In a bid to put the local industry on the fashion radar, five designers will represent Egypt for the first time at LFW. Ahead of the unveiling of their installation, Farah Hosny meets the emerging designers to talk expectations and the struggles of an industry devoid of infrastructure.
“We want to change perceptions internationally about Egypt. Yes, we’re messed up right now but we’re on our way – we are working toward a better future,” says Daki Marouf, one half of the design duo that is Sabry Marouf. The creators of ornate jewellery and leather goods are one of the five Egyptian designers who have been selected to collaboratively participate in the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week next February 19th 2016. The annual showcase is “a series of specially commissioned and curated fashion installations featuring work by emerging designers from 25 countries.” It is at its core a cultural installation, expressed through a fusion of fashion and art. For IFS 2016, five emerging design talents in Egypt’s nascent fashion industry have been tasked with creating a unique exhibit which reflects their country’s culture within the framework of their interpretive vision of this year’s theme: utopia. And Egypt has never before been invited.
The invitation that has been extended marks the first time Egypt has been selected for inclusion in this year’s incarnation of the event, denoting an important shift in international perceptions of our country’s sartorial landscape. “They’ve noticed that there’s a lot of things happening in the Egyptian fashion scene; there are more and more young designers,” explains Susan Sabet, founder of Pashion magazine, who was tapped by the British Council to curate the exhibition and select the designers that would represent Egypt in the showcase. Her final selection – which was dependent on a rigorous set of criteria including legal registration of the respective designers’ companies, a minimum of two collections, and a maximum of five years in the industry, aside from the obvious talent aspect – was narrowed down to Sara Mofty of Saya Swimwear, Ahmed Sabry and Daki Marouf Sabry Marouf, Maram Aboul Enein of eponymous ready-to-wear brand Maram, Reem Jano of Reem Jano Jewelry, and Nour Omar of Marsuma Designs.
“Egypt has begun to remerge in the international spotlight within recent years,” says Sara Mofty, whose playful swimwear brand Saya flittered to the forefront of the fashion scene just last year, “I believe this is just the beginning of showcasing what Egyptians have in store for the local expanding fashion industry.” This foray into the established international style scene could potentially prove pivotal for the country, serving essentially as a platform where local designers can gain recognition – not as individuals but rather as a representation of Egypt’s entire industry – and change perceptions about the nation. “This is the type of opportunity that allows us to take one step closer to getting our industry on the fashion map,” expresses Nour Omar, an artist whose brand Marsuma focuses on hand painted designs created on canvas, then incorporated into bags.
One of Marsuma's hand-painted beach bags.
“When I was approached to join the exhibit, I was so happy - at the same time I had a panic attack; it’s a lot of responsibility to represent Egypt on such an exhaulted fashion stage,” shares Reem Jano, a graduate of the Azza Fahmy Design School who now creates statement pieces heavily imbued with Pharoanic elements. But should they triumph at the showcase, the team’s collective ability to pull this off could prove poignant moment for Egypt. “The Egyptian fashion industry was pretty stagnant for a long time - now it’s showing great promise and a lot of us emerging designers have been working hard to compete internationally. The British Council recognises that there is a strong creative movement happening in Egypt and maybe the time is right,” Ahmed Sabry of Sabry Marouf elaborates.
However, despite the victorious fact that Egypt has finally been allowed into the hallowed proverbial halls of LFW, the route to this epicenter of style has been riddled with struggle for the crew who were – and are still – faced with a fundamental lack of infrastructure, both with regards to the designers themselves and in terms of the support – or lack thereof – they have received. When it came to delivering designers in the ready to wear section, curator Sabet found herself facing a void. “The British Council asked me ‘how come you don’t have more designers?’ and it was because most of them are not legally registered,” she says simply, “They don’t have any kind of business setup.” This lack of basic establishment essentially eliminated a significant chunk of designers right at the outset, due to a technicality, which actually illuminates a larger, problematic mentality. “For the fashion industry to really thrive in Egypt, it needs to be taken more seriously from an industrial aspect and the mentality of fashion being a hobby or D.I.Y project needs to be dropped,” explains Montreal-based Maram Aboul Enein, whose hyper-minimalist designs already sell internationally and who has been showing for two seasons at Tranoi in Paris.
Maram's luxury ready-to-wear collection.
Sabet’s selection was naturally partially based on talent – “are they good enough to compete on such an international level and be able to produce creative-wise and quality-wise what we need to be on the standard of the other countries?” – but also largely, and very importantly, on professionalism, an element she laments is not always present within the industry here. “I see it in my line of my work so much; you have a lot of talented people in Egypt but zero professionalism, zero reliability – so we cannot work with someone who is not reliable,” Sabet explains.
Even when she discovered designers who adhered to all the above, some were simply unwilling to participate, a rejection she found unprecedented. “Some people turned it down, which I think was very strange. I think any young designer anywhere else in the world would kill for this opportunity. You have the best fashion press; all the top buyers in the world will see your work.” With over 5000 buyers present at LFW, the designers’ presence at the event could not only be a chance to catapult Egyptian fashion onto an international stage but could represent a foot in the door, that could eventually lead to significant economic surge for both the designers and the industry as well. “It is a rare chance to be given an opportunity like this where we will be able to proudly present ourselves and our culture on such an international scale,” agrees Omar. Sabry adds that, “On the longer run, our ongoing participation in such events will help raise our own creative and production standards to stand out and be able to compete internationally.”
Saya swimwear's first collection, launched in 2015.
