Fashion Week Tunis 2013 or the Clamouring Whispers of a Revolutionary Spring

Up to relatively recently, visitors arriving at Tunis Carthage airport fell mostly into two main categories: 1) business men from the Maghreb, and 2) European tourists seeking sun and warm sea water on the Mediterranean beaches of the smallest country in northern Africa. However, after the revolution that forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to relinquish government on 14 January 2011 after 23 years in power, visitors have started travelling to the Tunisian capital for the most diverse reasons. In a way, the variety of social and ethnic profiles and of travel purposes for the people who arrive at Tunis Carthage airport mirrors the national polarisation of religious, political and cultural viewpoints as Tunisians try to find their place in the world arena while celebrating their rich history and culture.

On the one hand, Islamists religious leaders have been travelling to Tunisia in larger numbers and more frequently to organise rallies and advocate the social and ethical values of Shariah law; however, and in contrast, many Tunisians have been travelling abroad, embracing new ideas (quite often of a more Western nature), and questioning such strict religious and moral values in the context of freedom and potential financial growth. As of late, larger numbers of European and American goods and brands have become increasingly more available in Tunisia, a move helped by an official association of the country with the European Union and encouraged, in particular, by trade agreements with France, the former colonising nation that ruled Tunisia as a protectorate between 1881 and 1956. In tandem with the offer of new goods and services, creative industries such as advertising and graphic design have boomed. And in this context, fashion has not been immune to this silent revolution in Tunisian life and social mores: as the country has opened to external influences, an annual fashion week in Tunis has been growing from strength to strength since it held its first sartorial showcases in 2009.

Despite being managed by a private production company with little experience in managing the level of influence over national and international journalists and buyers, Fashion Week Tunis has dared to speak the contemporary creative voice of Tunisia, even if its promotion and press coverage had to be toned down owing to security fears. If some of the much-loved historical buildings of the city that hosted the runway shows (such as the Cathedral Saint-Louis of Carthage and the Palace Ennejma Ezzahra – former home of Baron d’Erlanger and now the Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music) had no difficulty in dealing with the event, rumours circulated that the mayor of the affluent La Marsa neighbourhood had received death threats from extremist Islamists for allowing the opulent city hall to serve as a venue for the shows.

It is easy to understand that fashion has not always had it easy in this part of Africa, particularly for those who see it as the embodiment of superficial (and undignified) values. For many Tunisians, the examples of extreme corruption and plundering of the country’s money in luxury items by Ben Ali’s family (a few of the reasons that caused the revolution in early 2011) are still too raw in the national collective mind. More detrimental to the social role of fashion were the revelations that Ben Ali’s wife Leila used the state airplane to make regular unofficial trips to Paris and London to go shopping for haute couture and expensive ready-to-wear clothes, shoes and accessories.

It was against this incredibly diverse and extremely contrasting social context that the fifth edition of Fashion Week Tunis in 2013 (under the creative direction of the indefatigable Paris-based fashion journalist and consultant Elisabeta Tudor) established a conceptual brief that positioned northern African fashion designers in collaborative platforms with musicians, sculptors, painters and writers not only from Tunisia but also from other parts of Africa and Europe. In many ways that were not always purposeful, throughout the event it was easy to feel that the combination of manifold creative disciplines to engender sartorial output suggested a positive solution to start resolving the national perception of the country as being divided on all fronts.

On their own levels, the concepts behind the fashion collections shown during Fashion Week Tunis 2013 were also indicative of the very different ways in which men and women from northern Africa choose and wear their clothes or embrace fashion. The experimental sensitivity by younger designers who worked the artistic potential of painting and writing contrasted with the large number of collections that favoured colourful, shimmering and fitted silhouettes and where sequins, lace, beads and long dress trains featured prominently.

Of those who pushed the conceptual boundaries of fashion during Fashion Week Tunis 2013, Moroccan designer Amine Bendriouich (a graduate from ESMOD Tunis who also trained in Paris and currently runs his label Amine Bendriouich Couture & Bullshit between Casablanca and Berlin) worked with Moroccan (but London-based) artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj to develop a very captivating range of garments for men. The outstanding blazers designed by Bendriouich with prints conceived by Hajjaj featured contrasting lapels and crossed layers of fabric but, most importantly, they incorporated kitsch religious iconography and texts from Catholicism that were carefully translated across the garment’s contextual design; for example, certain words and images (such as hearts) were positioned by Bendriouich in specific parts of the garment to confirm or question their meanings when layered over the physical parts of the body that they literally or symbolically interpreted. As a consequence, the creative tailoring entailed a careful cutting of patterns and stitching together of the blocks of colourful wax cotton fabrics.

