With so much talk lately about the rioting and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa – myself doing some of this talking – it occurred to me that something was missing from the discussion: what the impact of the fashion world had on this turbulent area. I know what you’re thinking: sounds a little out of place in the serious shroud that usually accompanies political and social upheaval – kind of like that dirty blue blanket Charlie Brown‘s pal Linus is always clutching. But in truth, it’s a cultural element that can arguably be one of the most telling of its surroundings, and should be rightly explored as a contributor in reshaping this troubled region. After all, without fashion wouldn’t we just be sporting our birthday suits and fig leaves?

The Arab Spring‘s springboard (pardon the pun, I just had to) originated in Tunisia; so when the 3rd annual Tunis Fashion Week was scheduled to take place, to the surprise of many – and to play into my use of the cliché – the show actually did go on. Even in the midst of democratic protests and tons of governmental red tape, it was a chance for designers, consumers and admirers to celebrate their culture’s rich history in textiles and reinvigorate its next chapter, as the Arab Spring seemed to be doing for the people.

It was a risky move; because as the uprisings were [and still are] reshaping the political and social landscape of the Mid-East and Africa, the fashion world is struggling to tell its own story: one of reclamation and resurgence.

It might seem like colorful garments and shiny accessories would be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind during such a time of distress [unless you count fashion therapy as a legitimate treatment, which I personally do]. But it does stand to reason that this particular art form has uniquely weaved itself into the very fabric of the culture; enveloping its people both figuratively and literally with an identity that undeniably distinguishes itself from the rest of the world.  And in times like these, a unifying identity is a necessity. Not unlike the oversized team jerseys, #1 foam fingers or cheese-wedge hats that magically unite thousands of total strangers in American sports arenas. Ok, maybe just a little different.

The Artsy Side:

The Tunis Fashion Week was an opportunity to honor a society that’s been creatively restrained for much of its history. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, an era of expressive personal suppression – mostly from religious fundamentalists – was showing signs of coming to an end, and the Fashion World was vying for its turn to rediscover itself. Designers came correct; presenting innovative ways to intermarry modernity with a traditional streak tying back to the roots of the people. ABCB, a line by Amine Bendriouich, a Berlin-based Moroccan designer, referenced the religious element in its inception, providing commentary on the conservative essence that had so far reigned all of Tunisia. Fares Cherait, Salah Barka and Baligh Mecky were among many budding designers that graced the runway with frocks that spoke to a newfound artistry. It is this artistry that’s promising to emerge full-force: as an opportunity for self-expression and women’s empowerment to take hold within the generally suppressed culture. The freshness is catching on, not just with the young progressives, but with older generations that are surfacing from the traditional shadows and – slowly but surely – embracing a more liberated face of change. The real miracle is how fashion isn’t just surviving, but somehow actually flourishing in Tunisia (and other Middle Eastern areas); owing much to the onset of luxury lines’ accessibility to the average consumer. To many people in the region, the sophistication of brand names and fine apparel has become more about the sheer pleasure of donning such refined garments rather than just a mere symbol of status. “Feeling like a million bucks” is not just something Westerners could say anymore.

Through some kind of social osmosis, the people’s hope appears to have seeped into the psyche of fashion designers, whose general sentiment is that of optimism. Dina Said, 30, considers herself one of the first designers to present a fully Egyptian-made ready-to-wear line at London Fashion Week. In an interview with Egyptian blogger Nadine Sabry, Said says, “In the forties and fifties, fashion used to come out of here. It was a center of high fashion, with beautiful things being made here. I hope we get back to a time like that.” And it certainly seems like the Arab Spring has awakened that yearning: the “Ana Masry” (“I am Egyptian”) movement has already spawn bracelets, t-shirts and a plethora of various apparel and paraphernalia calling on people to unite under their Egyptian nationality – buying Egyptian products and clothing while they were at it. We in the US call that a two-fer.

Designer: Salah Barka

Designer: Baligh Mecky

Designer: Fares Cherait

 

 

The Not-So-Artsy Side:

Of course with the pros, there must be the cons. The appearance of celebrated artistic freedom is being countered by the [continued] persecution of designers that go against the grain in some of the stricter nations. This past November, 70 fashion designers were arrested in Iran for organizing shows. In Saudi Arabia, where the king just recently permitted women to vote, they still face restrictions on what they can wear, and when. What’s more, as the suppressed people are chanting for reform and liberation, the capitalist mantra that so many have been programmed to resist as infidelian methodology (just made that up), is vibrantly emerging. Despite the Anti-West ideology that the extreme Islamic right clutches onto, gigantic super malls are sprouting up among the societal discord. Chains of clothing stores and hoards of international companies are profiting from this dynamic anarchy. The Chalhoub Group, partners with brands like Fendi, Chanel and Saks Fifth Avenue, is just one of many luxury brands’ marketer that plans to expand past its 115 stores in the UAE. Expected to grow 10% next year, the Middle East’s luxury fashion industry – an estimated $5.7 billion in 2010 – is predicted to double in some Mid-East markets over the course of five years. While more of these brands are becoming increasingly attainable by greater numbers of the public, the elite still weilds the power to maintain a class divide; one of the things that the Arab Spring’s original platform strove to breakdown. However, with so many people still out of work, the region’s economy in disorder, and the future of living standards for many uncertain, growth of the fashion industry could very well be a potent injection in the arm of the region. Jobs stemming from the capitalist initiative of America-sized malls and mass produced clothing could possibly help cast a non-oil based surge into the economy.

So as the Middle East and North Africa navigate through the uncertain times ahead, the fashion world seems to be part of this new story-telling; where cultures’ identities are being simultaneously remembered and created – and in both instances, celebrated. A look ahead – with fresh takes on progressive, modern expressions – is being explored by looking back – at tradition, history and heritage; and fashion takes on the critical role it should be honored for: the people’s mirror.

                                                            

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