- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

The class assignment was simple: Design a shirt that says something about your life. Nima Behnoud made one that said, in Farsi script, “The political prisoners must be freed.”

The people who saw his shirt didn’t know what the words said or that the writing referred to Mr. Behnoud’s father. Friends just liked the look and asked for something similar. Mr. Behnoud obliged.

Four years later, his fitted, handmade T-shirts are available in one of the country’s most exclusive boutiques, have been named must-have items by the men’s magazine Maxim and are selling quickly online. The 29-year-old Iranian native is somewhat bewildered by it all.

“I completely love Iran,” says Mr. Behnoud, who lives in Manhattan. “I just want people to know how beautiful it is, how different it is, and that the images that come from our country are extraordinary.”

What he has never wanted, despite the design of his first shirt, has been to get political. His reasons are personal.

Mr. Behnoud’s father, Masoud, is a prominent Iranian journalist who has railed against the country’s censors to publish calls for political reform. About six years ago, as part of a government crackdown on dissidents, Masoud Behnoud found himself in and out of prison for about two years.

Nima Behnoud was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology during much of that time, and he was anxious about his father’s situation. Making the shirts was therapeutic, he says. He got so involved in his new hobby that he took one class at FIT six times just to get access to special equipment.

Mr. Behnoud and his friends wore the shirts to parties at city hot spots. One day, a shirt caught the eye of an editor at Maxim. When the editor told Mr. Behnoud he wanted to feature the shirts in a must-have list in the magazine last year, he asked Mr. Behnoud how people could buy them. That was when Mr. Behnoud realized he probably should set up a Web site (www.nimany.com).

His designs, which some categorize as “Persian punk,” are intentionally raw and unpolished, but also manage to look sleek. Most incorporate Persian calligraphy, such as the word “love” written in Farsi.

A shirt may bear a verse from the works of the famed Persian poet Rumi. One shows the Azadi Tower, one of Tehran’s architectural landmarks. One of Mr. Behnoud’s favorites features the seal of Mirza Koochak Khan, who led Iran’s Jangali revolutionary movement in the early 1900s.

The shirts come with tags explaining their meanings. Mr. Behnoud’s online customers hail from many countries, though he doesn’t sell directly to Iran. The shirts — which sell for about $60 — also are available at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif., a favorite spot for celebrities and the very rich.

“It doesn’t matter where I put it in the store, it still gets attention,” says Tony Johnson, who owns the section of Fred Segal where Mr. Behnoud’s shirts are featured.

Mr. Behnoud considers the Iranian people a great inspiration and influence because they strive to be fashionable despite — and in many cases because of — strict legal restrictions on what they wear.

These days in Iran, many Iranian women have abandoned loose veils for tight-fitting coats and brightly colored scarves, and young men grow their hair long and wear scruffy jeans. When he was a teen in Iran, Mr. Behnoud would try to wear the most Westernized clothing he could find, daring to get summoned by police.

“I grew up in a complete underground society,” he says. “When I see these punks and post-punks in New York and they claim that they have an underground lifestyle, I completely connect with them.”

However, Mr. Behnoud says he avoids religious or political slogans and art unless they are old enough — such as the Jangali seal — to no longer be controversial. Dealing with his father’s imprisonment was a searing experience, he says.

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