Tunis: revolution on the runway

The third Tunis Fashion Week delivers more than style, reflecting the newfound energy and freedom of a people who just overthrew their president.

The event has provided a platform for talents such as the Tunisian designer Barka to showcase their creations.
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In a place consecrated to a monarch, we have come to beautify a revolution. On a hill high above the capital of Tunisia, as morning tips into afternoon, cars start to arrive, pouring out passengers in tight-fitting suits and extravagant dresses. These arrivals came from many places to be here, across Europe and the Arab world, yet they exude a sense of togetherness, in the way they clan together, air-kissing strangers, and in the way they dress, as if their clothes were made just for them, chosen just once, for this occasion.

This is Tunis Fashion Week, held last month in the imposing Carthage Cathedral, on the peak of Byrsa Hill outside Tunis, a three-year-old baby that has come of age in the middle of revolution. Even as the designers were booking flights and choosing models, the people of Tunisia were rising up, bringing the regime that had ruled them for decades to an end. Amid such historical events, who is thinking about fashion?

In the opulent nave of the cathedral, the crowd are taking their seats for one of the most eagerly awaited designers, a man who has tried to square this circle of fashion and revolution. The collection of Sleem Fkih, a Tunisian who works in Kuwait, explicitly references the upheaval outside. It is called Revolution in the Arab World.

His collection has an animalistic theme: long black dresses with arcs of gold detailing, recalling the camouflage of big cats, or a curve of gold arching across the small of the back, reminiscent of tiger stripes. Among the gold and black dresses there are flashes of colour, across one a thick pink sash ("like a snake's tongue", the designer tells me later).

These references are deliberate, Fkih says, symbols of the wildness outside: "Snakes and tigers - that's a reflection of the jungle, the way the political jungle was, the way the revolution was a jungle."

Other designers also relate their collection to the Tunisian revolution. Soucha Mlihigue, whose boutique is based in Egypt, picked up on the theme, incorporating touches - gold detailing, sandals - reminiscent of Roman gladiators, a double reference given Carthage's history of conflict with its northern nemesis.

"I chose gladiators because that's what's happening now in the Arab world. The people are like gladiators, fighting the governments," he says.

On the upper floor of the Cathedral, overlooking the runway, I go over his words, wondering how odd it is to be watching fashion at a time when, down the road in Tunis, a new country is taking shape. What possible contribution can this fashion show make to a new political order?

True, the event has a serious aim, to give fashion professionals a chance to showcase their work to a domestic and international audience. Tunisian companies more often manufacture clothes for Italian and French designers than for home-grown talent, and over four days, the fashion show showcases 18 Tunisian designers, some well-known, some developing.

Yet there is still an incongruity over the timing. Recognising this, the organisers have tried to play on the juxtaposition, marketing the show as "Free and beautiful!" and promising "a new artistic revolution is about to be born", attempting to place the show in the context of the country's upheavals.

Yet from the moment I climb the steps of the cathedral, I enter a self-contained world, a world, much like the cathedral itself, that stands apart from its surroundings, surveying the society from its lofty vantage point. Fashion shows form a complex, self-referencing world, with their own semiotics, their own signals. The hemline of a dress may reference an earlier fashion fad, or may contradict a previous designer. Fashion at this level references and refers, it is a conversation rather than a display, in a language a great number of people speak passably, but in which only few are fluent.

What is amazing, the organisers say, is that in the brief time since the revolution in January, designers have been speaking this language more freely.

"We used to work under censorship, unconsciously people censored themselves. It was self-censorship," says Ismail Ben Yedder, 33, the co-producer of the fashion week. "Even after the revolution, many artists changed their designs. They feel this energy that is bubbling through the country. The whole event has been emotional. Before the revolution it was more formal, more straight. Now it's open."

Two days later and I am backstage, in the empty time before the next show. In the moments before a collection is shown, the small backstage area is a hive of activity - models being made up and dressed, designers, photographers and attendants rushing around. There is a lot of built-up tension, taut before the release. A designer argues about the running order. Voices rise to a straining point, a mix of swift French and colloquial Tunisian.

In the down times, everything is muted. The models, half-dressed, lounge on plastic chairs, eating sandwiches, their bodies slumped but their hair still firm. We talk about why they are here, about how difficult it is to be a model in Tunisia, about why I am in their country. The conversation seems to make them uncomfortable and I realise it is because they don't know much about the big changes shaking Tunisia. They are young, often just out of their teens and barely out of the countryside. When I start talking about El General, a Tunisian rapper, they are more comfortable, and two of the models sit bolt upright and start rapping his lyrics. It is a curious moment, these two teenagers singing into imaginary microphones, made up like women, just a few steps from miming with hairbrushes in their bedrooms.

A call goes up and the models are assembled and dressed. Casting boards document every outfit in sequence, with Polaroid images of the models. Notices in French tell them to walk quickly, expressionless, without stopping. Nothing is left to chance.

Salah Barka's show is about to begin, one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the week. Barka is fascinating. Many of the Tunisian designers showing their collections at the event have become successful abroad, in Europe or the Arab world. But Barka is home-grown: for the last 12 years he has been making his clothes in local factories with locally sourced materials.

Just 35, he is also something of an inspiration to a new generation of fashionistas: on the runway, some of the younger Tunisians start clapping and cheering as soon as his photo appears on the projector screen.

His collection - for which there is much anticipation and is aided by a model who appears and then stands still for so long while the music plays, I wonder if something has gone wrong - sits in marked contrast to the high-end collections of many other designers. As befits a collection called "Street Fashion", his clothes are urban, very much what young Tunisians might wear: shorts and T-shirts, fitted jackets (with epaulettes - the military theme runs through fashion week), casual shoes. There are little touches from the revolution, like the way all the models, when they stop at the end of the runway, wipe their mouth to symbolise boxers at the end of a fight, a nonchalant display of victory.

