Egypt’s blossoming fashion industry has become a viable force, but away from the bright colors and flashing lights, a closer look shows the long road and amount of effort it has taken to build an economy around fashion. (Watch video)
Mona Afifi is the co-founder of Style Treasure, one of the first Egyptian online boutiques launched in 2009. At the time, e-commerce was new, local designers did not have the amount of exposure they deserved and social media was yet to become the business power tool it is today.
Through her platform, Afifi showcased a diverse array of Egyptian designers on her e-commerce boutique.
“I found that Egyptian designers have a lot of talent that is undermined in the Egyptian fashion industry because local shops were not keen on unknown brands, no matter how unique or moderately priced they were,” Afifi says.
If these brands could be presented properly, Afifi was certain they would sell well on both local and international markets.
“My partner and I decided to open the first online platform to sell these unique treasures,” she says, which explains the platform’s name. Style Treasure began with six designers and now showcases the products of more than 200.
Fast forward a few years and Egypt’s fashion scene began seeing more robust, diverse activity. Designers of all kinds were launching brands as unique in their inspirations as they were in their end products.
We are born to be global. That was our vision from the start. We don’t have borders and we try to expand geographically, little by little.
But besides relying on social media, word of mouth and a limited number of fashion shows and festivals to grow their customer base, there was little strategic branding and marketing activity taking place.
Enter Maria Sanchez Munoz.
A public relations guru by training, Munoz took note of the lack of publicity given to fashion brands.
After a stint with a startup that attempted to offer a solution to this problem, Munoz went on to co-found Maison Pyramide, which offers a wide range of consultancy services to help brands grow while connecting them to the regional and global scene.
Fashion is a complex industry, she says, and it takes juggling many factors for a brand to position themselves as a standout among thousands of others.
“My partner and I saw an opportunity in the lack of services provided to fashion brands. We combined our backgrounds to launch Maison Pyramide, a creative hub for nurturing fashion brands,” she says.
Maison Pyramide first analyzes the brand to determine what it needs and then tailors an integrated offer based on the “services we believe would work best to grow their visibility and sales in the market,” she explains.
Now that people are seeing local brands rise on the international scene, more and more buyers are considering local designs as part of their decision making.
Afifi agrees, remembering a time when her clients were not eager to wear local brands, as opposed to how they rush to scoop up new collections today.
Visitors on Style Treasure rose from a few hundred per day to around 3 million today depending on the season, she says. When selecting designers to showcase on the online boutique, Afifi picks six out of 10 designers per week, rating them in each of three categories: prices, quality and taste.
Then and now
Today, it’s hard to keep track of new brands by young designers with a fresh take on women and men’s clothing and couture, bags, swimwear, jewelry, sunglasses, footwear, and the list goes on.
Some have even made their way to London and New York fashion weeks, as well as the covers of glossy magazines and the hands of celebrities.
To compete in the thriving business of fashion, designers have to find a way to stand out from the competition.
As the founder of Fufa Designs, Farah Al-Ashiry finds inspiration in local heritage, as reflected in her cuts, styles, colors and patterns.
“Fufa attracts a free-spirited girl who is driven by music, art, travel and fashion,” she says, playing with prints while creating a bohemian look and lifestyle through her designs.
She launched the brand in the summer of 2014 with the intent of selling 40 pieces that season. Encouraged by the high demand, she began marketing her brand more and more on social media.
A lot of brands are finding an edge in using local fabrics, and Fufa is no exception. “I look for places in Egypt that sell unique fabrics while trying to find the story behind them,” she says.
While shooting her new collections, she always works with friends instead of models and the locations showcase many of Egypt’s travel destinations because she sees a strong potential for Egypt to promote fashion tourism.
Also inspired by the country’s touristic attractions and beaches, Sara El-Mofty founded Saya Swimwear, a luxury swim and beachwear brand.
“I was inspired by the beauty of Egyptian shores and felt like it was an untouched [niche] within the local industry,” she says.
Ten years ago, the fashion industry was dominated by a few big players, while now, there are thousands of designers making their mark on the scene.
“There’s a huge market [now] for emerging designers and there are a lot of factories and workshops to support them,” Afifi says.
Still, there are as many varied challenges to building a business in this field as there are in others in Egypt.
Maison Pyramide’s Munoz says since the industry in its current form is relatively nascent, young designers still need to be empowered with the tools and know-how to grow their business effectively.
There is also still some work to be done in understanding the role of a designer to customers as opposed to the tailor many are used to working with.
Nariman Tarek, founder of Kerrat Designs luxury brand that launched in 2014, says some customers still “barge in and ask me to change the design I’m working on in order to fit their taste.”
Like with many startups, access to finance is also a challenge, especially when it comes to competing on the cut-throat global fashion scene.
“We are born to be global. That was our vision from the start,” Munoz says. “We don’t have borders and we try to expand geographically, little by little.”