Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Jewelers branding Egypt

A group of young men and women is branding Egypt as a fashion and jewelry destination, reports Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Taha could not have been a more ambitious fashion-designer. At age 27, with endless energy invested in fashion, fabrics and women’s and men’s wear and enormous self- confidence, Taha proudly tells the story of a man who has always loved fashion despite the stigma that can attach to men following this career in Egypt.

Having graduated from the Suez School of Commerce, Taha decided not to bow to the advice of family and friends who felt that making clothes was not something for men. He arrived in Cairo some four years ago and found his way to the Fashion and Design Centre (FDC) established in the early 2000s by the then minister of trade and industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid in cooperation with the Istituto di Moda Burgo in Italy with the aim of upgrading what was once an impressive fashion industry in Egypt.

At the workshop and design incubator of the FDC, Taha started to learn how to turn his “millions of ideas” into designs and then to see these designs turned into flattering outfits. A few weeks away from the diploma the FDC grants to students, Taha has already contributed designs to the Berlin Bazaar, an acknowledged annual event for clothes-making with ethnic imprints, over three consecutive years through the “Allaga” scheme that the FDC is jointly executing with funds from Germany and is dedicated to helping young men and women upgrade their skills in fashion.

“One day, I hope to be a big name like Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic Chanel designer, but until then I am happy to be doing Mohamed Taha women’s wear and slowly finding my way around the international scene through Allaga,” Taha said.

According to Aida Zayed, director of the FDC and its twin the JTC (Jewelry Design Centre), the latter having been established a few years later, “Allaga” (elegance in 1940s Egyptian slang) managed to “catch the eye on its first participation in the Berlin Bazaar, and three years later it is helping some of the key designers who contribute to the collection we send to be known better in the international market of designers who take an interest in street wear with an ethnic imprint.”

Like Omama Al-Sheemi, who in her early 20s also decided to forgo a university degree in education and to challenge middle-class condescension by starting a fashion career, Taha is now trying to start his own business. Al-Sheemi and Taha may not find it easy to cut through an almost closed fashion market where the odds are you are either born into the business or are an intruder on the fringe. But both young people say they have the support of the FDC, which is trying to connect them with interested wholesale merchants or boutiques.

Each of them hopes to have their “own place” one day. Al-Sheemi, who is particularly interested in knitwear and the introduction of knitted pieces into luxury fabrics, is hoping to end what she calls the “polarisation” between the western and the oriental. She wants to create a dress that Egyptian women can wear to work and that is comfortable, flattering, and inspired by a diverse and rich culture.

“Some people just like to copy or work around the lines of the international fashion system, and they cater for the wider market of women who want to wear a standard outfit to work. What I want to do is to take this simple dress somewhere typically Egyptian but without falling into the excessively ethnic mood that would turn it from a dress one might wear to work to one that could only be worn to a cocktail party in order to make a certain impression,” Al-Sheemi said.

Asmaa Fottouh and Ellen Raeben, an Egypt-based Danish designer, who co-head the Allaga project, are both convinced that in Egypt and elsewhere in the world there is a big enough market to accommodate the kind of clothes that are comfortable to wear and neither too bland nor too embroidered with ethnic designs.

“We send dresses and shirts made and designed by members of Allaga to get embroidered in Siwa [in the Western Desert] or Sinai, but we stick to limited embroidery lines because we are not trying to copy original ethnic outfits,” Fottouh said.

She is not willing to accept that the majority of middle-class Egyptian women are unlikely to wear this line of clothes at the expense of well-established international ready-to-wear brands. Nor would she agree that this line is perhaps more suited to veiled women, given that it is generally conservative.

“There is a very mixed taste out there, and I would not say that there is such a thing as designs that are more suitable for veiled women because sometimes veiled women go for trousers and long sleeves while the unveiled go for a longish sleeveless dress with a bit of ethnic embroidery,” she argues.

According to Zayed, the objective of the FDC is not identical to that of Allaga, since the first caters to helping young men and women who take an interest in fashion to find their way while the latter is about “branding Egyptian fashion.” The focus is on Egyptian material, essentially cotton, and colours and prints that come across as typically Egyptian.

The classes the FDC offers are for its diploma, generally done in two years if students are dedicated, or are part-time in which students learn how to upgrade specific skills. “These are not confined to those who want to be in the fashion industry. They are more appealing to those who wish to develop sewing as a hobby, or want to improve their skills in order to design and sew their own clothes and those of their children,” she said.

The FDC students learn how to make all types of clothes, including women’s, men’s and children’s wear. They are also trained in how to make lingerie and wedding dresses. “They learn about fibres and yarns, the grading of sizes, drawing basics, fashion-rendering techniques, colouring techniques, the history of costume and the collection portfolio,” she said.