The equally pressing issue for the team attending the showcase was that of finding funding to send the final selection of designers to LFW and the glaring lack of monetary support has the crew turning to a new age source of raising money: crowd funding through a campaign on Indiegogo. The team are looking to raise $9,000 USD to cover the myriad costs associated with the event. Usually, sending a team to the IFS is funded by a government affiliated fashion council – a nonexistent entity in Egypt, or via the embassy, Ministry of Trade or a cultural office. Facing a noticeable lack of any of the aforementioned, Sabet turned to private donations and sponsors. “Until now we’ve had private donations from a few individuals. In terms of sponsors, only one textile factory is supporting us financially - all the others did not respond. Which is quite disappointing because this is something that has to do with fashion and textiles and these are the people that should first see the potential of this. This is an amazing opportunity for Egypt and for these designers in one of the foremost important and prestigious fashion events globally.”
Sabry Marouf's jewellery in a shoot for Pashion Magazine, shot by Karina Al Piaro.
The multiple challenges they have faced on their road to LFW shed light on the larger issue at stake; the fact that it has become near commonplace to fervently dismiss fashion as a frivolous pursuit. “I think Egypt's fashion industry developed at a slightly slower rate in the past couple of years compared to other countries due to the lack of stability in the country; there wasn't enough support for it because it was seen as an unnecessary industry in the midst of the political turmoil and the overall economical crash. Now, we are starting to catch up,” Aboul Enein shares. The nascent fashion market has been dancing on the peripheries of traditional, accepted industries for years, even with its recent babystep-rise to the forefront. “Only recently has our society started accepting the arts and design world and given it the attention it deserves,” Omar points out. But the industry still remains somewhat marginalised. “Don’t marginalise fashion because it’s quite important,” Marouf stresses. It is an industry and to dismiss it with condescending abandon would be foolish, a problematic stance to take towards an industry that could potentially generate millions. According to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry generates up to $2.5 trillion a year globally – a figure expected to double within the next decade. If Egypt were to tap into a portion of this revenue, that could be a substantial economic surge for the nation.
Founder of Pashion Magazine and curator for the International Fashion Showcase, Susan Sabet, and jewellery designer Reem Jano.
One issue is that most only take fashion at face value. But what you see strutting down the runway, the final product, the one in the proverbial window display, is the facade of the industry; it is its representation. Behind it is an entire supply chain, invisible to many; select any piece of fashion and the reverberations of its creation can be traced back to the root. In actuality, the fashion industry employs 60 million people worldwide; in the U.S it employs more people than the auto industry. To see fashion for its exterior only would be to take a myopic approach, which is detrimental to many. “Fashion is quite major. This represents a huge chunk of our workforce, which is slowly dying. You need to consider the making process; the whole supply chain of everything from the commodity to when it reaches the customer and everybody involved in between,” Daki highlights, “Egypt used to produce textiles; we had possibly the best jewellery industry in the Middle East – this is all dying away, along with the skills that accompany it. Literally because there is not enough emphasis put on how important this is.”
The five designers all utilise local craftsmen, and their skills, working closely with werash to produce their products, pumping lifeblood into a decaying sphere of the industry. Reem Jano and Sabry Marouf spend endless hours collaborating with craftsmen at Khan El Khalili - a once buzzing spot which is now evidently lacking in human traffic. For her second swimwear collection, Mofty sourced all her materials from local suppliers and manufactured the pieces at a local textile factory. After painting the art on a canvas, Omar sends it to a small workshop in Downtown Cairo to be incorporated into a bag. “If we nurture the fashion industry then maybe tomorrow can be a little bit better and we can provide jobs. The economy could be better, we can change perception, we could start rekindling skills that were being lost right?” Marouf says, in a notion that eloquently parallels this year’s utopian theme for the International Fashion Showcase.
One of Reem Jano's statement, Pharoanic pieces.
The concept of utopia has endless parallels in the context of Egypt, and the IFS crew are combining the various interpretations of it and crystallising them into an artistic and sartorial reality to reflect this year's concept 'A Year of Imagination and Possibility.' “Utopia is about a better tomorrow, somewhere that nobody’s ever been before. A place that’s unreachable, that exists but doesn’t exist in our minds, that we could all maybe get there collectively if we work towards it,” Marouf reminisces.
Ancient Egyptians were some of the first to believe in the notion of rebirth; the revolution was all about a new beginning for the nation – the concept of resurrection threads its way through Egypt’s history. And every element of the showcase - the physical design of which is being created by Hedayat Islam of interior design firm Eklego - is imbued with the idea of new beginnings; the 700 paper lotuses – a flower that represented new life in ancient Egypt – that will be suspended from the ceiling, that are in turn created by children that attend art class with educational NGO Tawasol (each paper lotus will signed by the child who created it); the choker necklace that Reem Jano is creating, using symbolic feathers from Ancient Egyptian goddess Maat that were weighed against souls to determine if they would reach the paradise of afterlife successfully; the bodysuit and cape that Mofty and Omar are collaborating on which will feature the infamous fists of the Jan 25th revolution.
Elements of what utopia means in Egypt’s cultural context, historically and contemporarily, are beautifully infused into every aspect of the exhibit, which ties in with the reality of both Egypt and this team of trailblazing designers. “I think Egypt is witnessing an uprising of emerging young designers in recent years, with a newfound sense of creative expression,” says Mofty.
“In a sense this metaphor of utopia again is that we’re working together as designers trying to represent our culture abroad. To show that we actually have an industry, have some talent, and we’re working towards a better tomorrow,” Marouf concludes.
You can help crowd fund the team and help them go to London Fashion Week here.