WALNUT CREEK -- Salma Schempp's fond memories of Kabul aren't the images the world knows today.
Even though she was 13-years-old when she left her home in Afghanistan, Schempp remembers Kabul as a city of beautiful architecture and stylish women. While on a trip to Italy years ago, Schempp said the country captivated her.
"When I first visited Lake Como, it felt like home," said Schempp. "I didn't want to leave. The culture was similar to my own."
On a recent cold and overcast day, Schempp sat in front of the fireplace in her Walnut Creek home attired in her own designs -- a rust-colored jacket-blouse and beige pants by Prima Jiva, her own clothing company. Schempp said she inherited an eye for design from her mother, who designed Schempp's clothes when she was a child.
"My mom had a passion for beauty and art, and my grandmother was a very powerful woman," she said.
Schempp's grandmother, a principal for a girls' school in Afghanistan, was one of the first Afghan women to study outside of the country.
"They were both independent women," Schempp said. "My mother worked as an administrative assistant for a university in Afghanistan. She dressed up every morning in these amazing, timeless pieces and I remember being in awe of her style. She didn't follow the trend. What she put on brought out her unique sense of style that represented who she really was."
It was this philosophy that fueled Schempp's own designs and vision for Prima Jiva -- to create timeless designs that are comfortable and stylish for the contemporary career woman. Prima Jiva, which means "higher self," combining Italian and Sanskrit words, produces clothes in the Bay Area with natural fabrics such as bamboo and linen.
Orinda resident and writing coach Cynthia Leslie-Bole said Schempp's background in art as well as healing and spirituality have influenced her designs and makes her unique in the clothing industry.
"I have many of her gorgeous pieces and they are comfortable, casual yet sophisticated, perfectly packable for travel, and best of all, they flatter any body type," Leslie-Bole said. "Prima Jiva has a strong philanthropic mission as well and sponsors a number of charities from their profits."
For the past two years, Schempp has participated in the local Women of Wellness Conference and will be a part of the Afghan Women Coalition event in the East Bay in March. Schempp donates a percentage of all Prima Jiva sales to local and international charities, including Daraja Academy for Girls in Kenya, Children of War in Afghanistan and the Meridian Health Foundation.
Schempp said her design dreams have come a long way from the days when, as a 1983 graduate of Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, she wanted to become a fashion designer but couldn't afford to go to design school.
"So I went to Diablo Beauty College and worked as a hairstylist for a while," Schempp said.
She then took art and photography classes and years later took an "MBA crash course" at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill at the advice of friends who suggested she acquire entrepreneurial skills to help her market her clothing company.
The impetus of Prima Jiva began in 1995 with her own search for the perfect dress for her wedding. Seeking something that was comfortable, stylish yet timeless seemed a lot to ask for, even amid the fabulous designs of the mid 1990s. So Schempp designed her own classic piece to wear on her special day. Her zest for designing a wardrobe that was timeless and encouraged women to embrace their desire for individuality prompted the birth of Prima Jiva. Her clothing designs are inspired by her own spiritual search toward self discovery, inspired by the women in her life and her travels including spending two weeks at an ashram in India. She said she hopes women who wear her clothes become empowered with a higher sense of self and self-expression.
Schempp said the design aspect is the driving force of Prima Jiva. From her travels in Italy to the villages of Katmandu and Marrakech, women all over the world inspire her everyday. During her travels she would observe the casual, carefree way clothes were draped over these women's bodies. She would also collect scarves, jewelry and unique pieces from these cities to inspire her designs, she said.
"I wanted to see how these different women lived and adorned themselves with such dignity and grace," she said. "These were clothes that represented who they are."
She points to the details that make her designs stand out -- the silk ribbon that adorns the side of the pants she wore that gives the illusion of an elongated, feminine shape.
"What I'm wearing now represents who I am," Schempp said.
Leslie-Bole said she never paid attention to the world of fashion because it all seems too contrived and impractical, necessitating buying a whole new wardrobe every season. But Schempp's clothes have given her an easy, sophisticated look "that resonates with who I am and how I want to be seen in the world."
"They make me feel feminine, comfortable, and stylish, and they give me confidence that, as a middle-aged woman, I can still look great and feel good at the same time," Leslie-Bole said.