At the end of the show, Barka, crouching at the edge of the runway, waves on a group of non-professional models, some with different body shapes to those normally seen on a catwalk. It is pure theatre and the crowd rises to its feet, enraptured.

In person, after the show, he is thoughtful, draping his long frame into a plastic chair and musing about how his collection discusses "the stereotype of appearances" and how the Tunisian mentality has changed since the revolution.

"The inspiration is the Tunisian revolution. First, the revolution is in our minds, not our traditions but our mentality. The world needs to be more open to the Arab world and today in my show I had many messages regarding sexuality, physique, style. I was talking about the Tunisian street. The Tunisian street is cosmopolitan, but [before] when you are not ordinary, when you are dressed differently, they look at you strangely." Since the revolution, he says, that has changed. "Now we have more clients [who] say to themselves: 'We don't care, we have to dress how we want.' There's no more censorship."

He talks about himself as an example: "Before the revolution it was hard to speak about homosexuality. We had a lot of problems with mentality. I am gay, Muslim and black - all these three parts provoke people. When they see you, when they know who you are, they judge you on your sexuality, on your colour. But they don't judge you for what you really are." He hopes that mentality will now change.

One of the things Barka tried to do in his collection was introduce non-standard models. It is interesting to note how different the physicality of many of the models - most of them Tunisian - was from the more angular look common in Europe.

Farah Farazeu, one of the models who also works as a fashion designer, explains how vital it is for models like her to appear.

"I think people like my figure in Arabic shows," she says. "Models are skinny and very tall and that's not the way most Arab women are. They are hourglass. They have hips and breasts. It's something extraordinary when Arabs see models who look like them. Sadly, fashion underestimates curvy ladies. I was frustrated as a young woman because I was not able to buy clothes like this. You feel whatever you do you cannot fit into these clothes. You feel you have to be happy with any dress, any skirt and that's sad."

The physicality of models and its attendant impact on the attitudes and body images of young women is a familiar concern in fashion, especially in countries with a mix of ethnic identities, where the images displayed on billboards and between the covers of magazines can be far removed from the body shapes of much of the population.

Related to this is something I ponder backstage, a thought about the gaze of the Other in fashion. I wonder if it is debilitating for Tunisians to constantly look outside of their own culture for high-end fashion - or to have others interpret their culture for them.

Haytham Bouhamed, 36, a Tunisian designer who now lives in Kuwait and showed his collection Light at the fashion week, makes this point, but provides a solution.

"Tunisians believe that fashion comes from outside, from Europe and America," he says."But we can create our own fashion. I always say that we are open to the Occident more than they are open to us. We study their history, their culture more than they study ours. So we have an advantage."

The solution, he says, is to create an identifiably Tunisian style, using modern fabrics with traditional designs.

"We talk about either tradition, or style from outside," Bouhamed says. "But we can mix the two. Like spices - we brought them from India in the past but we made them our own. The same with fashion. Yes, we get it from outside, but we make it our own."

I am back upstairs overlooking the runway, trying to make sense of how this fashion world fits into a new Tunisia. "What am I doing here?" I had written while watching the show below. What could it mean for a fashion show to be held in Tunisia at this time of revolution? Before coming, I was prepared for a lacklustre show, one that suggested Tunisians were getting back on their feet, or that made the trite point that clothes make people feel good at a difficult time. But the fashion week here has been nothing like that: purely professional, in ambition and execution, if not on scale, the equal of New York or London.

Because of that, its contribution is greater. Fashion's very ability to transcend its surroundings makes it more relevant to big changes sweeping society. Granted, the fashion of the runway and its backstage feuds are a world away from the politicking down the road in Tunis, deciding the future of the nation.

But to demean the show as frivolous misses the immense intellectual energy that goes into creating fashion: these are enormously clever people, whose creativity has an impact on the society itself.

The Tunis fashion show is not just a bubble atop the waters of society. It is instead a conversation about who the Tunisians are, about how they see themselves and who they want to be.

In a country where the overthrow of a president has unleashed a thousand such conversations, it is one more way of seeking to interpret this new Tunisia, a conversation - lofty and beautiful, glamorous and conceited - that, like the designs themselves, will rapidly move off the catwalk to become a living part of the streets below.

Other fashion weeks in the Middle East

DUBAI INTERNATIONAL FASHION WEEK Having changed management since it started in 2007, the youngster has struggled thus far to find its niche. Perhaps what is needed is to look inwardly and nurture regional talent in order to move forward. Last season was a promising start with 50 applicants in the event's Emerging Talent showcase.

ABU DHABI FASHION WEEK Following a successful debut in 2008, when it attracted international brands such as Valentino, Pucci and Missoni, things came to a grinding halt and there has been no follow-up.

CYPRUS FASHION WEEK This bi-annual event was set up in 2008 by Harper's Bazaar and the Cyprus Fashion Designers Association, a non-profit group that promotes and supports Cypriot fashion designers and apparel manufacturers. Organisers postponed the 2010 event from March to October after the assassination of the founder, Andy Hadjicostis, in January of that year.

ISTANBUL FASHION WEEK Formed in 2009 to "introduce Turkish designers and brands to the world", it has attracted some bold faces in the front row such as the Sex and the City stylist Patricia Field, ELLE's Kate Lanphear and Alex Wek. Now with its own Vogue, Istanbul may be the one to watch.

MUSCAT FASHION WEEK Launched in February this year, Muscat Fashion Week was created to focus on Arabic fashion. Officials plan to make it an annual event.

JORDAN FASHION WEEK The baby of the bunch is set to launch June 4-8 and includes high-profile international designers such as Basso & Brooke and regional talent such as Rami al Ali.