Egyptian high-end: the meeting of luxury and craftsmanship

Gold and silver jewellery, brightly colored rugs or cottons and silks: relying on the ancestral know-how of craftsmen, luxury brands are laying the foundations of high-end Egyptian fashion.

In an era of globalization and mass production, jeweler Azza Fahmy has made a name for herself thanks to her unique creations inspired by Islamic art and architecture.

It was necessary, says this septuagenarian to AFP, that her gold and silver jewelry sometimes set with precious stones “resonate with the identity” of her Egyptian customers.

Today, more than 50 years after its debut, its pieces even adorn the hands of Queen Rania of Jordan or the neck of pop singer Rihanna.

Hend el-Kahhal, at the head with his brother Mohamed of Kahhal Looms, a company of handmade carpets, affirms that she wanted to “collaborate with designers to give a contemporary touch to pharaonic and Mamluk motifs”.

“From dyeing to the loom, everything is done by hand,” said Mr. Kahhal to AFP on the roof of the family factory where the wool and silk creations are dried.

In Egypt, “we are lucky to be able to draw on 6,000 years of history”, adds Goya Gallagher, founder and designer of Malaika, which produces high-end household linen, settled in Egypt for 25 years.

“The main challenge is to ensure that the products are both timeless, of very good quality while remaining handmade” also explains Ms. Gallagher from her factory in the western suburbs of Cairo.

– Training, a challenge –

But the journey of these brands has not been easy.

The first challenge is training, because the pool of qualified craftsmen is dwindling, with new generations being attracted by traditional diploma courses.

“The training of craftsmen is still essentially based on informal education such as apprenticeship,” Dina Hafez, a consultant in cultural engineering, told AFP.

Ms. Fahmy wanted both “good designers, creative minds who receive a quality education” and “skilled craftsmen who understand the designer’s vision”. So she set up her own foundation.

To train the jewelers of tomorrow, it has partnered with the American University in Cairo.

Through a structure located in the historic center of Cairo, Threads of Hope, Malaika also trains marginalized women in five embroidery techniques.

They mainly sell their work to Malaika, but also to other customers in the fashion and textile industry.

In addition to education, there are many challenges: repeated devaluations of the Egyptian pound regularly block the import of raw materials, and when it comes to exporting, Egyptian producers find themselves in asymmetrical competition with brands international.

– “No luxury industry” –

“The sector is not structured, we need a real ecosystem. For the moment, it is based on personal initiatives”, summarizes consultant Dina Hafez.

“Morocco and Turkey, two countries where opportunities and obstacles resemble those encountered in Egypt, have succeeded in imposing their creations on the international scene,” she notes.

Indeed, says Ms. Fahmy, “there is no luxury industry in Egypt: there are brands trying to establish themselves abroad, but it takes time”.

Because they must acquire on the job the rules of the game of a well-established market abroad but still emerging in Egypt, where sales, presentation and marketing standards are still far from being the norm.

UNIDO, the UN office for industrial development, describes the authorities’ efforts to support the sector as “limited and sporadic”.

There is a Council dedicated to the export of crafts created in 2013 “but not sure that the authorities are aware of the soft power that creators can embody”, says Ms Hafez.

“Limited budgets and red tape do not make things any easier, nor do customs regulations, which change very regularly”, concludes this specialist.

Failing to be able to send their goods far from Egypt, all these creators have one foot in what Mohamed el-Kahhal calls the “showcase of Egyptian know-how”: the new Grand Museum in Cairo.

Here, if the Egyptology galleries are not yet accessible to tourists, the luxury craft shops have already opened. And the Kahhal rugs sit prominently there.

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