Inevitably, many of those who graduate from the FDC often find their way into the established fashion manufacturers in Egypt, both Egyptian and franchised, while others start their own small business to design wedding dresses and evening gowns. Some, like Amina Shaher, who originally graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, pursue a career in costume-designing for cinema and theatre productions.

“It’s about designing for all types of characters. It’s about making the clothes that reveal the traits of the character without having to have the actors actually say their lines,” Shaher said, thinking specifically of the designs of director Shadi Abdel-Salam in his film The Mummy where the outfits, and the make-up of the leading character played by actress Nadia Loutfi, speak volumes.

This also goes, “perhaps more so,” for jewelry, said Tamer Farouk, technical consultant at the JTC. “This is why we make a special effort to help all our students learn diverse techniques of jewelry-designing and fabrication, from diamond-setting to ethnic jewelry on copper,” he says. According to Noha Abbassi, attending a short course on diamond-grading co-organised with Cherif Sergani, chair of the Union of Gemologists and Jewelers and the Antwerp Institute of Gemology, “the mix of a bracelet ornamented with diamonds and a silver bangle is not impossible if the designs match well. It’s about style and the personal imprint of each woman.”

Unlike the FDC, the JTC does not award a diploma. Instead, it offers specific courses ranging from five to nine weeks each that are mostly attended by professionals who have already started their careers with gold and silversmiths or graduates of the Schools of Fine and Applied Arts and are keen to join the world of jewelry-making.

They are also introduced to techniques of making jewelry, or rather accessories, from inexpensive materials like wax in the wax-carving courses, or plasticine, silicon and wood. “In some courses we did in the governorates in Egypt we sought to reach out to those who want to develop their skills, teaching them how to produce accessories from easy to find materials like palms,” for example, she said.

The objective, Farouk said, was to help craftsmen upgrade their skills and help the industry upgrade its production and diversify the products in the Egyptian jewelry market.

According to Levon Yervant of the prominent downtown Armenian jewelers Bijouterie Yervant, the world of jewelry-making has changed considerably since he joined his father in the business in the early 1950s. “It is as much about taste as about techniques,” he said, while attending the same diamond-grading class.

The classes of the JTC that are administered by international experts, like the one Yervant was attending, help bring in new techniques and new forms of manufacture. “They are also about learning about the new styles around the world and that are now in demand in Egypt. A client wanting to buy a pair of diamond earrings is generally aware of recent trends and would expect to find them in Egypt,” Yervant said.

“I am not talking about copying the designs of leading world jewelers, although this is something we do now as opposed to a few decades ago when every bijouterie had to have its own designs, but I am talking about changing tastes. Wedding rings, for example, were one thing back in the 1950s and 1960s, and they are something else entirely today.”  

According to Aya Keyali, a Jordanian jeweler who arrived in Cairo to join the diamond-grading class of the JTC, changing taste across the Arab world, in Egypt like in Jordan, is a function of changing social norms. “We are talking about working women. We are talking about women doctors and journalists who would not typically wear the kind of large and expensive items their grandmothers might have worn,” she said.

For Yara Mohamed, who came to Cairo from Ismailia to study jewelry-making, the economic factor cannot be discounted when considering jewelry trends. “Copper is en vogue now because it is much more affordable than gold and silver. We are also seeing the wider introduction of very inexpensive beads as opposed to precious and semi-precious stones,” Mohamed said.

While it is trying to ensure that Egyptian and Arab jewelers are introduced promptly to the new trends, the JTC is equally aiming to pass on traditional techniques to the younger generations. It also aims to integrate the Egyptian jewelry industry into the international market.

Under the title of “Jewelry makes you Special,” the JTC in cooperation with the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology organised a fair called “Jewellorica” recently in which students displayed their work in Cairo to a mixed Egyptian and international audience of jewelry-makers and traders.

The items on display were mostly made of silver or a blend of silver and gold. Mostly they were inspired by ethnic Egyptian themes, such as art, music and folk tales. Mohamed Ibrahim, a graduate of the sculpture department at the School of Applied Arts and a student at the JTC, showed a charm-necklace with a swinging belly dancer as the centre-pendant and a blend of musical instruments on both sides. “My designs combine Nubian and folkloric Egyptian art, being inspired by the rhythms of Mohamed Mounir’s songs,” he said in a resumé of his piece.

Mohamed Maher, another designer who studies at the JTC and was at Jewellorica, offered a collection where Pharaonic motifs were subdued to Islamic designs, “all in a perfectly modern fit that could equally appeal to an Egyptian as to a foreigner,” he said. In November this year when the Allaga collection arrives at the Berlin Bazaar it will be joined by some selected items from Jewellorica and other products from students at the JTC.

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