Austin and US embassy in Cairo pave way for 11 Egyptian fashion entrepreneurs

Ingy Deif, Wednesday 9 Feb 2022

Last December, 11 Egyptian fashion entrepreneurs attended Austin Fashion Week to take part in a boot camp in Texas at the Austin Community College Fashion Incubator.

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The boot camp was part of the second iteration of the ATX-EGY program sponsored by the US embassy in Cairo.

The aim of the program was to leverage the strengths in Egypt's and Austin's design sectors and build cultural bridges between the United States and Egypt.  

The first part of the program was a 16-week virtual training on management and entrepreneurship. The second part was an in-person exchange between Austin and Cairo participants in each city.

The Egyptian entrepreneurs also showcased their products in a "pop-up shop" that was sponsored by US clothing retailer Macy's.  

The final phase of ATX-EGY II will come this May, when Austin-based designers visit Egypt to further solidify relationships, build new connections, and experience the rich Egyptian fashion and cultural scene.  

The US Embassy in Cairo is conducting this program in partnership with the City of Austin Economic Development Department, Austin Community College, and Ghada El-Tanawy, founder and CEO of Egypt's online fashion rental platform La Reina.

The talents: A closer look

Ahram Online was among a panel of media platforms that met virtually with the Egyptian participants on 2 February, who spoke about their experiences.

At the onset of the meeting, the US embassy’s cultural attaché Rachel Leslie gave a word of welcome to the entrepreneurs upon their return in December.  

Chargé d'Affaires of the US Embassy in Cairo Nicole Champagne stressed that the US is always keen on encouraging stakeholders in Egypt’s creative economy, which she described as “a space with huge potential.”

“This is the second round of ATX-EGY, which connects fashion experts and creative designers from the US and Egypt,” she said.

“Our embassy has a long history supporting the promising entrepreneurship sector and small businesses and startups in the country. We have made loans to almost 5 million small projects, strengthening businesses through mentorship, incubators and accelerators.”

When asked about their impressions, Maha El-Azm, creative director of Camicie, started by saying that the highlight of the program was the visit to Texas, participation in fashion week, getting to know each other better as designers, and sharing interests and concerns.

She added that benefit came from two directions: the first was the educational side through workshops, and the second was the expansion of their capabilities and broadening their perspective on the ground in Austin.

“The experience enhanced our mindsets and how we manage and develop our business. Such programs are very vital, because we are trying to revive the fashion scene, which was historically always present, and is now booming again,” El-Azm said.

Sara Toulan, founder of Nine and Beyond, hailed the good organisation of the event, and stressed that the experience was profound due to the helpfulness of all stakeholders in Austin – a view shared by all other participants.

The entrepreneurs said that the city of Austin is very welcoming, young and hip, not like the preconception they had of the conservative south.

Diversity is key

The 11 designers displayed an array of products that emphasised the concept of diversity.

Ghada El-Tanawy stressed that although diverse, the designs on the catwalk looked very relevant to one another even though they represent different ideas.

Areej from AJ design seconded the thought. “I for myself create pieces for those who want to stand out, but everyone stood out: leather products, bridal wear, Nubian inspirations, maternity wear… etc., and we saw how the US market responded to what we presented and we learned a lot, “she said.

Looking into the horizon

When asked about their next steps, Sara Fouda from South Studio said: “We knew where we stand and how we compete. People were amazed by the variations and diversity of products, I myself produce hip designs, I knew that I can go beyond local production.”

The designers agreed that the idea of expanding is what is next on the table. As well as exhibiting online through e-commerce.

Ongoing fascination

When asked whether people are still fascinated by products that have an element of history or culture, and if it appeals to a younger generation as it does to an older one, Hend Akid, whose brand Orkadi is inspired from Nubian culture, said that the concept is still catchy and interesting provided that the right combination is made, so that the products are trendy and stylish while adding the edge of an idea or a story from history or culture.

Akid’s brand Orkadi for artistic scarves collaborated with Austin designer League of Rebels to produce a limited edition of products by both sides that will be exhibited In July.

Personal experience and inspirations

Sara Toulan recalled the inspiration behind her brand Nine and Beyond  

“I wanted to make comfy and stylish outfits when I was pregnant, as I saw how the local market lacked that. My goal was to help women feel good about themselves and support them during pregnancy with uplifting designs that they can still use and wear after giving birth, thus providing an element of sustainability,” she said.

The designers said they noticed that the American customer favours practicality and easy-to-wear clothes. Aesthetically, they look for something presented differently and unique, while maintaining practicality and functionality.

Going green

When asked if applicants in the program were interested in the aspect of environmentally friendly production or if this element is yet absent from the industry in Egypt, the organisers said that among the 200 applicants, the green aspect was key for just a few, but such an element is vital in selection in the future.

Maha El-Azm added that cost is a key factor in this regard.

“In my collection, I had small upcycled items made from scraps and leftovers. It was costly, so customers must understand that these items are unique and not easy to make, so a price difference is thus justified. So, a certain mindset is still needed,” she said.

At the end, the entrepreneurs stressed that the program was a milestone and an opportunity to introduce their products to new markets, gain valuable insights from consumers and manufacturers, and to learn from direct interactions with international designers.

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