Since the early 2010’s, a form of neo-Orientalism appears to be resurfacing, especially in the fashion realm. Over the years, to mention only a few examples, Celine shot a campaign on zellige backgrounds, Jacquemus’ self-explanatory ‘Souk’ collection displayed an ochre palette and literal references to the sarouel, and Acne Studios sold $400 babouches. The trend, reminiscent of Saint Laurent’s boho-chic years in North Africa in the 1970s, culminated in the Dior’s Cruise Fashion show in Marrakech’s Badii Palace in 2019. 

Then the pandemic hit and one question remained: despite the hype, what opportunities are really out there for North African designers? If the crisis revealed the weaknesses of a nascent industry, it also fast forwarded the need for young creatives to reassess their positioning in the region and imagine new – and more sustainable – processes. 

In the beginning was Orientalism

“Symbolic power is [the] power to construct a hegemonic version of reality,” said Pierre Bourdieu and to some extent, Orientalism as theorized by Edward Said somehow shaped the Arab people’s – narrow and distorted – vision of their own image and aesthetics. Although some introspective work would seem to be essential in order to question Said’s theories, no substantial work has been published by an Arab author to address these concerns, which surely shows a lack of interest and self awareness in the matter. 

Only a few initiatives have seen the light of day, such as the  Research Collective for Decoloniality & Fashion, founded by Belgian researcher and anthropologist Angela Jansen, or the Platform ‘Fashion and Race’ that recently published an essay entitled ‘Through the Gaultier Glass: Couture, Colonialism and Cultural Appropriation’. Jansen herself, who specializes in Moroccan fashion, insists that the Moroccan people should know and own their history and traditions to build a contemporary take on their own fashion. The Arab World, and especially the Maghreb, are therefore still often represented as one uniform block, one of dreamy clichés and a certain edge. 

Although the 2011 uprisings of the Arab Spring were followed by an actual creative spring, boosted by the growth of social media and Do It Yourself practices, very few brands have been able to emerge and scale on a regional, less alone international, level. 

Tiny markets, economic protectionism, difficulties in sourcing materials, a lack of vision and training, there are so many structural issues that stack up upon an already intellectually and economically dominated region that Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are ultimately struggling to find their spot on the fashion map. Many creatives also suffer from self-exoticism, a tendency amplified by influencer and performance culture, with some promising projects quickly turning into mere content creation Instagram accounts with no actual lines to sell. 

Kenza Bennani, who created her arts and crafts label New Tangier in 2015, doesn’t think that “the conversation can be had without mentioning that the reason for self-exoticization is that the West has decided that our clothes were exotic, where in fact there are extremely functional and modern in terms of volumes, shapes and fabrics, which aren’t necessarily linked to the ornamental aspect. Shifting that perspective is a big role for North African designers, who still mainly deliver what’s expected from them in Paris, London or New York,” she says. 

Reclaiming the narrative…

In his photograph series ‘Vogue: The Arab Issue’, in the early 2000s, Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj was one of the very first to bluntly address cultural exploitation. At a time where Marrakech was interesting to the West only for its Arabian Nights-esque decor, he put local subjects in djellabas at the center of his urban editorials, disrupting the codes and reversing the balance of power, while claiming a sense of pride in popular Moroccan culture.

For designers nowadays, the delicate balance is to create a contemporary image and speak and sell to an international audience without compromising their vision by falling into the easy ethnic trap. When Algerian designer Zino Touafek first started working in fashion in Paris, he was deemed unfit for the studio he wished to work in due to his origins. People thought his background wouldn’t allow him to be at the forefront of the creative process. According to him, “The issue goes beyond fashion. You need to work three times as hard to make a name for yourself when you have such discriminatory clichés weighting down on you. Ultimately it is about freeing your mind to create something that lives beyond your nationality”. For Zineb Britel, co-founder of the shoe brand Zyne, long term success is a combination of “resilience, risk taking, and pragmatism”. While most people were busy calling Western brands out for their cultural appropriation of the babouche, she and her business partner worked hard to deliver their own high-end reinterpretation of the Moroccan slipper. Five years down the line, she is surprised to witness the growing interest of local clientele who are proud to support Moroccan craft and designers, especially in the context of the pandemic. 

… to achieve a new form of success

Kenza Bennani also agrees that the local market is exactly where North African designers are relevant and can make a difference. Of course, being economically viable is mandatory, but the Western model for success has already shown its limits and doesn’t look reachable to local designers in terms of volumes, margins, or even competition. The challenges of an under-structured industry push them to create new standards that necessarily come with a sense of ethics and commitment towards more sustainable practices. 

BassCoutur, an upclycing label from Tunisia, is living by its motto ‘recycle, rethink, redesign’, and is utterly dedicated to demonstrating that it is possible to combine creativity with responsibility. That notion is also very dear to Bennani whose vision of success has really shifted over the years: “Success for me is when a Moroccan client is wearing one of my dresses at a fancy party instead of Gucci and feels chic. It’s not having a wealthy foreigner feeling exotic wearing a kaftan. Brands like ours can have a real impact in the long term and create a whole value chain, supporting craftsmen and celebrating our heritage as a resource, not a burden. That’s real success!”