The Streets of Tunis

Writer Roua Khlifi Photographer Sophia Baraket

Men’s fashion is taking off in Tunis – Salah Barka is leading a new wave of designers putting their spin on traditional tailoring
“The textile industry is the second most important industry in Tunisia” Photographer Sophia Baraket

“The textile industry is the second most important industry in Tunisia” Photographer Sophia Baraket

While the traditional outlets for men’s clothing – small-scale shops and tailors – may struggle financially today, they remain an inspiration for high-profile Tunisian designers whose creations grace the walkway of Tunis Fashion Week. Tunisian fashion designers invoke the spirit of their ancestors in designs that are both functional and stylish.

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Art Works of TUNIS FASHION WEEK

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09 Jun 2013

By Katya Foreman

Worlds away from the big bang productions of the major fashion capitals, the 5th edition of Fashion Week Tunis – titled Spring is Here to Stay – was marked by a strong community spirit with figures from the local art, fashion and music scenes pulling together to make it happen on a limited production budget.

Setting the tone, the event opened with an intimate exhibition, “Perspectives,” at the Galerie El Marsa in La Marsa, a coastal town located northeast of Tunis, showcasing individual collaborations between Marios Schwab and the Tunisian designer Amel Esseghir with Tunisian visual artist Nja Mahdaoui, whose work is inspired by Arabic calligraphy. The show was designed by German installation artist Nini Gollong and included an exhibition of jewelry creations by Rome-based, Franco-Moroccan designer Bernard Delettrez in a darkened room on the site’s lower floor. His bewitching designs, such as articulated snake cuffs, were showcased in floating glass pyramids.

Faced with the constraints of post-revolution Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began more than two years ago, the event was hampered by production hitches, which meant tediously long waits between shows. Among the few designers weaving political messages into their creations was Ahmed Talfit, whose concise collection of curvaceous handmade gowns with strong shoulders and graphic leather lozenge inserts was titled ‘Apocalypse?’.  “The Tunisian woman has evolved across different civilisations, and has always been the most liberal of Arab women, whether it’s the first female doctor or the first female pilot [in the Arab world], who were both Tunisian women. I am questioning whether they will continue to evolve or whether it will be the apocalypse for Tunisian women due to certain circumstances that are being imposed on our lifestyle, the forces of extremism,” he said.

Esseghir, who participated in the “Perspectives” exhibition, later in the week at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace presented a giant “Mega Dress” representing the Tunisian woman, constructed from an elaborate patchwork of traditional handmade textiles from across Tunisia assembled by the designer over 20 years.

Opening the doors to some of the region’s cultural gems, sites for the week’s fashion shows and peripheral events included the magnificent Acropolium in Carthage and La Marsa’s town hall, the latter decorated with traditional tiles and a giant dusty chandelier, with a stray cat hitting the runway – or make that catwalk – on one occasion.

Designers fell into two camps, with the more experimental, artisanal collections drawing approval from international editors and the locals going gaga for high glamour acts doused in sequins, chiffon and lace, which often felt like pastiches of established designers like Elie Saab or Roberto Cavalli. Miss Tunisia was perched front row at Ali Karoui’s show, where models clad in wispy gowns in digital tropical prints blew kisses to the audience, à la Victoria’s Secret. Rows of nipped and tucked ladies whooped as topless male models interspersed an exasperatingly endless run of caftan-clad models parading Rayhana’s semi-precious jewelry designs and decorative bags, one embroidered with colorful fish and shells.

In the artisanal camp, Zarrouki Dalila, a 3rd year student at L’Institut Supérieur des Métiers de la Mode de Monastir, presented a collection of organic dresses honed from woven and knitted raggedy strips of cotton, silk and wool, borrowing methods used for traditional rugs. Crude wooden mules typically worn in hammams completed the boho, rootsy vibe. The creations were hand colored using natural dyes including saffron, indigo, henna and prickly pear and scented with amber. “I wanted to pay homage to Tunisia’s rich patrimony,” said Dalila. Fellow student Rabeb Thaalbi channelled a more primitive vibe for her men’s collection, crafting fox-fur trimmed hooded capes from traditional materials including sheepskin, goatskin, hessian cloth and woven wool made using Berbère rug-making techniques. Long john-style pants were patchworked from hand dyed knits in earthy tones. Jewellery made from sheep’s jaws and horns added a wild edge.

Among a group of designers presenting in the terraced gardens of the Palais Ennejma Ezzahra overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, with threatening storm clouds and the haunting strains of musician Elyas Khan adding to the ambiance, Morocco’s Amine Bendriouich stood out as one-to-watch. Here he collaborated with London-based artist Hassan Hajjaj, taking the bright African fabrics that Hajjaj often works with – charged with prints normally used for religious and political propaganda – and putting them into a wearable context. Bendriouich, who is based between Casablanca and Berlin, cut sporty blazers out of the fabrics, breaking up their brashness with easy drop-crotch pants and shorts in cotton fleece and jersey.

Natalie de Koning’s sustainable collection focused on long layered silhouettes mixing the old with the new. All the garments were crafted from recycled or new eco-friendly fabrics, with among sweet details needlepoint collars and multi-layer collars on antique-looking blouses. An ensemble pairing uber-wide ivory culottes with a monochrome top with graphic hand-stitched leather appliqués was also striking.

The strongest contender for the international stage was Vienna-based Nedra Chachoua, whose effortlessly cool collection evoked summers spent in Tunisia as a child mixed with European references, fusing traditional north African clothing such as the djellaba with the classic white shirt. There were shirts edged with palm tree prints, airy knits tacked with foil palm tree leaves, oversized floor-length shirt dresses, camel shorts with banana prints on the turn up and dresses peeling with bananas in yellow wild silk. “It’s a self portrait, it’s a really personal collection… it had to be comfortable but also feminine,” said the designer, who focused on natural fibers with subtle crafty details such as embroidery and quilting. Considering this was her graduate collection, this designer has mileage.

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