If modern-day Egyptians were to step into a time machine and set the dials to a few hundred years past, they would find themselves in a Cairo where the most common kind of shoe among all social classes was the balgha or bulgha. This backless, heelless slip-on design is now witnessing a comeback.
In Cairo, one brand in particular is keeping the centuries-old shoemaking tradition alive. Founded in 2016, Bulga is a fashion label owned and managed by two very different women: one, a western-educated former journalist and political activist with a cutting pragmatism, and the other a softly spoken artist who spent a great deal of her life diligently studying the various kinds of craftsmanship Egyptian tribal artisans specialise in.
“We came together because of our love for crafts, but we wanted to do it in a different way. The bulgha, as it is called in Arabic, is an authentic aspect of Egyptian heritage that used to be worn in all of North Africa in the 1800s,” says Gigi Ibrahim, who manages the sales, PR and advertising aspects of the company.
Ibrahim’s business partner, Mona Sorour, brings to the table an encyclopaedic knowledge of now unconventional artistic mediums, which she studied at one of Cairo’s governmental art schools. Sorour is Bulga’s principal designer and oversees the brand's production wing.
She is also an avid user of alternative materials in her art and, during her chat with The National, exhibited some of her works. One item in her varied portfolio is a sketch of a shoe designed around the incorporation of a dried fish skin, leftovers from one of her meals.
“I was eating feseekh one time and I just loved the way the skin looked. I treated and dried it to get the smell out and pasted it into my sketchbook,” she recounts.
The introduction of mass-produced items, often made in China, seriously diminished the role of traditional craftsmanship in the Egyptian fashion market, says Ibrahim. She says the loss of this kind of perspective was one of the main reasons she and Sorour decided to launch Bulga and breathe new life into traditional craftsmanship.
“Our main mission was to revive old traditional Egyptian crafts [and bring them] back into the modern market, so first and foremost we had to ensure our designs could be made in a practical and functional way.”
Both women also ensure they would wear the designs themselves before pumping them out into the market.
Made at various workshops across Egypt, Bulga’s shoes are sourced and manufactured with all-Egyptian raw materials and labour. It also manufactures select items for other brands the duo collaborate with.
At the heart of Bulga’s business philosophy is a pride in the artisanal prowess of various indigenous tribes who live in some of Egypt’s most distant and least explored corners, just beyond the reach of urban development and modernity.
Shalateen, one of Bulga’s most popular collections, is the result of a collaboration with Ababda women. They hail from the city of Shalateen in the south of the country, on the coast of the Red Sea, and have spent most of their lives working with leather.
“Leather is the bread and butter of Ababda women, they craft it in a way that was passed down from woman to woman for centuries,” explains Sorour.
The women’s craft is also sustainable, says Ibrahim. She reveals that livestock is one of Shalateen’s most important industries, and in the spirit of not wasting any part of the animal left behind when the meat is taken, the women purchase the raw hide from local ranches.
The leather is buried beneath the scorching sands of Shalateen to dry it out, before it is cured with animal fat and intricately shaped and woven into Bulga’s unisex designs, most notably a criss-cross pattern.
“Each region that we collaborate with has its own artisanal style that its people have been practising for centuries. These traditions are among the most valuable heritages in Egypt. We try and bring those traditions to the modern world and introduce them to our metropolitan clientele through our products,” Ibrahim says.
The pair have launched workshops in various Egyptian locales inhabited by indigenous groups who craft embroidery, woven textile, wood, glass, brass and leather. Their work has had them visiting various parts of Egypt for the first time, which they see as a perk of their enterprise.
Though the material may change, the core ideal of the business remains: to reintroduce these crafts and the people who keep them alive into the mainstream, thereby ensuring that the old world has a place in the new.
Egypt remains a traditional country where female entrepreneurs are sometimes faced with discrimination, an obstacle that both ladies have experienced to a certain extent.
Of the many craftsmen they deal with, Ibrahim says: "They sometimes find it difficult to implement our modifications to their work. They think we’re just two girls from the city who have no business telling them how to do a job they’ve been doing for so long. After ignoring us, they usually come around when they see that we do have a reason behind our critique.”
The pair are currently selling their products online and at pop-up stores and artisanal markets in Cairo. A pair of Bulga shoes goes for between 750 Egyptian pounds ($47) and 1,400 Egyptian pounds.
As the Egyptian government moves to raise more awareness around some of the heritage-based crafts in the country, the pair's next dream is to open a store at the Grand Egyptian Museum or the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.