With a celebrity fan following that includes Emma Stone and Emma Watson, Cairo-based sisters Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf are clearly going places with their label, Okhtein.
The accessories brand is known not only for quirky, original prints, but also its promotion of traditional Egyptian culture and arts.
Okhtein – the name comes from the Arabic word for “two sisters” – specialises in bags made of leather, cotton, canvas and straw. Each collection is given a different feel and is entirely made within the country, as a way to support the local community of craftsmen and women.
The story behind each bag includes a local, philanthropic angle, whether it is working with a domestic charity or hiring people from low-income households who would otherwise be unemployed.
After former Harry Potter star Watson retweeted an article about Okhtein's charitable efforts, the British actress's stylist contacted the designers and, six months later, Watson was seen with one of their pieces, the Palmette Flower backpack, which takes its inspiration from the palmette flower, a decorative motif that dates back to ancient Egypt.
This kick-started a string of sightings of celebrities carrying the brand's distinctive bags, including Emma Roberts (American Horror Story, Scream Queens) and Emma Stone (Amazing Spider-Man, Birdman).
What really makes Okhtein stand out, though, is the duo’s ability to tap into the rich culture of their country in a way most newcomers wouldn’t know how.
“You can find everything in Egypt – but you have to look hard,” says Aya, who reveals how they spent 18 months walking around unusual neighbourhoods in Cairo in the search for suppliers and artisans.
Okhtein employs three full-time artisans who work with 20 other craftsmen. But the biggest hurdle was convincing them to go back to their trade after the 2011 revolution, when a dramatic drop in demand for their skills cost them their livelihood.
The creation of each bag is a laborious process: “Once we have the sketches we meet up with the lead artisan from the Okhtein workshop, Mohamed, who ‘makes’ our patterns and whose role is to bring functionality to the duo’s designs,” she says. Mohamed and his team then make nearly three or four prototypes before a final design goes into production.
Last year, the sisters introduced a capsule collection called Weaving Waves that was “inspired by Egyptian summers spent on the north coast”, says Mounaz.
Each bag was made through the joint effort of the Okhtein workshop and the skills of specialised craftswomen, some of them from Fayoum district, which is known for its straw weaving, and an NGO in Istabl Antar that is known for its embroidery.
This summer, Aya and Mounaz approached their collection with a new mission: to support art education.
“Mounaz is an artist, so it was an obvious choice,” says Aya.
“Aya is my muse – she comes to me with whatever’s inspiring her this season,” says Mounaz. “We start with a very broad concept and try to break it down into one small detail that we work with.”
Okhtein’s latest collection, Future Nostalgia, was influenced by Aya’s childhood interests and cartoons.
Fans of animated TV shows such as such as Courage the Cowardly Dog and Johnny Bravo, the sisters made cut-out images of 1990s characters' heads, printed them out and distributed them to pupils enrolled in the ArtsMart art school, the Egyptian Autistic Society, and EducateMe, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to improving education in Egypt.
“We wanted the kids to finish the drawings by adding a body to the cut-out heads, based on their own imagination,” says Aya.
And highly imaginative they turned out to be: the head of a troll, for example, morphed into what Aya and Mounaz named Shroll – half troll, half regular girl. The pair took these drawings, added some visual elements and colour of their own, and the result was a line of popular collage-art bags.
Since Okhtein was launched, the sisters have been approached by many young designers who say they have “inspired up-and-coming designers in Egypt not to give up”, says Mounaz.