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With its bustling medinas, busy harbors and the wide Sahara desert, Tunis’ historic and spiritual heritage is as exotic and varied as it gets. Today, the country rises from the ashes, born again off the back of its historic 2011 revolution, aiming to be a hub for the North African creative industries with the 12th installment of Tunis Fashion Week, the very same event that launched the careers of models such as Azza Slimene and Hanaa ben Abdesslem.

This year, Tunis Fashion Week ventured out of the capital for the first time ever, and was hosted by Tozeur, a city in the southwest of the country. With the dunes of the Sahara just a few kilometers away, the narrow streets of the city hold so much history. From palaces dating back centuries, to tombs of saints and oases  in plain sight, this week a new chapter in this Tozeur’s history was written — as fashion filled its quiet suburban streets. So what went down? Let’s get into it.

Held at the Anantara Sahara Tozeur Resort & Villas — a luxurious gateway to the majesty of the Sahara, over 20 designers presented their latest collections on the runway. Standouts from the first day included Lore and Heart and Yousra Sen.

Lore and Heart’s garments are skillfully made from the highest quality silk and linen, all produced by local artisans in Tunis. Their effortlessly luxe collection, which included hand woven cross body bags made from palm leaves, a traditional North African craft, is for everyone, something high fashion often fails to embrace.

Yousra Sen’s sustainable approach to fashion through her slow, handmade and organic craft was a breath of fresh air. Garments made from soft cotton and organically dyed wool were cinched with Halfa — hand braided cotton strings and leather straps, all of which makes for the perfect transitional pieces.

Photo credits: “@jeremie_leconte/ Pixel Formula ©️”

Cherry on top

With the first day coming to an end, there was palpable anticipation about day two — and it certainly did not disappoint. Eye K debuted their first collection, having just recently graduated, focusing on de-constructed, well tailored suits. Braim Klei’s utilitarian-esque collection took you on a whirlwind of emotions. From the vibrant neon blazer jacket that opened the show, to the metallic chocolate dress that draped and flowed so effortlessly, the Kleicustomer is one who likes an underground party.

Trending Topic’s pink wonderland was the cherry on top. The quirky duo, presented a collection of all things plexi, produced using end-run plastic scraps sourced from a factory in Tunisia. The handmade pieces are not only genderless, but they promise to have you stand out on any occasion.

Day two, however, did not come without controversy. Designer Benma sent a model out in blackface and ended the show with the same woman walking down in the catwalk in shackles. A debate took place after the show, with some people commenting that blackface isn’t just about painting one’s skin darker, but that it can “invoke a racist and painful history, often shrouded nowadays in claims of ignorance”. However, everybody present agreed that ignorance is not an excuse.

Photo credits: “@jeremie_leconte/ Pixel Formula ©️”

Sustainable model needed

With day three, the 2021 edition ended with a spectacular collection by Libyan designer and FTA 2020 Ready-to-Wear finalist, Ibrahim Shebani (Born in Exile). The collection featured the brand’s signature embroidered denim, but this season it was inspired by the Libyan oil production and how it affected the other industries in the designer’s home country. “All industries were affected by the war as everyone went to work in oil,” says Shebani. The designer brought back traditional Libyan motifs through industrial, workwear silhouettes in denim, leather and wool.

While Tunis Fashion Week put many local and neighboring designers center stage, several questions arose. Namely, the lack of buyers present, an essential component of any fashion week, as well as the treatment of models.

In an Instagram post, photographer Chad O called out the organization for neglecting the models, where many were subjected to harsh weather conditions backstage, had to walk bare-foot, had no access to warm water in their accommodation and “most whom are students and were poorly paid”, he claimed.

While Tunis Fashion Week should be acknowledged for establishing a platform for local designers, focus should be placed on creating a structure that actually helps the talent, rather than one that merely exposes them over a three day event. A sustainable model would be one that translates into real life buys and returns. An approach with issues arising out of neglect should be monitored and one where designers are able to cross borders, to the next phase of their creative careers should be created.

Photo credits: “@jeremie_leconte/ Pixel Formula ©️”