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Amina K Takes Us On A Journey Through an Ornamented Middle East

Sanabel al-Najjar takes us through the night of the release of Amina K's new Spring/Summer 2016 collection - Prints of the Orient - and chats with the Egyptian designer about breaking fashion barriers, competition in the industry, and social media's impact on all things sartorial.

We are not strangers to the memory-evoking feeling that some objects or sights sometimes trigger in us. Whether it’s the silhouette of our mother standing against our childhood home window, glowing with orange light, the way a paper is crumbled under the shadow of a desk, or the sight of an unfolded rim of a peachy summer dress; we get lucky, sometimes, to find ourselves entirely engulfed by a warm world. A penetrating feeling of belonging comfortably sets in.

Amidst the novelistic buildings of Zamalek, and in one of its small apartments, a memory-evoking scene is bustling with warmly exotic life. Textiles of washed out colours, emitting a deep sense of calmness and tranquility, displaying geometric and smoothed shapes and patterns, fill the interior of El Nile and Co. textile studio. Hung on white, sharply partitioned but snug compartments, the frames of the tiles - bursting with grey, blue, orange, green, and all the natural shades - decorate the space with a rare delight of colours. The white platform cubes set facing the ornamented walls, creating the feel of a stage, contrast with a patched-up cube, arresting the smooth feeling of travelling memories with an edge of realistic modernity, so that we become even more present than before.

Dreamy Oriental music seeps into our ears, summoning – with the softness and passion of the singer’s voice, thawing in spirit of the desert – an image of a faraway home we have never visited but eagerly long for. The big open window sits on one side, and a fresh breeze passes by our cheeks like a brush of the hand.

As the very fashionable guests begin trickling into the studio, women with their sleek black jumpers and heels, high-waisted jeans, dress shirts, and summery dresses, the familiarity of the place expands ever more as people glance comfortably at each other, greeting one another with warm embraces and soft comments. The tile studio starts buzzing with conversation, all in anticipation of Amina K’s new spring/summer collection - Prints of the Orient.

The lights then go out and, with candlelight illuminating one of the rooms, a group of young dark-skinned women emerge from a small corridor, barefoot and ornamented with golden Bohemian headdresses and hair bands. They dancingly walk towards the cubes set for them, on which some sit and others stand, shifting their alluring poses every once in a while like hesitant mannequins.

Their flowy dresses flutter lightly in the air, as the breeze toys with the glacial green fabrics of their long attires and their airy pants, patterned with Moroccan blue/white ornaments, open on the sides and loosely stitched with delicate rich orange and red threads. Tight-cropped tops with floral patterns covered with refreshingly ornamented kimono-style chiffon jackets give a wondrous appeal of fulfilling wanderlust.

Elegant ladies who have left trendy impressions on the fashion and arts scene in Egypt, such as young model and actress Tara Emad, as well as well-dressed gentlemen, smile contently as the models come out again and again with different pieces of the spring/summer collection – all similar in their feel but in a myriad of textures, colours, and ornaments.

After the first preview of the collection and the nibbling on some delicious kobbeh, the women of the hour, designer Amina Khalil - known simply in the fashion world as Amina  - and I go to a room decorated with grassy green streaks, brick tiles, and handmade cushions, to chat a little about her wonderful collection.

Of course, I had to state the obvious and tell Khalil that her stunning new collection was very authentic, and accurate to its description as being “a merge between the Oriental dress-code and European finesse portrayed by infusing modern designs with ethnic flavour, and Oriental silhouettes with Western aesthetic.” Indeed, elements of Islamic geometry, floral designs, Moroccan-style tiles, Egyptian modern architecture and symbolism of its Pharaonic history, easily drew the viewer’s eyes into a dreamy pensive mood.

When asked whether Egyptians were readier now to move beyond traditional concepts of ‘safe’ attire (mostly solid colours with few – if any – ornaments), Amina K answers that “I feel that social media has really exposed a lot of people to different ways of dressing and different stylists and bloggers. So, people have been experimenting more in dressing and would now opt for certain designs different from those of, say, five years ago.”

“Before, I had to convince the people of Amina K and how to wear it,” adds the young designer. “But now I feel people are more daring and actually expect more of me beyond simple decorations.” I comment to Amina K that, by making this bold move, she must have broken a fashion barrier that goes beyond everyday traditional looks and aesthetics, making space for future designers with more edgy and punchy fashion statements. “Definitely,” she replies. “I feel like the fashion industry is evolving in Egypt and in the Middle East, and that new designers should come up with something newer and more refreshing so that the competition is healthy.”

Of course, the vivid description of the clothing line eloquently mentions the elements of inspiration around which the designs were spun, but how were you, Amina K, personally inspired? The visions of desert queens in Bohemian chiffons must have come from somewhere. “I always keep my eyes open when I’m out there in the streets, taking notice of different things that might inspire me, because it’s very challenging to be inspired by your culture every season. And people want something Egyptian from Amina K, which they expect all the time but with a twist.”

“Luckily, you can never run out of ideas here because we have such a great diversity in history,” she adds. “So, I try to focus on several elements of Egyptian culture instead of zooming in on one element. The tiles, for example, which are among the things I love, were something I naturally selected, especially because my family is already in the tile business, making the tiles something I can comfortably relate and refer to.”

Then came the time to discuss stylistic and designer approaches. Yay. Amina K agreed with my inexperienced and humble opinion that her exquisite designs were authentic yet easily wearable. She tells me that, indeed, different designers have different approaches when it comes to their lines. “Some designers prefer lines that are more out there and experimental, but not necessarily to be worn by everyone,” she adds. ”But for me, Amina K is a ready-to-wear line in which I always try to include a range that has simple designs for the simple girl as well as designs that are a bit out there for the client who wants something new. And you can always mix the designs for different appeals that look like they are mixed comfortably without starkly clashing.”

The stunning idea of combining different textures and ornaments into clothes and a cosy space in a Zamalek apartment drew a lot of interested Cairenes. Fiona, a pro-tile young architect with a fascination for Egypt’s unfolding historical architecture in the streets, says that she was amazed at the idea of incorporating different fabric patterns and textures into one interior. “I feel like the history of the elements and their combination in the models’ clothes give a story,” she says, laughing as she adds, “and with the fitting music too!”

Waleed and Ziyad, two young AUC graduates and musicians, tell me, as they casually sip on some lemon mint juice, that the fashion show staged in the tile gallery was something new to them. “The designs are very elegant and the colours bright,” they agree. “But I feel like, despite their elegance, the clothes have some sort of a pleasant humbleness to them, like they’re not too over the line, you know?” Waleed adds.

Fair to say that both young men were disappointed that the fashion line did not include men’s fashion, and were hoping that the young designer might think about including the opposite sex – now disgruntled with jealousy – into her fashion equation.

Distant clapping sounds dissolving into a smooth membrane of music envelopes my ears as I prepare to leave the studio that brought a memory-evoking experience to me and – I am certain – to each person who was there. 

Luckily, I know now that all I need to bring back this feeling of a desert night joy is visit one of Amina K’s boutiques and buy a mistily marvelling dresses.

You can find out more about Amina K on her Facebook page or follow her on Instagram @aminak_egypt.

Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photography by CairoZoom's Ali Bahr.