Thursday, December 23, 2010

From Cairo Bazaar to New York Runway: Part I

The extraordinary journey of Azza Fahmy, a jewelry designer changing perceptions one hand-crafted accessory at a time

Models backstage at Julien Macdonald’s Spring 2008 collection wearing bracelets by Azza Fahmy; Azza Fahmy and Julien Macdonald at his London show.
On a warm August evening in 2008, a fashionable crowd gathered at Cairo’s Four Seasons to toast an unlikely collaboration between Egypt’s best known jewelry designer, Azza Fahmy, and London fashion’s Julien Macdonald. The result of this cross-cultural meeting-of-minds was a collection of large sliver-disc bracelets filigreed with geometric Islamic patterns, and modern bulbous cuffs studded with black pearls.

The event marked the beginning of Fahmy’s plan to not only expose the world to Egyptian craftsmanship, but also push herself creatively. Not content with her status as the Arab World’s most recognizable jewelry brand, Fahmy first approached Julien Macdonald about working together in 2006. “It was an ambition of mine that was a long time coming,” recalled Fahmy in an interview. “Every time I went to Europe, I was disappointed in the quality of craftsmanship there, and felt I could do better given the chance.”
Fahmy in the early 70’s apprenticing at Cairo’s Khan El Khalil; Today Fahmy runs her company with her daughters Fatma and Amina Ghali; a craftsman producing the filigreed work that has become a hallmark of Azza Fahmy’s jewelry line.

Macdonald, who jumped at the opportunity to work with the Egyptian designer, couldn’t begin to imagine the level of response their collaboration would bring. "All of a sudden, Western girls were attracted to this brand from the middle of the desert. It's the taste of the unexpected that people want," recalled Macdonald of the line’s instant success.

Yet for Fahmy, working with the British designer also forced her to think outside the box and grow creatively. “Julien challenged me as a designer to think about creating with European tastes in mind, while remaining true to my Egyptian roots. In Egypt we tend to design things at a much smaller scale. But every time I sent him a prototype, he’d request that it be blown up or made larger,” recalled Fahmy of their creative process.

Azza Fahmy with model Naomi Campbell wearing a cuff by the designer for Julien Mcdonald, at the British designer’s Spring 2008 London show; A model in a link necklace by Azza Fahmy for MacDonald’s Fall 2007 show.

The success of their partnership not only taught Macdonald to appreciate a craft tradition he knew very little about, but also made him realize that despite differences in culture and lifestyle, the West and the Arab world can meet on common ground. “We can’t always understand each other’s world, but it’s something that Azza and I both enjoy,” explained the British designer.

Originally, Fahmy had not planned on becoming a jewelry designer. The daughter of a cotton trader, she worked as a publications illustrator for the Egyptian government after graduating with a B.A. in Interior Design. While visiting a book fair in Cairo in 1969, she came across a volume on medieval European jewelry, which sparked a painful memory of her widowed mother selling her wedding dowry to make ends meet.

Azza Fahmy for Preen, Fall 2010

That event pushed Fahmy to pursue her dreams of establishing a jewelry line, and to achieve this she did the unthinkable for a young Egyptian woman at the time. Having long admired the traditional jewelry worn by women in villages along the Nile delta, Fahmy decided to learn from the best craftsmen in Egypt. This meant penetrating the warren of workshops hidden behind the Khan El Khalil, Cairo’s centuries old bazaar.

As the first woman to take an apprenticeship in the Khan El Khalil, Fahmy defied the male-dominated industry, to become one of the region’s most prolific and respected jewelry designers. “It was out of the ordinary for any conventional, young Egyptian woman in a traditional environment, but I was determined to go on,” recalled Fahmy. “My apprenticeship period in Khan El Khalili stretched for two years that I recall with nostalgia and affection.”

In the mid-70's, Fahmy won a fellowship to study jewelry design at London’s Polytechnic School. It would be a far different experience from her time at the Khan El Khalil. “In London I learned the theoretical aspects and underlying principles of what I had learned to do in practice with my hands in Egypt," said the Egyptian designer, who today employs 180 designers and artisans at her Cairo atelier

“She is considered something of a rarity in the Middle East for not only being a famous designer, but also a strong woman who runs a successful jewelry company,” explained Heba Elkayal, the Cairo-based style editor of the Daily News Egypt. As a brand ambassador for Azza Fahmy’s jewelry line, Elkayal not only gets to wear pieces from the collection, but also visit the workshops where they are produced.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

No comments: