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Somayia Khan - From Afghanistan to Cannes

Today I find myself on a stunning balcony overlooking La Croisette at the 76th Cannes Film Festival with emerging London-based fashion designer Somayia Khan, the founder of Somy London. We are inside "The Sandra & Co Suite," listed as one of Vogue's must-see spots of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, as well as being a much sought-after party venue during the film festival. Located in the heart of Cannes' golden triangle, Somy London has been invited to exhibit her designs in a showroom here, alongside other brands, including Liujo & Marc-Antione Barrois.

Lina Musallam wearing Somy London at “The Sandra & Co Suite, Cannes”

Photo: © Anton Califano 2023


Somayia was born in Medina, Saudi Arabia, in 1992 to a Dari-speaking family from Kunduz, northern Afghanistan. In Somayia's team are her Palestinian journalist friend Lina and her impressive Estonian-born business mentor Laura Timm. Lina Musallam is a Palestinian British journalist and news anchor with extensive experience covering global politics, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. The inspiration for Somy London's designs is partly inspired by her own personal life experiences…many of which she has shared with me on camera over the last two years. I'm here following Somaiya's story for a new independent documentary film.

Left: Lina Musallam, Somayia Khan & Laura Timm

Right: Filmmaker Anton Califano


As a documentary filmmaker based in London, I originally met Somayia through a brief Facebook exchange. My documentary work was impacted heavily by the Pandemic, with many of the Film & TV production companies I worked for stopping filming for a period of months. For me, it was, on reflection, a time of resurrection (in my career), and I decided to broaden my portfolio of commercial film work and reach out to emerging fashion designers, beauty & lifestyle brands. And that's how we originally connected!


Somy London was founded in 2021, and the first collection was launched at London Fashion Week in 2021. The UK was emerging from lockdown, and the show itself also coincided with turbulent events in Afghanistan - the US and allied forces leaving the country rather more rapidly than expected, resulting in a return to power for The Taliban.

At the end of the show, Somayia asked her models to throw folders with flowers on the floor as a form of protest about how women were having their chance at education thrown away by the return of The Taliban. It was a bold mini-protest, which wasn't a natural fit for a chic fashion show in London - but boldly set and elegantly delivered Somayia on the London fashion scene stage.

Somy London @ London Fashion Week 2021

Photo: © Ale Filizzola 2021


Somy London @ London Fashion Week 2021

Somy London @ London Fashion Week 2021

Photo: © Ale Filizzola 2021


Somaiya's family had initially left Afghanistan for Saudi Arabia during the Afghan Civil War (1992-1996), after which the Taliban first came to power. On occasions, Somaiya has described going to Saudi Arabia as a journey to freedom, which with my Western view of Saudi Arabia, had always seemed quite intriguing to try to unpack.

Lina Musallam wearing Somy London at the Carlton, Cannes  Photo: © Anton Califano 2023

Lina Musallam wearing Somy London at the Carlton, Cannes

Photo: © Anton Califano 2023


Somayia's second show at London Fashion Week in 2022 was titled "Resurrection," with female empowerment being firmly at the core of the ideation. A year into the Taliban's return to power, her feelings about what was happening to women 'back home' was a burning issue - so much so that one of her designs she describes as being like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. The design includes hundreds of golden feathers. The models emerge to a 'spoken word' soundtrack written & composed specially for the collection. Another dress in the collection resembles a Bhurka, though with no head covering, and so is most definitely not. The voice in the soundtrack tells us, "Exchanging perceptions is what enriches our being, So barter customs and traditions, appreciate the origins, embrace the destination…."


The show also includes designs that were partly inspired by the principle "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," resonating that there are women in the world (especially in Afghanistan) that are not 'allowed' to see, hear, or speak almost anything, the choice and freedom has been taken from them.

