Ethnic-inspired motifs were hardly in fashion when anthropologist and veteran designer Shahira Fawzy went into Egypt’s southeastern desert to live with a remote nomadic tribe. But since bringing their crafts to the city, Fawzy has spawned a revival of local fashion design that has taken off internationally.
Written by Dominika Maslikowski
Photographed by Mohsen Allam
t was during a trip to Lake Nasser in 1970 to study water pollution that veteran anthropologist Shahira Fawzy discovered a ‘lost tribe,’ the Bishari, who hardly spoke Arabic and were in danger of dying out because of the construction of the Aswan Dam. At first, government officials refused to believe the then-19-year-old Fawzy about the tribe’s existence, but she stayed on for 15 years in the desert to help them dig wells and sell their traditional designs in Cairo to raise funds to improve their community. They, in turn, taught her to make jewelry, weave cotton with sticks and extract colors from plants, stones and nutshells found in the Sahara.
“It’s a different scenario of life. It’s not a place, it’s a world. They taught me a lot of things, and I began to paint. Years later when I came to the city in the 1980s and 1990s, I began to bring elements from there and brought that into fashion,” Fawzy says. Although ethnic-inspired motifs were hardly in fashion when she was living with the remote nomadic tribe, Fawzy says she “realized that if something new came to the city, people liked it.”
Fawzy’s Sahara Boutique at the City Stars mall has long curtains with Islamic-inspired patterns, soft couches and racks of loose-fitting and flowing dresses with oriental motifs. She only uses handwoven Egyptian cotton and still draws from the techniques she learned decades ago in the desert. Her dresses are statement pieces: billowy, in square cuts that Fawzy says are taken from ancient Egyptian designs made loose for hot climates.
“People today are much more receptive to fashion with an Egyptian influence, but I still think I’m at the very beginning of educating the public. At first they’d come in and ask me ‘What is this?’ because a dress to them meant a tight waist. They asked ‘How do you wear it?’ I was trying to tell them you can use material however you want. It’s not haute couture, because that might not be suitable for our hot environment.”
Fawzy’s enterprising work with the Bishari tribe soon led to other projects. She worked with women in Sohag from 1990 to 1992 as part of a UNICEF program aiming to preserve their culture and heritage. Fawzy revived old traditions in that region, like embroidering material with silver, by training groups of girls and then sending them to villages to pass on their skill. Through the project, she also helped the women create sellable items that made them a profit and brought them more independence.
Her apartment in Heliopolis soon began to fill up with handicrafts, jewelry and fabric from such projects until she moved out in 1995 and turned the space into what would later become a boutique.
“Fashion at the time had nothing to do with it. I remember my mother said I was crazy, then friends wore it and everyone thought ‘How nice.’ Fashion in those days was very French. I stayed away for so long that I forgot fashion and to them it was completely obscure and they thought it was strange and exotic. They still call it exotic, what I do,” Fawzy says. “Christian Dior sent a representative and bought products to make their scarf collection with it in 1995 or 1996. Then other designers came looking for exotic pieces of material. I began to realize this was usable, and I got more demands for material from French, Italian and Egyptian designers.”
Fawzy had begun by designing trousers and blouses with a line of embroidery from the Sinai, for example. Women in the early 1990s accepted such touches. In fashion, she says, you’ve got to start with what people know and then you can begin experimenting. Ethnic or bold pieces only interested a select niche and cosmopolitan clientele, while most fashionable Egyptian women looked towards Parisian trends when shopping for their wardrobes.
“When I was very young, everything was bought from Europe. When Nasser came, he said no to imports, so stewardesses became very rich by bringing French clothes and selling them at five times the price. This was very trendy,” Fawzy says with a laugh.
“When Sadat came, everybody shopped like crazy when they traveled. You didn’t go to any museums abroad. Everybody just went shopping. Later people began to rediscover Egyptian things. Initially we grew up in houses that were totally based on French style. Elle and Vogue were the magazines, and it was not ‘in’ to speak about Egyptian.”
Her styles gained more mass appeal, however, when they began to appear on trendsetters like socialites and regional royalty such the exiled Empress of Iran Farah Deeba, Jordan’s Queen Rania, and the Jordanian princesses Rahma and Aliaa. Eastern- and tribal-inspired trends have since then gone international, and Fawzy’s designs are today sold in Cannes.
With a PhD in economic anthropology from the University of Manchester, England, Fawzy continued her work on goodwill missions from 1999 to 2005 as the director of the Hodaidah Primary Health System Support Project, which trained doctors and nurses in Yemen. The Cairo native has now made it a mission inher retirement to encourage young designers and boost the country’s fashion industry by preserving Egyptian handicrafts.
“I realized in the last 10 years there was suddenly a boom of young designers doing the same things I was doing all those years in the Egyptian villages. And you don’t know how happy I am,” Fawzy says. “It’s culture, and the villagers were coming down to Cairo with their products. Young people liked it when they saw it. They were not completely ruined by French fashion and they began to see there were artists around. They were not ashamed of this culture and they realized how rich it was.”
Her recent project, with young designers Marwa Hamid and her two children Ahmed and Ayat Miligi, launched in late March and offers a less expensive, youth oriented line created under her supervision that incorporates nomadic pieces and African silhouettes. Sold at Sahara boutiques, the line is more contemporary but still based on traditional and village work.
In the future, Fawzy hopes that Cairo will host a fashion week and invite fashion houses from Europe and New York to come and meet with Egyptian craftsmen to learn where the traditions have their roots. She hopes the country will some day establish a fashion council, and hopes to convince the government that fashion is an art that’s not synonymous with the ready-made garment industry.
“We all realize Paris is the mother of fashion, but all over the world people are looking for something they haven’t seen before and creative products. In the beginning, I meant to start a funky, small boutique, but we grew and grew internationally and now have a jewelry, fashion and home line,” Fawzy says. “I have great hopes that Egyptian trends will take off internationally. It’s very economically viable for the country, and it’s a message for tourism and politics — that it’s not just a mess of fights here but also a lot of art coming out.” et