If branding any country is no easy task, branding a politically controversial country is likely to be especially difficult.
But in Uzbekistan, one woman, often referred to only half figuratively as the “princess of the Uzbeks” by the local press, has taken it upon herself to do just that.
In October, Gulnara Karimova - controversial Uzbek businesswoman and daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov - held her fifth annual 'Style.Uz' event, a week devoted to catwalks, antiques, archaeology, art and photography.
Karimova was described by staff at the US Embassy in Tashkent in a recently leaked cable from Wikileaks as "the single most hated person in the country."
“I wanted to create a platform for young and promising designers to showcase their talent to the world,” Karimova told the press.
The event, which started shortly after London fashion week, took place across Tashkent, a capital almost entirely flattened by an earthquake in 1966.
But modern Tashkent still reflects something of the country’s past, as well as its aspirations for the future. Ostentatious modern buildings with cues of Islamic and Central Asian design are juxtaposed accidentally with former Soviet apartment blocks and 16th-century madrassas.
Although primarily created as a platform for homegrown talent, international fashion heavyweights including Chopard and Salvatore Ferragamo were also invited by Karimova, along with artists and musicians including José Carreras who headlined the event.
There was a chaotic energy throughout the venues where Style.uz was hosted.
The Youth Creativity Palace, where most of the core events took place, was a curious mix of the very modern and very traditional: While many of its spaces were wall-to-wall glass and freshly painted plaster, the basement was alive with banter and the aromas of fresh Turkish pizza and plov, the Uzbek national dish of steamed rice, meat and vegetables. Ordering at the basement cafe was a delicate art in itself, requiring a careful balance of shouting and kind gestures at the waitresses in order to get served.
Saida Amir, 31, is one of Uzbekistan’s first fashion designers. “When I told people at school I wanted to become a fashion designer, they laughed; it was unheard of,” she recalls.
However, after winning numerous awards, she went on to be supported by the British Council. She’s part of a new generation of young Uzbek designers and fashion entrepreneurs weaving together the ancient fabrics of the Silk Road in a modern style.
Her work is exhibited in a small, trendy boutique, the Human House on Usman Nosir Street, on the up and coming side of Tashkent. Customers come from Uzbekistan’s more affluent class, who are finding themselves increasingly interested in style.
As the country finds its feet in the post-Soviet era, there are still traces of Russian influence around. Uzbekistan is still home to roughly 1 million ethnic Russians, who make their own cultural contributions, including Russian-Uzbek hip hop.
What is less clear is which direction Uzbekistan is leaning in as other cultures are making their mark. Demir, for instance, a new Turkish high-end shopping centre has recently opened in Tashkent, and Korean firms continue to invest in the country.
Despite the glitz and glamour around the city, or maybe because of it, the week goes on unnoticed by many Uzbeks. They may not necessarily have much money, but they have their own style, and are at least free to express that.
“It’s about bringing different cultures together. It’s about integrating Uzbek culture with that of other nations,” says Karimova about her project.
But brand Uzbekistan is still a work in progress.