When the two sisters Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf grouped their talents together, they came out with Okhtein, a designer handbag brand inspired by the historical wonders of Old Cairo, and the results are exquisite.
Through our Instagram travels, which it seems is how we discover virtually everything we're coveting these days (fasting breeds more manic Instascrolling – we've replaced food with a fashion obsession) our eyes fell upon a series of gorgeous beach clutches featuring stunning images of Arab women, heads adorned with giant flowers in a final image mildly, or just instinctively, reminiscent of Carmen Miranda fused with traditional Egyptian females, encased in plastic. The brand we were fawning over, called Okhtein, was created earlier this year by sisters Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf, hence the name (literal translation of 'two sisters' from Arabic).
The colorful artsy clutches are just one end of the design spectrum that Okhtein bags have to offer – the rest of the bags from their debut collection Fatimid Facades are studies in leather perfection; chic, timeless, in a myriad of hues and in shapes and sizes ranging from cross-body bags to large carry-alls. The idea for the brand came about a year ago, when the two sisters, Aya an avid designer, and Mounaz, a Cairo-based artist who had contributed artwork for other fashion brands, decided "Why don't we start our own thing?" according to Mounaz. Pooling their talents would cover all the aspects necessary to kickstart a fashionable brand, the first line of which is entirely inspired by Old Cairo and its architecture.
"We really wanted our inspiration to be from Egypt and not from abroad," Mounaz explains. The two also wanted to ensure that the quality of the bags is top-notch. Being fully aware of Egyptians' 3o2det el khawaga, they spent an equal amount of time ensuring the quality of the product as they did actually designing the bags.
"Egyptians generally don’t trust the quality of stuff made in Egypt," Mounaz tell us. Wanting to break the stereotype, the girls "worked [their] asses off to find a good artisan; someone who would ensure the final product was really high quality, create perfect stitching… which is harder than you think!"
Mounaz tell us, "It took us a whole year to find someone!" Although many local Egyptian brands are damn near created on a whim, funded by daddy's money, and their quality left up to chance, the two sisters did their research. "Aya, who's really into designing, looked into every aspect of physically making a bag – she researched Chanel and Hermes' stitching techniques, trying to understand the details of the whole process."
Fundamentals in place, the two of them delved into Cairo's historical areas to draw inspiration. "We thought, let's try and divert from all the typical Egypt-inspired stuff, like ancient Egyptian-style necklaces and that sort of thing, and look for different design inspiration," Mounaz says. They headed to Mo’ez Street in Islamic Cairo and while wandering the entire street, traipsing through its mosques and schools and observing its architecture, the brand's aesthetic was conceptualised. "Mo’ez Street was the thing that stuck with us most," Aya tell us, so they took tours, researched the architecture, did their homework, "and then we started sketching the designs."
"Cairo is literally the most romantic city," Mounaz says. "We can’t always see it but if you look beyond all the traffic and trash, it really is." Their debut collection reflects the art in the architecture. The Dome bag (below, left) is an homage to the thousand-odd-year old domes that cover the city of Old Cairo, while The Fortress (below, right) is a subtle nod to the north wall of Fatimid Cairo that includes two gates, Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Futuh.
"The inspiration here is endless," Aya says. But though the majority of the collection is exclusively based on the historic beauty of Old Cairo, the designers wanted to veer from making it an obvious reference to it, choosing to create a more subtle translation of the city.
So far, their relatively new brand has caught the interest of not only style sirens in our own city, with Hadia Ghaleb featuring their dome bag on her blog recently, but has been praised by international fashion icons as well. "We sent Man Repeller [Leandra Medine] an email just asking her to let us know what she thought of the stuff, and she actually replied and told us our stuff was beautiful!" the girls tell us excitedly.
We got an exclusive sneak peek at the yet-to-be launched collection – some of the pieces are below so feast your eyes! Though their debut collection revolves solely around Cairo and its history, the upcoming ones won't necessarily stick to this with fervor.
"It's not good to stick to just one source of inspiration – the stuff will eventually become very repetitive," the girls tell us. "But even if at some point we divert our attention and inspiration from Egypt to abroad, Egypt is home, our roots are here, and we'll always give it our own twist, so it will eventually and inevitably have traces of Egypt."
For now, you can get your hands on the Arab Female Personas beach bags, which will be featured at the Pop-Up Shop in Katameya, until the designing duo officially launch Okhtein in a few weeks. Stay tuned for the details because the stuff not only looks gorgeous but also reflects our own city, albeit elements of which we rarely venture out to see. "He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the glory [of it]" (Ibn Khaldun) the start of Okhtein's catalogue reads. But the designers behind Okhtein have seen it, appreciated it, and created a sort of rendition of it in the form of carryable art.
You can check out their Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram @okhtein.