The recent images of the Israeli genocide of innocent civilians in Palestine has caused much outrage; and vehement claims for the urgency of pan-Arab unity was met by a very weak showing of high society charity fund raisers, university students rallying to collect donations for medical aid and very little progress on the part of Arab leaders. Yet three young women saw this as an opportunity to quickly start a charity project unlike any other conceived and the result is pure ethnic glamour.
The trio composed of sisters Heba and Hana Alawadi, and friend Dina Sabit have started El Horreya Designs; a funky accessories business that promotes local craftsmanship and products with a modern ethnic touch but with a twist: a substantial part of the profits will be contributed to charities on the part of the customer. A cliché idea, cynics might say. Yet they haven’t seen the creations of this entrepreneurial and creative trio.
The idea was born six weeks ago. “We had always wanted to work together, and were constantly brainstorming ideas of creative projects that we could do together, says Hana who is a trained jewelry designer and has established herself in both Cairo and London with her charming creations, also with an ethnic twist.
“We’re all very different, and each one brings something to the designs and design process, says Heba. “I myself am a fashion designer, Hana is a jewelry designer and Dina is an artist.
Their attitude as a working trio is relaxed, and speaking passionately and quickly about their project, each interrupts the other as they explain the project. Working straight out of the Alawadi s dining room, friends, family and strangers who have been hearing about El Horreya from a newly created Facebook group are constantly dropping by, and orders for their goods have been coming in from London to Washington, D.C.
“We at one point felt like stockbrokers in a stock market, all of us fielding calls and emails with queries and orders from strangers who heard about our products, says Heba.
“When we posted pictures online a week ago, orders exploded and we couldn’t keep up with them, promising customers that more would be ready soon, says Hana.
Proudly, Hana mentions the magnitude of their new success: “The Mosaic Foundation, that is associated with the Kennedy Center, has a yearly charity bazaar which is going to take place at the end of this month, and they just placed a large order with us.
“There are lots of issues to be tackled in the Middle East, says Dina; a student of art at the American University in Cairo, “there is much room for developments to be made and thus it’s what we’re targeting. Lots of organizations abroad promote people giving back by having people enjoy purchasing goods that would allow profits to be donated to charitable causes.
The manifesto of the brand reads as such: “El Horreya: Designs for Freedom.
“We wanted a name that would free people and their associations of the political situation across the world, their anger at the state of the world. We wanted freedom and liberty from all the restraints that we are all living in now, everyone and everywhere in the world, says Dina.
The message aside, Dina stresses the designs themselves are novel. “They are fashionable items that have a political undertone, done not only for the sake of the political moment, but to keep wearing it forever.
Hana explains: “Our intention is to work on different projects, and produce collections that vary. We’re hoping that every season we find a good cause and promote it by creating specific designs that are in line with a particular theme. We started taking kufiya scarves which is common across the board in the Middle East but are symbolic and iconic of Palestine.
“For instance in Egypt, Bedouins wear these kufiyas too, so there’s a commonality between Palestinians and all other Arabs. We wanted to funk up our scarves and make them stand out, says Hana. “We make them edgy by incorporating neon colors, brass rivets and studs.
Kufiyas from different regions vary, with pattern weaves and colors ranging from black, grey, red, and white on colored material. “We wanted to modernize everything in a Middle Eastern way, and update traditional items like the kufiya and galabiya, says Dina.
The basic scarf, be it black, red, or brown has thus been toyed with, resulting in creations of such decadence and playfulness, one takes a minute to marvel at the young women’s creativity.
The resulting creations are multicolored scarves composed of pieces from different scarves. Flower patterned material popular amongst women of rural Egypt have been sewn with a pin-striped border of colorful silk from a traditional galabiya and backed with a thin cotton kufiya. When slipped on one’s shoulders and casually arranged, the result is a visual feast of urban modernity wonderfully clashing with ethnic print tradition.
Other scarves have been left plain save for a few bronze pieces that have been sewn on or left dangling along with colored tassels.
Some of the scarves have been embroidered with curlicue flower patterns taken from a book on Palestinian embroidery and clothing. There is such an alert consciousness to the very finest of details, and discipline to keeping it as real as possible.
Customers can also come to the makeshift store and make a custom order, matching up their preferred colors with the various possibilities of tassels, brass and badges.
They’ve even in more recent weeks expanded their new Palestinian inspired collection to bags by collaborating with Nadia Zarkani, a local bag designer and friend of Hana’s.
With leather soft as butter in beautiful muted shades of dolphin blue, grass green and toffee, the trio had much room to play with when designing their bags. Incorporating kufiya material into most of the bags, the effect was an amalgamation of a tailored and classic European sensibility to the shape of the bag and a more modern approach to the size of the bag.
Adding gem-colored tassels and talismans to the handles of the bags, there is an originality that can not be compared to mass-produced designer bags that are nothing but logos emblazoned on canvas.
Sourcing the materials was an adventure unto itself, sending the young women across Cairo as they went to a Bedouin-run souq and drapery stores across the city and outside the city limits. Their vision was so clear that they were conscious of what they were seeking: particular patterns they were familiar with and custom ordering tassels from a drapery store to come in a specific size and specific colors. As free-spirited as their concept and designs were, in practice, the discipline and focus of the women is admirable.
“We see ourselves at the bottom of the food chain. We work as if we have a big boss, an imaginary boss. We call him El Horreya Pasha. We’re scared of him and he’s not giving us wages until our first six months are up. Heba is referring to a common practice in the retail industry that does not give purchasing and discount privileges to employees except after a six month period. “I wanted to buy one of our own bags at cost price and the girls wouldn’t let me, quips Hana.
“The satisfaction we are getting from contributing to charity is motivation to us, says Heba with sincerity. “We’re not pro war, states Dina. “We’re not anti-anybody, adds Hana. “Someone should help the Middle East, that’s all, says Dina, “we’re just trying to give back, and have other people give back too.