In the heart of Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, Rawa Ali and Ahmed Nauzad are discussing good grooming and gentlemanly deportment. The cappuccinos are smooth, the setting less so.
Less than three hours' drive away, Syria's eight-year civil war has just acquired a few more layers of devilish complexity. In Iraq's southern cities, the death toll soars as security forces mount a violent crackdown on anti-corruption protesters. And the threat of Islamic State sleeper cells plotting a stealth comeback is ever-present.
But, style still matters. Indeed, for these dapper young men, style is survival.
Welcome to Mr Erbil, a gentlemen's club that has grown from social network to emporium of hip, comprising a designer clothes shop, a barber's and a cafe. Exquisitely designed, with coloured glass and wood features, the premises strike the perfect hipster balance between artifice and authenticity.
You could be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Or Hoxton, London. Except you're not. You're in what some describe as a war zone. Erbil, however, protected by the fearsome Kurdish Peshmerga, literally "those who face death", has thus far emerged relatively unscathed from surrounding troubles.
As co-founder Ahmed (29) points out, the Kurds have more of a claim to hipster chic than most. Four years ago, when he and his friends dreamed up the idea of a social network that would bring together like-minded gents, they were inspired by their debonair grandfathers of the 1930s and 1940s, who had sported their snappy suits and lovingly-tended beards with pride.
Beards beyond stigma
“Our grandfathers were much sharper than us,” says Ahmed. “Even before they’d go to the barber’s, they’d clean up.”
That was way before Isis came on the scene, stigmatising beards to the point where a few weeks’ growth could earn you a knock from security services. At one point, the terror group was reportedly as close as 30km to Erbil.
To these classy Kurds, it also seemed unjust that Westerners should have the monopoly on man mane. They decided to act. Instead of ordering conditioning oil from Europe, they would create their own brand. And, while they were at it, they would design suits and ties made with locally produced goats' hair. And provide a space in which espressos could be sipped and style flaunted as chaos and menace swirled outside.
Thus was born Mr Erbil. At first the dapper young members of the club were criticised, accused of flippancy and frivolity. But the network and its bricks-and-mortar base, which opened early this year, are inspiring street-level shifts in attitudes towards style. “A lot of people realised that Islamic State did not treat their beards like we did,” says Ahmed, a twinkle of mischief in the eye.
As with any gentlemen's club, there are rules. Years of enduring hardliners on all sides – in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq – have made Mr Erbil downright allergic to the faintest whiff of anything that might constitute a strong opinion on anything except fashion. Anyone broaching the twin horrors of politics and religion is out on their ear.
No goat harmed
Erbil, one of the world’s oldest cities, with its citadel over 6,000 years old, deserves better, says Rawa (30), another founder member. He despairs of the media’s habit of portraying this multiethnic and multifaith cradle of civilisation as a hotbed of killing and beheadings. Fear is contagious – it sends young people fleeing to the West, placing all their money in the hands of smugglers, when they could be building a better future at home.
A tour of the shop beckons. A beautifully cut blazer and goats’ hair waistcoat hangs from a mannequin, as expectant as a dinner date. The coarse yet strangely luxurious fabric is made on pedal-powered looms by local women, sold in undyed strips 18cm wide. No goat is harmed in the process, says Rawa. The animals are sheared each year to produce the traditional yarn. You can acquire a bespoke suit of goats’ hair, single- or double-breasted, with peak or notched lapels, for $2,500 (€2,240).
When it comes to hipster edge, this knocks sock garters and plus-fours right out of the park. “The fabric is the original colour of the goat,” says Rawa. “The DNA of each goat is unique.”
Yeah, it’s only fashion. But there’s more to it. Were Isis to return, these young men are adamant that Kurdistan would see them off again, even if the US has proven itself to be a less-than-reliable partner of late. “It could get better, it could get worse, but we believe in our Peshmerga,” says Rawa.
One of his proudest moments was when a Peshmerga soldier gave Mr Erbil his seal of approval. “He said: ‘We are defending the land against war. You are showing what peace can be’,” says Rawa.
He eyes me a little warily. “But, as I said, we don’t talk about those things.”
Such is life on the frontlines of fashion. Chic – at its most radical.