Since its inception, the fashion industry has sold fantasy through luxurious imagery, with high-end designers and fashion houses leading the way. International and Middle Eastern brands have relied on their campaigns to promote and sell their products. But this appears to be changing, especially in the Arab region, where emerging designers recognize the need for increased transparency and greater political consciousness. And while they may still lag behind their Western counterparts, many of the MENA region’s new generation of designers are beginning to put inclusivity first in their brands.
Arabs speak the same language, yet history, culture and tradition vary widely across the 18 countries that constitute the region. “We’re black, brown and white all at once,” says Anwar Bougroug, founder of genderless Scandinavian-Moroccan fashion brand Bougroug. Through cutting-edge imagery, playful styling and diverse casting, Bougroug has introduced diversity into his brand imagery and is one of the designers paving the way for greater inclusivity in the region.
“Morocco has a lot of diversity, and I want to show people that. It all started with the local community, and I’ll never forget that.” Anwar was one of the first designers to work with Tilila Oulhaj, the distinctively featured Moroccan model who was chosen as the face of Yves Saint Laurent beauty in 2020. “When it comes to casting, I’m interested in personality and giving people an opportunity.” He has also launched a free mentorship program that offers career strategies for young creatives, designers and models. “I feel a huge sense of responsibility in Morocco. We have to be conscious about how we present, because we are ourselves under-represented.”
Not all MENA designers stick to local representation, but many still strive to put inclusivity first. Tunisian-Parisian pair Nour Ben Cheikh and Clementine Lecointre, the duo behind sustainable Mediterranean-inspired brand ELBE, have honed in on multicultural representation. Their look books and campaigns reflect the gender neutrality and diversity that are at the core of the brand. “We function a lot by instinct and feeling,” says Nour. “The human contact that we have with our models is important. We want them to believe in our brand and enjoy representing it.”
Eric Ritter’s Beirut-based slow-fashion line Emergency Room has made it a point to highlight Lebanon’s diversity. The brand showcases personalities of all ages, sexualities, genders, communities and proportions. The summer 2019 campaign, for example, showcased one-of-a-kind upcycled pieces from vintage curtains and upholstery, modeled on profiles such as Sasha, a transgender model, and Ritter’s 80-year-old grandmother Hoda Ziade, with whom he often works. Through street casting and by bringing Eric’s friends together, the collection depicts the Lebanese capital’s distinctive culture. “I never wanted to work with professional models,” says Eric. “For me it’s about pushing and promoting individuality, and for others to recognize a bit of themselves in the clothes.”
While the inclusion of local models in campaigns and look books is perhaps an indication of change, some local customers still seem to look elsewhere for a universal standard of beauty. “I get messages sometimes from Moroccan girls that even ask me, why do you use Moroccan models? Europeans are prettier. It breaks my heart that they feel others should take their space. But it’s about tackling these problems and making progress,” says Anwar Bougroug.
Navigating a brand presence remains a challenge in the MENA region, but transparency and inclusion offer opportunities for Middle Eastern labels to distinguish themselves from their more commercial competitors, as Eric Ritter explains. “Showcasing diversity means promoting individuality instead of conformity. Only by doing so do you encourage people to be, and celebrate their differences.”