“Resurrection” collection at London Fashion Week 2022 (Fashions Finest) Photo: © Daniel Rachev 2022

“Resurrection” collection at London Fashion Week 2022 (Fashions Finest)

Photo: © Daniel Rachev 2022


“Resurrection” collection at London Fashion Week 2022 (Fashions Finest) Photo: © Daniel Rachev 2022

“Resurrection” collection at London Fashion Week 2022 (Fashions Finest)

Photo: © Daniel Rachev 2022


“Resurrection” collection at London Fashion Week 2022 (Fashions Finest) Photo: © Daniel Rachev 2022

Somy London models mini protest about the killing of Mahsa Amin @ Soho House, White City, London

Photo: ©vcphoto1 2022


The Resurrection show at Soho House, White City, London, culminated in the models brandishing banners in protest at the brutal state killing of Mahsa Amani in Iran in September 2022. Somayia then joined the models and cut a chunk from her hair in solidarity with women and girls in Iran, also doing the same as part of the broader campaign for better women's rights in the country.


I have come to understand that Somy London designs are not just to be worn and adored but to provoke thought, reaction and social change too. Interestingly, she tells me that when studying for MA in Fashion, Business & Management at the University for Creative Arts in London, she loved reading about British women in World War II working hard to keep the country going - very much inspired by the female heroes of the war. When Somayia describes the runway not as a catwalk but as a "power walk," her evening wear designs and business dress help put into perspective where she comes from, both as a woman and a designer. Back in Cannes, we head to the beach for a few shots of Somayia and Lina wearing her latest dresses and her recently launched Somy London "headscarf."

Lina Musallam wearing Somy London headscarf

Photo: © Anton Califano 2023


I'm interested in the headscarf design. I remember Somayia telling me once in a filmed interview I did with her that when she took off her scarf in London, it represented a real moment of freedom for her. She was married at fifteen to what later turned out to be an abusive husband. After having two children, she finally escaped years of what must have been a horrendous situation and settled in London with her two children. Not long after that she started her journey into fashion.

Laura & Somaiya at the Black Flies Premiere, Cannes

Laura & Somaiya at the Black Flies Premiere, Cannes


As a last-minute surprise, Somaiya and friends have been invited to the Premiere of Black Flies starring Sean Penn.


The red carpet opportunity was a special gift and surprise from a dear friend of Laura Timm's, Olivia de Villers, as a token of friendship and a way to assist Laura in helping Somayia's journey and shed more light on the designs that empower women, and help give a voice to those who don't have it.


Somayia says, "Cannes Film Festival's red carpet was more than a dream come true. It was a powerful stride of empowerment. I stepped into the spotlight wearing my designs, radiating my passion for fashion. With each step, this extraordinary moment reaffirmed that dreams, when nurtured with dedication and belief, can transform into breathtaking experiences that leave an indelible mark on our souls. Walking the red carpet at Cannes ignited a fire within me, propelling me to embrace endless possibilities, soar to greater heights, and continue crafting my designer legacy in a world that cherishes both cinema and fashion."


Somayia's business mentor Laura is very much backing her "female empowerment" focused vision. Somayia says, "Laura is a Guiding Light that Transformed my Path. From the moment I met her, my life took a remarkable turn. I am forever grateful for the privilege of being mentored by this extraordinary woman. She encapsulates everything I aspire to be - a beacon of inspiration for the future, exuding grace and insight in her every action. She has an unparalleled ability to recognise and nurture potential. In her unwavering belief in me, I found the strength to flourish on my fashion journey. Laura has not only changed my life but also ignited a fire within me that will continue to burn brightly. I'm so grateful for her being the catalyst of my transformation."


Meanwhile, we're all off to the Cannes pyjama James Bond-themed Party at a villa in the hills with a stunning view, red carpet entrance, free-flowing champagne, and Getty photographers to capture everything! Oh, and of course, Somayia designed custom-made pyjama & gown designs for the party hosts film director Maxim Jago & producer David DeBorde, aka "The Men in Golden Pyjamas."

Left: Lina wearing Somy London at The Cannes PJ Party, Photo: © Anton Califano 2023

Right: Somayia & Lina at The Cannes PJ Party, Photo: © Anton Califano 2023

Center: Cannes PJ Party Hosts Maxim Jago & David DeBorde wearing Somy London, Photo: © Anton Califano 2023


Somayia's 'introduction' to the Cannes Film Festival 2023 is finally topped off with the opportunity to design a dress for the Cannes red carpet for Sandra Sisley - of PR fame - attending the Cannes Film Awards on the festival's final night.

Sandra Sisley attending the Cannes Awards wearing Somy London  Photo © Getty Images 2023

Sandra Sisley attending the Cannes Awards wearing Somy London

Photo © Getty Images 2023

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