At her well-lit and colourful studio/office in the heart of Cairo, Perihan Abou Zeid is having one meeting after the other with her co-workers. She is planning the details of the upcoming 2020 Spring/Summer collection of kaftans.
It has been five years since the launch of the very first collection, which caught a lot of attention with its smart mix of the traditional and the modern.
Over the past five years, Abou Zeid successfully re-introduced this originally Mamlouk-style outfit –which would have been in centuries past been worn by men and women, with very different designs – to make it a top-end outfit.
“So far it has been something that women would buy and wear for special occasions; still working on making a version that is more suitable for the purpose of everyday wear. I might do it for this spring/summer collection,” she said.
A graduate of the school of fine arts in Cairo, Abou Zeid pursued studies that allowed her to examine spaces where artisans keep or abandon their skilful work upon the ability to keep the business going and rewarding.
“I graduated in 2001 and I did several studies and took up several jobs that put me on a path where I saw challenged crafts being endangered up to the point where they were going almost extinct,” Abou Zeid said.
Abou Zeid also learned the skills and requirements of starting up a small business that could integrate artisans and allow for the traditional craft to develop enough so that it could have a new lease on life rather than going out of fashion.
And with a particular passion for the world of textiles, Abou Zeid decided to bring the Mamlouk cording and kaftans to the wardrobe of modern women.
Fashion designing might have been a fantasy that this young entrepreneur wished to play with. However, the original motivation for her scheme was to spare the Mamlouk cording from falling into total oblivion.
“I had met a master artisan in Old Cairo when I was doing some research and then I travelled and a few years later I realised that he passed away and that the business was closing down,” Abou Zeid recalled.
She decided to pick up this business, not just with the help – and for the help – of some of the younger artisans who had lost their mentor, but also with an eye on modernising this art to make it consumable in the second decade of the 2000s.
Abou Zeid had already established THAAT (a social enterprise and innovative consultancy business), a training business that helps artisans modernise their work and provide education for men and women who wish to learn a craft. She had mostly worked on a range of sewing crafts – mostly with women.
“Having gone through the research, working out the motifs and deciding on the textile and all, I felt I could do it; it was very exciting not just because I thought I was introducing a new line of fashion, but because I felt I was recreating a link between society and its heritage,” Abou Zeid said.
The business, which she labelled PAZ CAIRO (upon her initials and her city), was a success, not just in Cairo but also overseas.
Abou Zeid is particularly proud that her work allowed for the introduction of the “Egyptian kaftan, which is very different from the Moroccan kaftan.”
Abou Zeid argues that her success was essentially about the novelty of the idea that “complemented but never imitated” the work of others who were already “out there reconnecting society to its very rich of crafts and designs.”
“We really work very hard on our collections; every time it is the kaftan and the Mamlouk cording but every time there is something new being introduced,” she said.
One of the challenges that Abou Zeid has to worry about as she moves on with her successful start-up, she said, is the lack of copyrights in the business.
“Inevitably, it becomes very irritating when I work so hard on getting a design, work on developing the colours and the textiles and then I find that some of the stores decided to pick up my work and have it imitated,” Abou Zeid said.
Another challenge is for Abou Zeid to get the PAZCAIRO to reach out to more women.
“I know that the kind of work we put in every piece and the kind of material we use to produce quality items does not make our final product easily accessible to as many women as I would want. I also know that this is ultimately a high-end product, but still I wish I could make it affordable to more women,” Abou Zeid said. “I am currently working out the details of doing this without compromising on the essentials of the quality,” she added.
To attend to both challenges, Abou Zeid is committed to keep digging in the rich heritage. “There is so much there to bring and to learn from,” she said.
The parallel work that she does with THAAT, where she works with people from diverse backgrounds, including refugees who bring their own cultural bit to the table, is keeping Abou Zeid inspired and upbeat.
“It is very rewarding to work with a group of over 100 women; to see them learn a craft and then to see them produce nice items and ultimately to see them rejoicing as their items are sold and they can make some money to bring to their families,” Abou Zeid said. “This is as rewarding as inspiring as it gets, really,” she added.