There’s a wonderfully retro vibe to 32-year-old designer and artist Louis Barthélemy’s Instagram page, which features a heady mix of photos he’s snapped during his artistic sojourns in Egypt – a scene of the Nile at dusk, an ornate Pharaonic tomb at Luxor, a turquoise pool in the mysterious Siwa Oasis, which has become a cult destination in recent years. The feeling of exuberant nostalgia, of course, has as much to do with Egypt’s stunning visual identity as it does with Barthélemy’s curatorial eye, trained as he was at Central Saint Martins, followed by stints in the prints department at Galliano’s Dior, and then under the watchful peerage of Fulvia Ferragamo, the late daughter of Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo.
“I was longing to explore new horizons outside of Paris,” Barthélemy says of his time working in the luxury fashion industry on location at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. A peripatetic traveler (his father, who was raised on the Ivory coast, worked as a civil engineer in construction and building sites, and the family traveled extensively during his formative years), Barthélemy moved to Morocco in 2013.
“Our approach to traveling was not going to a resort,” he says of his childhood vacations. “It was always exploring the country,” he says. In 2018, a chance encounter with a book of photographs in Tangier led him further south, to Cairo. Egypt, as he calls it, “was the beginning of my self-affirming journey as an artist.”
“Downtown Cairo reminds me of Havana,” he says as a reference to the faded but grand Cuban capital (his father has also worked on hotel restorations there). “I was mesmerized by the grand Islamic architecture, which is falling apart in a melancholic way. “I struggled to navigate the city in the beginning until I simply accepted it. It’s not so much the city itself that is bringing me back here, but it’s always the amazing people I meet.”
A connection introduced him to a weaver, Tarek Abdelhay Hafez Abouelenin, who specialized in the ancient art of khayamiya – fanciful appliqué work on canvas traditionally used to decorate the inside of ornate tents. “His stitch was marvelous, really precise, really tight, really keen,” Barthélemy recalls. “I saw right away that I decided to produce a piece with him.” When they met, most of Abouelenin’s pieces were produced exclusively for older Egyptians in traditional Islamic patterns for Ramadan or religious festivities. “What he appreciated was my willingness to help him with something different and develop with him,” Barthélemy says. “He was very flattered.”
Barthélemy’s latest venture has him returning to his fashion roots. Udjat (the name comes from the eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian amulet that gave protection) was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, the collection of blouses, shirts and embroidered dresses with Egyptian motifs was intended to be sold at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. “I wanted a line that spoke to Egyptians as well as foreigners, and that gave back,” he says. “We are engaging with a lot of marginalized communities, whether they are women who aren’t included in economic circles and rely on their husbands, or Syrian refugees. The aim in the long term is to create a community of craftspeople who can generate an income and be empowered through their professional activity,” he says.
“I got a bit tired personally of the department store and the traditional retail cycle, which I also find exhausting in terms of seasonality, he adds. “I like the idea of presenting the product when we think it’s ready, without pushing ourselves, especially when we work with artisans who are so far out from the fashion world, and for whom the notion of time is totally different.”
His favorite Udjat piece is a blouse with a ruffled sleeve that has a drawing of a young father domesticating his dogs. “It was probably the first figurative drawing that we tried to integrate with the women of Siwa, who were accustomed to working exclusively on traditional geometric motifs that they would embroider on their bridal suites,” he says. The final outcome is “refreshing but also poetic, and it shows how open those women are in engaging in a creative process that is far, far away from what they’ve ever seen before.”
“What I really hope to express is that there’s a genuine and generous soul in the people here, and an amazing sense of humor that must be discovered and appreciated.”