The fashion industry in Egypt has been booming over the last few years, with local artisanship, craftsmanship and industry on the rise thanks to a steady wave of local designers and creatives leading the way forward.
One such brand is Okhtein. Having launched in 2013, the accessories brand’s bags in particular have been a hit amongst discerning Cairo fashionistas. But with local brands on the rise, one might assume that the fashion game is pretty straightforward – well, it’s not, as we found out when we sat down with Okhtein founders and designers, Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf
-Apart from being designers, who are you? TELL ME! Sorry, I’m excited.
Mounaz : I’m a painter and I’ve worked in advertising for almost two years. I also used to freelance as a marketer.
Aya: I studied communication and media arts as a major with a minor in art and design. I didn’t get into the corporate world because as soon as I graduated I went directly into Okhtein. I was always interested in fashion and even wanted to study fashion, but they didn’t offer it at AUC.
-Nice – so how did the Okhtein brand begin?
Aya: It started two years ago. Right after I graduated. We both had something in mind and we’d wanted to start something together since we were in high school, but we never had the time. We did minor projects as we were graduating, but never a major one like this.
As soon as I graduated, Mounaz started working an advertising agency, but we still wanted to start something related to fashion, design and art. Instead of going for the obvious with clothing, we thought of launching an accessories brand, so we started with bags. It took us a year-and-a half of research because it was something neither of us had ever really studied and instead of finding a manufacturer to produce our designs, we thought of starting our own workshop.
-What type of materials do you use?
Mounaz: We generally use leather, but all kinds of other materials, too. We started a sub-line called Okhtein Essentials using artificial leather, too. The prices are much lower than regular, so it gives the brand a different element and a bigger customer base.
-Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Aya: Anything and everything. It could be a mood, a song, a book, a colourful old car we saw, the architecture – basically anything. We don’t want to limit ourselves. If I’m feeling something, I can translate that into a design.
-Sounds complicated – is it difficult, then, to bring your ideas alive?
Aya: In the very beginning, it wasn’t easy, because it can be very hard to explain your vision to someone, especially if the pieces are handmade. But we eventually found a craftsman who shares the same vision and tastes that we do.
-How do you see the fashion and design industry in Egypt?
Aya: It’s growing and it’s definitely better than before. I think people are finally starting to find value in being truly original, rather than copying trends and fads.
Mounaz: I genuinely feel like there’s a fashion revolution happening – everyone wants to attach their name to the fashion world, especially brands outside of it. You’ll even find new bars and restaurants inviting fashion figures to their launch to simply be attached to the growing scene.
-True – but then what makes Okhtein unique?
Aya: I think both of us are very visual. Anything we do, we envision it before it comes to life. We share the same kind of design aesthetic, though I’m more classic in my taste and Mounaz more modern. That’s what makes Okhtein unique; our different visions combine to produce new and original results. Basically, it’s our personalities. We don’t follow the trends, we try to set out own trends.
-Is that enough for Cairo? We’re a pretty difficult bunch to please...
Aya: We’re getting there. We know what they want and we try to satisfy their needs. We came up with a hashtag called #GotYourBag . It’s basically Okhtein has ‘got your bag’ no matter what the occasion is. We’re trying to satisfy a woman’s needs, because a woman can never have too many bags!
-Ha! We hear you guys have a special summer collection in the works...
Yep! Our summer collection is called Weaving Waves. It’s inspired by the beach – and Egypt of course has beautiful beaches. It was inspired by the vibe, by the colour, by the energy and we called it Weaving Waves because everything is weaved. The best thing with this collection is that we’re working with two NGOs and a very small village in Fayoum, where there’s an extremely talented weaver that we’re working with. We wanted to give back to the community and so we’ve outsourced some of the work and created jobs. In the future we really hope that we’ll have global recognition, throughout Middle East, Europe, USA, and Asia – maybe even have stores worldwide!
-That would be quite something! In light of that, what words of advice do you have for up-and-coming designers?
Aya: People now tend to give up very easily. Things don’t come easy - you have to work for it. If you believe in what you do, original and true to yourself, you’ll make it. It’s not as easy as people think. It took a lot of effort and a lot of sleepless nights to get our dream off the ground.
Mounaz: Always be unique. We are trying to show that people can trust Egyptian brands. Egyptians trusting an Egyptian brand is the biggest obstacle we face. We want people to know when they read “made in Egypt” that it’s top quality, 100% genuine leather – we’re trying to change the mentality.