London Fashion Week: Egyptian philosophy as inspiration for Sabry Marouf's designs

Ati Metwaly from London, Friday 24 Feb 2017

Ahram Online talks with Ahmed Sabry about his journey through the world of fashion design and the brand he established with Daki Marouf

Sabry Marouf
Sabry Marouf: Ahmed Sabry [R] and Daki Marouf [L] at the Egyptian display at London Fashion Week (Photo: courtesy of Sabry Marouf)

Joining the London International Fashion Week (IFS), which took place between 17 and 21 February, Sabry Marouf displays the brand's work in Egypt's booth, the only Arab display to participate in this years event, which involved many international designers. 

The Egyptian display was curated by Susan Sabet, who contributed to the IFS's 2017 theme local/global with '100% Egyptian Cotton'.

Aside from Sabry Marouf, the display also included works by Norine Farah (womenswear), Reem Jano (jewellery), Marsuma by Nour Omar (textile painting), Okhtein (handbags) and Maram Paris (womenswear).

The Sabry Marouf brand was established by creative director Ahmed Sabry, who also works on all the designs, and business partner Daki Marouf. 

Sabry displayed two minaudière bags and a cocktail ring, all insired by his profound research into Egyptian culture, philosophy and art, while giving it a contemporary edge.

Ahram Online talks with Ahmed Sabry about his designs, his move from Egypt to the UK, his inspirations and his learning experiences.

Bag and ring designed by Sabry Marouf (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Ahram Online (AO): Your brand's name is Sabry Marouf. What does this name combination stand for?

Ahmed Sabry (AS): My name is Ahmed Sabry, although here [in UK], I just go by Sabry, because its sometimes tricky for foreigners to pronounce my first name (laughs). I am the creative director of Sabry Marouf.

In 2010, I met my business partner Daki Marouf. He saw my exhibition, and saw potential in my designs, so we began talking about creating a brand. He suggested creating a website and taking the necessary steps towards creating a brand. I did not know about any of those things. All I had were my pens, sketchbook and my inspiration, so I am thankful that Marouf came into the picture: he has an eye for business. This is what allowed us to create the UK-registered brand that Sabry Marouf is today.

AO: What are you displaying in the London Fahion Week’s Egyptian section?

AS: I designed two minaudieres [small handbags] and one cocktail ring. They are all inspired by the initial stage of the budding of the cotton flower, as well as the Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar's work and Egyptian painter Abdel Aal Hassan's portraits of the 'Falaha' [Egyptian Farming woman].

I wanted to do something that felt organic, so the designs are entirely handmade. The bags were manually shaped, stitched, the leather hand-dyed, and the metal work was also done by hand in our workshops here in London.

AO: Are you based in London, then?

AS: We moved the brand from Cairo to London a year ago. Prior to that, Daki and I did our masters here in London. I specialised in fashion artefacts, while Daki specialised in fashion entrepreneurship and innovation at the same university.

We decided to stay here and the University of the Arts London helped us to obtain a business visa.

We thought that jumpstarting the company here in the United Kingdom would be a great opportunity because it gives access to the international fashion scene and the international market, it is a creative hub. Working here is quite expensive, but we only do our prototyping in London and the production happens elsewhere.

AO: Prior to your move to London, you already worked in fashion in Cairo. Can you tell us more about your background?

AS: I was always very fond of the arts, of culture, and of fashion, but at the time, in the 1990s, our view of fashion was limited to the big brand names. I was also very interested in pop culture, and I knew I wanted to work in an artistic field.

In Cairo, I studied advertising because I felt that it was the closest thing to art, and I could not get enrolled at the art schools in Egypt, as they required very high grades in the Thanaweya Ama (National High School Diploma).

After my studies I worked in advertising for one year, and focused mainly on digital media, which allowed me to begin creating my own artwork digitally.

One thing led to another and I ended up creating my own jewellery capsule collection and exhibition, believing that jewellery would be easier to produce than garments, since the latter requires many details, themes and patterns. Jewellery, on the other hand, is more straight-forward, you can create a very simple piece that has a meaning to it, and people will get it.

Ring designed by Sabry Marouf (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

AO: A lot of changes took place in Egypt in 2011. How did these events affect your business?

AS: In 2011, we were still working on a collection. The revolution created this sense of urgency, that we had to do it immediately, because no one knew what the future held, so we thought “let’s launch it”, and we did. We received amazing reviews from Egyptian society and in Dubai, where we went on to exhibit the collection.

We began to feel that, in Egypt, our production was stifled, especially in the couple of years following the revolution. So Marouf suggested that we move the brand in order to grow it further.

AO: The move must have been a big challenge. How did it go in the beginning?

AS: Honestly, as I was leaving Egypt, I thought I was a great designer (laughs). I lived in an illusion: people bought my work in Egypt, I had thousands of likes on social media… Unfortunately, nowadays in Egypt, social media is giving a sort of fake, temporary power to designers, power on which they cannot survive without actual strategies, sales, business and quality. But it takes more than hype to have a real sustainable brand.

So when I began the course, my course leaders and peers really opened my eyes to the fact that this a very tough business. Statistically speaking, 98% of fashion start-ups fail within the first five years because of miss management in general.

Therefore, I am very thankful that Marouf and I came here, because he now also has a very down-to-earth understanding of how this business needs to operate: where we need to be, what we need to do to survive and to develop. And while he manages the business side, the innovative aspect is where I come in.

It is here [in the UK] that I learned the importance of education. I had an advertising background, Marouf was an architect, we had to be exposed to the real industry. London is a tough place, and it is also very avant-garde. Fashion here is known to be daring and in-your-face. We have really grown since we arrived here, but I think it is important to stay humble and know your size.

AO: Do you feel that your Egyptian background and knowledge of Egyptian art gives a sort of edge to your designs?

AS: I believe it does. Egyptian culture is quite universal, a lot of people connect with it and relate to it, because it is among the earliest civilizations and it is visually very recognisable.

In my work, I didn’t want to copy Egyptian art, but rather innovate on it, speak about it from my own perspective as a young, emerging designer.

Ancient Egyptians were very philosophical, extremely in tune with nature and the universe they lived in. They did not believe that there was any waste, everything was regenerating, the earth and the universe were regenerating. It was very intriguing for me to try and communicate that through my designs.

So I think that this gives us an edge, because other brands can reproduce the culture at face value, they can use a certain motif or artwork for example. I wanted to dig deeper into the underlying philosophy, translate ideas into actual pieces.

AO: So what will we see next from Sabry Marouf?

AS: We are launching a handbag collection this spring in London. We will launch it on our website and focus heavily on our online sales besides retail because this is the future [of this business].

I would also like to collaborate with filmmakers. We are currently in talks to create a video blog about the Ancient Egyptian philosophy and how it inspires us. I want it to be very intimate, just me speaking in front of the camera.

We are also working on a cocktail ring jewellery collection, which will be followed by a bigger jewellery collection, because we took a bit of a hiatus from jewellery-making while we were doing our masters and introduced the handbags.

So we would like to make a bit of a comeback in the jewellery field, and do it like never before. The ring I have displayed this year is a bit of teaser of what’s to come.

Egyptian display at London Fashion Week (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

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