First Saudi Arabia decided to let women drive and then they opened the doors to their first cinema in 35 years. But the bold step to host the first Riyadh Arab Fashion Week last April was perhaps one of the biggest surprises to come out of the conservative country transitioning into a modern-day world player. As they rolled out the runway at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, one young, fresh Egyptian designer was among the participants taking on the catwalk alongside Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli.
Rana Yousry, the CEO and head designer at Asory, only established her label at the beginning of 2017, yet managed to become the first Egyptian fashion house to take part in Saudi Arabia’s first official fashion calendar fashion week.
Earlier this summer I sat in on a photo shoot for Asory’s latest lookbook and collection for her second participation with the AFC in Dubai onboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 Ship for ‘the first floating fashion week” Resort collections. It was less of an interview and more of a fashion talk about everything from Alexander McQueen to the golden days when Coco Chanel and Christian Dior would export their production lines from right here in Egypt.
Tell us about how your fashion story began and how you built Asory
I really began working after my first experimental ready-to-wear line ‘Loft Egypt’ which I created with my friends. The response from the market to the line was positive. We began by creating the collection at home and then went on to rent a room and transformed it into a makeshift studio. Soon after that I decided that I want to follow my haute-couture dreams and decided to part ways with ready-to-wear. It was an extremely long process from market research to creating the business model. In the meantime I was taking fashion design and pattern making courses. I traveled to Lebanon to study their market and took up an internship at Tony Ward at the same time I was building Asory.
Let’s talk details, what are your favorite fabrics to use?
I love sophisticated fabrics, I don’t like easy or cheap fabrics and if they are I’ll manipulate them into something that is worth wearing. I love manipulation; you’ll never find an Asory dress that is minimal and fitted. I work with cuts, details and multiple fabrics together, playing with all silhouettes, especially silhouettes that emphasize the beauty of the body.
Where do you find inspiration?
Anything around me can inspire me. One time there was a cup holder with Islamic motifs in front of me that I really liked so I turned it into a dress. I might see something that I like while I’m walking, a character or a personality. I am currently working on a capsule collection inspired by electrical cables. All because while I was walking I saw an ad for electrical cables and I really liked the colors.
Who are your favorite designers?
The person I call my fashion godfather is Alexander McQueen. If he was alive today I would have done anything to go and work with him. I love Karl Lagerfeld’s character; Ralph and Russo’s classical, minimalist designs that are at the same time fresh and modern. In the East my favorites are Hussein Bazaza and Michael Cinco. I love anyone who creates art and doesn’t follow the trends. Here in Egypt I admire Ahmed Hamdy’s identity and concept and I love Maram Borhan’s bridal dresses.
What was it like being part of Riyadh Fashion Week?
It was a big step; it wasn’t easy at all. The event was postponed twice and there were a lot of people trying to stop it from happening. For me it was a challenge and a risk, I didn’t know what people’s reaction to my designs would be, if they would be accepted or not. I didn’t know what their culture is like.
H.H. Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al Saud [honorary president at the Arab Fashion Council] came to see the collection. She was very happy with it and really liked some of the dresses, how the whole line is creative and each piece is different from the other. People’s reaction was very positive, when they found out that I am an Egyptian fashion house they would always offer to help me in anyway. The best part was that just months ago I was an intern at Tony Wards atelier, who was also opening the show and I’m after him on the schedule by two shows.
The Arab Fashion Council, which organized the first international fashion week in Saudi Arabia, is unlike any other fashion council as it represents 22 countries not just one. Do you feel that they represent Egypt equally to the other countries in the region?
They approach designers from everywhere in the Middle East and Egypt but have special specifications for participants. Creations must be artistic and then the designer’s look book must go to the four council offices to get approved.
The AFC’s long-term 2030 vision goal is to create a fashion pipeline by organizing Arab countries into fashion manufacturing infrastructure clusters. After being part of Riyadh Fashion Week, do you think they will reach their goal soon?
You measure it by how they are treating the Egyptian designers. When I went [to Riyadh Arab Fashion Week] and there was Tony Ward, Jean Paul Gaultier, Roberto Cavalli and a lot of other people we were all [treated in] the same way. If you want the media you’ll find the media, everyone had a fitting and rehearsal. Everyone had the same exposure . . . it’s fair play. They are moving very fast and that is a great thing. They are taking safe steps. They are trying to build an international fashion industry in the Arab world and I think they’ll achieve their goal soon.
The past couple of years we have seen Dubai evolve into a fashion capital with events such as Fashion Forward Dubai, Arab Fashion Week and the launch of Vogue Arabia. Egypt has also been on the rise with many luxury brands and malls launching, a boom in social media fashion influencers and many talented designers making statements, like Okhtein, Maison Yeya and Kojak. Why do you think that there is a lack of media attention when it comes to the Egyptian fashion scene, and why have we not seen an Egyptian designer on the runway at official calendar fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris?
I believe that it’s due to the Egyptian designers’ lack of knowledge. It’s not only about the media and PR. A fashion brand is a fashion business apart from the creative side. You must [research business models and the market and plan well]. Study why brands succeed or fail and why that happens, your development as a person . . . even with your team. We have a lack of education and knowledge about the fashion industry and that is what is holding us back.
How long do you think it’ll be before Egypt hosts Arab Fashion Week?
The market here isn’t helping anyone to come over. As a country we are not [lobbying] for these events to come and take place. Saudi wanted to hold an event such as this so they approached the AFC to come. They would love to come here but we will have to work to get them here. It can be tomorrow but it would need to be us who want it. The problem with Egypt is that we are a closed market. Even for fabrics, the whole market is only working for commercial trends.
Do you think that Egypt or Middle East has lost its culture and identity in fashion with so many designers desperately wanting to go international and Westernizing their designs? Or have we begun to see designers who are inspired by elements of their own culture and heritage?
There are people in Egypt who have an identity, yet I feel that we’re following not creating. Designers have created their own identity through the details in their creations, a certain silhouette but we’re following the trends and not creating our own concepts. The Arab world is the one that affects the Western world. The buying power lays mainly with the Arab world. There are many people who are working with their own culture, I am one of those people. There’s [been a huge lag in the Egyptian fashion industry]. We were the people who exported the fashion and then became the ones who imported the fashion. When you go back in history you’ll find that Coco Chanel and Christian Dior used to come to Egypt to manufacture their designs here. They had their own production line here, it was one of the best couturiers in Egypt. With time it will be us that impose our own identity, but it will take time.
Where do you see your brand going in five years?
I believe that I will have a strong base for our fashion empire, we will have a strong production line based abroad. We’ll export knowledge and art through couture. We’ll have prêt-à-couture lines and accessories. Maybe in five years we’ll be in leather goods and perfume. They always tell me that I move fast like a train . . . five years is a lot of time for us to do a lot of things. The whole idea is to [be sustainable].