KABUL, Afghanistan – It's the rage in Kabul and is getting attention in Milan and Paris, but the ultra-chic hat made famous by Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has a rather unpalatable origin -- it's made using the downy fur of aborted lamb fetuses.
The karacul hat, a football-shaped, fez-like construct with ripply baby-soft fur, has been popping up everywhere in Afghanistan's capital since Karzai was appointed interim prime minister after the fall of the Taliban, as Afghans have sought to emulate the man charged with pulling their battered country out of decades of war.
"Since the change in government, many people are coming and buying karacul hats," said Aji Ali Mohammed, who has run a karacul shop for 40 years in a bustling bazaar next to the Kabul River, now dried up after four years of drought. "Business is getting better every day."
He says he's even sold two hats to Karzai.
"We chose the best pelts and we worked as hard as we could to make the best quality hat for him," the 57-year-old Mohammed said.
Afghans aren't the only ones taking a look at the fashionable headgear.
At Milan fashion week in January, Gucci's Tom Ford dubbed Karzai "the chicest man on the planet" saying the karacul hat and flowing capes the Afghan leader wears give him a winning look that is "very elegant and very proud."
Silvia Venturini Fendi, head of styling for the Italian fashion house famous for its furs added: "I like President Karzai's fur fez because it is an intrinsic element of his way of dressing. He always wears it with great nonchalance and elegance. It's clear that, more than his way of dressing, it's part of his way of being."
The hat is expensive for ordinary Afghans, costing up to $35 for a really good one. That is more than a month's salary for many in this war-ravaged nation, and 10-20 times as much as simpler headgear like a turban. But despite the cost, the hats are omnipresent in the capital, a particular favorite among middle-aged men like Karzai.
It's a remarkable comeback for a chapeau that went out of style during the Taliban regime, which preferred black turbans or simple white skullcap to the more regal looking karacul.
"During the Taliban we sold only one hat a month, usually to an Afghan living abroad, but now we are moving about 50 every week," said Abdul Waseh, 52, another karacul shop owner.
Though the hats are unmistakably dashing, the method of their production is a bit stomach-turning. Shepherds in northern Afghanistan slaughter the mother and then remove the fetus, whose downy fur is incredibly smooth because it has never been exposed to the air or sun. Sometimes shepherds wait for the ewe to give birth before killing the lamb.
Each lamb is so small its entire pelt is needed to produce one hat -- and many pelts are needed to make the waist-length karacul coats.
"The best quality hats are made with the fetuses," said Mohammed, "They are extremely soft and they have a special shine to them ... it is as pure as a precious stone."
Culture and Information Minister Abdurahim Mokhdoom says he recognizes the process may seem brutal to outsiders, but he says they are part of Afghanistan's culture.
"As far back as you look, Afghans have been wearing them," he said, adding a word of advice for the squeamish.
"I would tell them to stop eating beef and lamb and then let's stop killing animals for this too," he said. "If you make one hat you will use it for maybe five years, but if you go and eat steak once a week for one year, how many cows are you eating?"
Karzai, whose easy style and good looks have helped make him one of the world's most recognizable leaders -- says he has several motives for wearing the hats.
"I wear them because they are very, very Afghan," he said at a recent military ceremony in Kabul. "And if it looks good, all the better."