Where fashion and history intersect

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Tuesday 16 May 2023

The first edition of the Egypt Fashion Week was a celebration of Egypt’s millennia-old civilisation, a glimpse of the present, and a vision for the future

fashion and history
fashion and history photos: Nora Koloyan


Held under the auspices of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, the first edition of the Egypt Fashion Week took place at the Museum of Agriculture in Dokki this week and was a must-go opportunity for all fashion-obsessed visitors who enjoyed the morning till night days of the event. 

The huge open area and the museum’s three historical buildings dating back to the time of King Fouad were used as spaces for fashion shows, exhibitions, educational workshops, lectures and insightful talks, and model photo sessions.

Wherever you wandered, indoors or outdoors, you met identity and culture-obsessed designers, models and sometimes even visitors wearing fashionable pieces and vintage items. You mingled with all these and the mix of the heritage site and the present fashionable atmosphere, and western and eastern music, all went with the flow of everything happening around you.   

Agriculture for the ancient Egyptians was the basis from which their civilisation was born. “By choosing the venues of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and the Agriculture Museum in Dokki we already see the theme of the event coming true: we have all the past in Tahrir, and we have all the present of fashion-making here,” Paul Antaki, founding member of the Egyptian Fashion and Design Council (EFDC), told Al-Ahram Weekly 

“This inspires the designers of today to become more creative and not to copy, in order to prepare for the future.”

The EFDC is aiming to develop excellence in the Egyptian fashion and textile industries by nurturing, supporting, and promoting Egyptian fashion and design talent and businesses locally, regionally and globally. 

Around 70 designers showed off their latest lines, among them Egyptian pioneers Marie Louis and Mix&Match known for their unique styles and fabrics, mainly linen. Marie Louis models appeared on the fashion runway with some iconic pieces that attracted the audience for their pharaonic patterns that tell the story of Egypt’s heritage..  

“Part of this collection was shown at the French Fashion Week in Paris in 2008 and 2011,” Marie-Louis Bishara, chair of the Apparel Export Council of Egypt (AECE) and co-founder of the Fashion Week, told the Weekly. She is also the CEO of fashion houses Bishara and BTM.

“I’ve been working for a long time adding and updating this collection with new creations in order to continue in the same line and get inspired by the Egyptian culture to attract our customers with pharaonic embroidery and symbols of Egyptian heritage,” Bishara said.

The idea of organising the event came in 2008, when it was proposed to the French Fashion Syndicate, “they recommended that we should get at least 17 Egyptian designers to be able to organise a fashion event in Cairo. We started working on preparing a new generation of designers through seminars and workshops to help them with all possible tools,” Bishara said, adding that given the great leaps and bounds that have been made in recent years Egypt was ready to host such an event. 

“We didn’t have good schools specialising in fashion in 2008, but now we have a lot of schools and designers who are showing their work abroad,” she added. She said that Egypt has a great generation of designers today, either those who studied in Egypt or abroad, and they all understand branding, marketing, products and quality control.

“There is also the development that went in parallel with the growth of our exports from $1.1 billion in 2021 to $2.5 billion in 2023, with everyone working together to encourage us and to prepare the funds for such a huge event.” 

Haute couture Nuria Telpian, known as Nara, has spent her life performing folkloric dances in Armenia, Russia, and various Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, and she settled in the Land of the Pharaohs in 2003. Her interest in fabrics and design came from the early years she spent working in drama and plastic art. 

“Every collection has its own story or theme. My collection’s theme is the “snake,” as you may have seen on the runway,” Telpain said. “Snakes symbolise life and death. I see life in snakes as some medicines are prepared using snake poison, so a snake can also be a life-saver and not only a reason for death.” 

In her book Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last Queen, UK Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley says that the ancient Egyptians believed that snakes were good mothers. Academics at the University of Manchester in the UK have dismissed the notion that Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite. 

“I know that the connection between Cleopatra and the snake is one of life and not death, so it’s a positive effect and not a negative one,” Telpian said. Some Egyptologists say that Cleopatra believed she was the embodiment of the goddess Isis who could take on the form of a snake.

Telpian had a solo show at the Fashion Week, and her collection included 29 glamorous evening gowns, mostly in vibrant colours, either with a snake design on the dress or handmade snakeskin-style fabrics. Not all the materials used in the gowns are made in Egypt, however, with some of them imported from abroad. “My collection of snakes is for women who dare to wear,” Telpian concluded.

With Egypt being ready for more colour, Rasha Al-Gammal, owner of the Rasha Pasha Studio, had made statement khayyameya-like cotton art pieces, kimonos and handbags in strong colours that are uniquely hand crafted and give a luxurious look for either men or women. Her colourful tote bags and belts displayed inside the Dokki museum all had Horus eyes on them. 

Inside the same hall, there was a huge gown made of linen with words like “sustainable,” “slow fashion,” “durable,” and “handmade” embroidered on it in different languages. Manar Hilal is the owner of the Talalya slow fashion brand, a women’s empowerment platform that started in 2014. It serves women who have disabilities, trains them in handicrafts like crochet, knitting, and embroidering, and then buys products from them.

“We sometimes provide the materials they can’t afford to buy, and then we sell the products that meet our design and quality guidelines inside Egypt and abroad,” Hilal said. 

In another building, the “cotton building,” there was a lot happening. The space was promoting different fashion schools in Egypt and displaying the designs of their students. “Our Centre collaborates with the Italian Instituto di Moda Burgo. We mostly use Egyptian cotton in our designs. During this event, we are displaying haute couture, ready to wear, smart wear and men’s wear made by our students,” Sally Taha, coordinator of the Fashion and Design Centre said, adding that it receives students from around the world.

In the same space, there was the Design Studio by Azza Fahmy providing free classes in jewellery making, especially silver wire rings. “Most of the contemporary designers taking part in this event are mixing the old with the new, like having crochet and pharaonic patterns in one creative piece, which is something I like,” the famous designer told the Weekly. 

Meeting designer Adrien Roberts was rewarding, a UK designer who stresses the importance of formal education. He thinks education is about the questions you’re asking of the student and not the answers you’re giving him or her: it’s about opening the door to the imagination. 

“I always discover new things about Egypt and the Pharaohs and their culture. It’s a country that keeps on giving,” Roberts said. “I teach the history of knitwear, and I love telling my students that knitwear was born in North Africa and the only ancient knitwear we have is of Egyptian origin – a red sock displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is a split-toe sock, so I asked why the ancient Egyptians were wearing knitted socks with split toes.”

 “Then I discovered that the culture of knitting originated in Egypt and that we have the first pair of knitted socks in England made by the ancient Egyptians.”

The Egypt Fashion Week closed with a “Shop the Runway” event featuring all participating designers at the Mall of Arabia on Monday.

A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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