her workshop in a residential area of Kabul, Afghanistan. “People get freaked out because of the mud,” she says. “They think the road is ending. It’s like, ‘Are we going off-roading or are we going shopping?'”

Those who do make the trek discover a cluttered, one-room retail shop full of Takesh’s hand-loomed silk garments, embellished with embroidery, sequins and beads. The 31-year-old American sells her Tarsian & Blinkley designs in upscale New York City and Beverly Hills boutiques, but they are made here in Kabul by some 300 Afghan women she employs. Previously forbidden to work under the Taliban regime and now desperate to find jobs in their war-torn country, the women earn the equivalent of $5 a day, or $2 more than the average wage. “Their lives are not good,” says local tailor Nasrullah, who works with her. “But because of Sarah, their lives are better.”

Says Takesh, whose pieces have been featured in IN STYLE and are sold online: “The world doesn’t need just another clothing label. Families are eating because I’m here.”

Born to a wealthy landowner and his wife in Iran, Takesh left the country with her family in 1978 after it erupted in civil war, eventually resettling in La Jolla, Calif. As a child she listened to her mother’s “unbelievable stories that romanticized the Afghans as these mountain, tribal people,” she says. “That is where the seed of the Afghan thing was planted.” At age 19 she visited Iran. “Every time she saw poor people on the streets,” says her mother, Zarin, “she started crying and wanted to do something for them.”

After working as a design assistant to Michael Kors and Donna Karan and starting a business degree at Berkeley, she decided to set up shop in Kabul in July 2002 to “fight fundamentalism my own way.” At first, it was more difficult than she expected. “There was nowhere to eat, nowhere to go at all,” says Takesh. “The vibe on the streets was very creepy.”

Though building a business in the Third World can be challenging, says Takesh—most women don’t have phones, for example—she has now produced five collections. Every day a half dozen women, who learn the intricate, delicate needlework as young girls, show up outside the studio hoping to get a stitching assignment to take back home. Takesh, who buys her fabrics in India, gives them ideas and direction but no specific patterns to follow. “I’ll say, ‘I want a crochet design with lots of holes.’ What we’re doing is interpretive and collaborative.” The work, in a country where most of the jobs go to men, makes a striking difference in the women’s lives. “I am a good person now in my family because I can earn money,” says Azize, a widow in her 30s, who was beaten by her brother for not contributing to the rent. Another worker’s earnings have gone to health care. “I got vaccinations for my kids,” says Negbakt.

Takesh, who is single and spends her rare free time partying with friends and traveling to India and New York City, makes about 500 pieces a month (priced at $75 to $150), though she’s not yet making a profit. When she does, “I want to cruise around the countryside,” she says. “I’ll be riding around on a horse like an Afghan cowgirl. My goal is not to get rich and run back to the States. I just want to be here.”

By Ericka Sóuter. Courtney Rubin in Kabul