The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of a lot of things. A sense of security. Maybe our jobs. Definitely any confidence in our healthcare and political systems. But if there’s one thing those of us who are lucky enough to be homebound are eager to forgive, it’s pants. There’s only one article of clothing that can truly capture this vibe—and it’s not a pair of sweatpants. No, the true spirit garment of lockdown is the caftan.
Little more than a wide piece of fabric with a neck hole, the freeing garment plays a starring role in reruns of The Golden Girls and on beachgoers on the Greek Isles. Though comfort-focused, caftans are more of a style statement than, say, your coffee-splotched bathrobe. (That, of course, also makes a statement: “I’ve given up”).
“Caftans are timeless starting from the Ottoman Empire until now,” says designer Monica Patel-Cohn. Her Brooklyn-based brand, Two, transforms handmade textiles and saris from India into caftans and tunics. “They dress you up and make you feel elegant, with a certain ease no matter what shape you are in, and that’s the secret.”
And while at least in the West caftans aren’t worn as often by men, Randall Bachner of the unisex brand Marrakshi Life has noticed more guys giving the garment a go lately. “In terms of broadening minds and people opening up their ideas of gender and shapes, I think the world and especially men are becoming more liberal,” he says. “The caftan is entering more populations.”
A former fashion photographer, Bachner moved from New York City to Morocco and in 2013 founded his brand which celebrates the textiles handwoven by local artisans in his Marrakesh atelier. His sustainable, made-to-order line—including his breezy spring/summer 2021 line which dropped on January 14—often showcases caftans and loose, boxy tunics.
Oday Shakar has made the caftan the focus of a new project. A former luxury womenswear designer, Shakar started Kaftko—a brand of non-gendered caftans for all body types—back last April, along with co-founders Dana Quadri and James Adelman. The brand’s gauzy garments, in rich colors and bold patterns, quickly found fans in Billy Porter and other stars, along with upwards of 10,000 customers who sprint to snatch up new drops that often sell out in hours. On offer right now are four different versions, from semi-sheer polyester chiffon to the comfort-focused Kozy Bear that’s like a hoodie-Snuggie hybrid by way of the Care Bears—complete with detachable bear ears.
The looks started almost as a lark. While in Fire Island with his boyfriend Kyle in August of 2019, Shakar wondered why weren’t there any good caftans for different body types—including bigger guys who occasionally like to rock a frock. Back home in NYC, he started sketching pieces, and sent off for a run of samples.
The samples hit his doorstep in March 2020, 23 days into isolation in his 500 square-foot East Village apartment. “I put the samples on and immediately felt this sense of joy and just started dancing in my living room,” he says. “I was completely taken away by the feel of the fabric and the quality of the prints.” After an impromptu iPhone photoshoot on his fire escape, he launched a pre-order on his personal social media pages. The release sold out in three hours.
While Kaftko was initially popular among gay guys in New York, Shakar sees posts from people of all genders wearing his designs. Caftan fans knot the garments into tops to wear with jeans, or wear them loose to lounge around the house. He’s landed fans farther afield, too. “My whole family is Middle Eastern,” he says. “And all the men in my family are like, ‘this is amazing. This reminds us of the garments that we grew up wearing.’”
For Shakar, the garment is intimately connected to a sense of freedom. There’s the physical kind, of course. “When you have no seams or arm holes or—you know—pants, you’re dealing with a feeling of freedom,” he says. But there’s also an emotional component. “You immediately put the garment on and you feel more free and loose.” Shakar grew up in California, and lived in Baghdad for about a year and a half when he was twelve. “That was the first time I realized I was gay and I realized I was in a place where that was unacceptable,” he says. There, after finding one of his sketchbooks filled with costumed female figures, an aunt encouraged him to take up fashion design. She’d studied fashion in London and soon hauled out the dress forms and fabrics from her attic, teaching him how to pattern and drape. “I’m a very strong advocate for the freedoms that I have in this country that I wouldn’t have if I had been born in Baghdad,” he says. “So it kind of came full circle, the fact that I’m a Middle Eastern gay man designing caftans for all types of people that may not be accepted in certain other parts of the world.”
Now Shakar is working on swimwear, caftan-cut button-downs, and a new Valentine’s Day collaboration with television personality Ross Matthews. Monica Patel-Cohn of Two and Randall Bachner of Marrakshi Life, meanwhile, are both looking forward to the return of retail shopping, and leisure travel. A caftan worn at home is great. But one worn on a sun-dappled balcony during cocktail hour? That’s the caftan’s highest purpose.