In womenswear, Nedra Chachoua (originally from Tunisia but presently based in Vienna) displayed the fresh and invigorating collection ‘Musa Paradisiaca’ that she produced for her graduation show. Chachoua’s garments featured a bright palette of white, mint and light brown across flowing shapes that paid homage to Tunisian traditional clothes. At the same time, the collection embraced playful designs, including embroidered palm trees, banana prints and trompe-l’oeil wood veins that engendered a feeling of texture and depth.

At the other end of the sartorial spectrum, Tunisian fashion designers adopted bright colours and patterns and shimmering materials in designs that evoked a cultural acceptance of garish clothes for women of certain social strata in defiance of conservative religious views. In accessories, Rayhana offered a lavish show in the Cathedral Saint-Louis of Carthage (also known as the Acropolium) to reveal her latest ranges of jewellery and handbags. In addition to incorporating traditional motifs such as the ‘hand of Fatima’, Rayhana also explored innovative shapes to present her own idea of luxury for modern Tunisian women. Her jewellery pieces featured not only silver and other semi-precious materials, but also amethyst, coral, agate and turquoise, while her bags were made of woven fabrics and pleated silk.

Of the many designers who celebrated a maximalist approach to fashion, Haytham Bouhamed and Ali Karoui clearly produced the most accomplished collections. Kuwait-based Bouhamed presented his range of dresses in a sumptuous room of La Marsa’s city hall. This was a collection that addressed the taste of affluent female consumers in the middle-East that has commanded the direction that fashion has taken in this part of the world. Like many of his fellow designers, Bouhamed resorted to layered chiffons, dresses with long trains and abundant sequins and beading work. However, what set him apart from his contemporaries was his accomplished technique, evident in his adroit pattern cutting, sewing and embroidering methods.

Ali Karoui found inspiration for his luxurious runway show not in local traditions but in the late sixteenth century European folklore tale of the Little Red Riding Hood (which became celebrated worldwide in the nineteenth century in the two versions produced by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm). The display (which at times resembled a pastiche of a Victoria’s Secret runway show) took place in an Acropolium packed with local celebrities and included the most glamorous models that took to the runways of this year’s Fashion Week Tunis. The long opening sequence of the show depicted a threatening natural world as the oppressive stage for a solitary woman (identified solely by her shadow) and two caged women dancing at the entrance of the runway show. In contrast to this opening, the collection’s display portrayed human victory over nature (as a metaphor for the importance of the individual winning over religious and societal repression) and a celebration of freedom of expression. This was noticeable in the revealing cuts (namely strapless dresses, mini lines and elongated slits in long skirts), exuberant lace and floral prints, and fluid silhouettes that have made young Ali Karoui a famous name amongst Tunisian women who dare to bare their bodies in public.

When discussing the Arab Spring situation in North Africa, historian Rashid Khalidi noted that, if and when democratisation happens in this part of the world, it will be independent of the West; in such context, political independence in Arab states will replace Western interference. However, and by looking at Fashion Week Tunis as a micro-scaled representation of the relationship between the political and the social, it is clear that the creativity revealed during this event owed much to the dialogues established not only between designers and artists in the Maghreb but also between creative voices located worldwide.

Despite the diversity of approaches to fashion, it was clear that the collections and the actual perception of Fashion Week Tunis illustrated how Tunisian politics and society are at a crossroads facing the need to carve a third way between opposing positions that frame the spectrum between traditional and progressive religious and ethical mores. If interference, as Kahlidi puts it, is to take place it will be to the benefit not only of Tunisia but to the many fashion designers, journalists and buyers worldwide. Fashion Week Tunis 2013 did show that it has to potential to play an important role in the competitive calendar of international fashion weeks; however, only once its position in relation to its global counterparts has been understood and embraced can it flourish to become an accomplished sartorial showcase.