Traditional embroidery on modern dresses, men’s robes turned into women’s jackets — Tunisian designers are making their mark with outfits inspired by their country’s heritage.
Drawing on a diverse range of regional styles, designers like Zeineb Chiboub are adding modern touches to the North African country’s traditional garb.
Wearing a hooded coat inspired by the kachabiya, a winter robe usually worn by men, Chiboub says the idea of reworking generations-old designs is catching on.
“Tunisians, especially young people, are increasingly fond of Tunisian heritage. They want to show their identity,” she says.
Every week, Chiboub, a pharmacist by training, heads to a different region in search of old clothes.
She cuts them up and transforms them into “stylised” models in order to sell them at her shop in an upmarket suburb of Tunis.
Tunisia boasts a wide variety of clothes inspired by past rulers, with Carthaginian, Roman, Amazigh, Arab, Andalusian and Ottoman styles all leaving an imprint.
Each region has its own style of dress for weddings and religious ceremonies, using luxurious silk, lace and tulle fabrics richly ornamented with silver, gold and filigree threads.
But Chiboub says her clients are also looking for everyday clothes. Her most in-demand item is the Maryoul Fadhila, a traditional silk or cotton top worn over jeans or a short skirt.
Haifa Ifaa, a student in her 20s, says the clothes give her a feeling of pride.
“I love wearing the updated clothes of our grandmothers,” she says, standing at the entrance of the shop of Faouzia Frad, another designer of reworked traditional clothing. “(They) show the beauty of our heritage.”
– ‘Warm and daring colours’ –
Veteran designer Frad says her designs combine traditional embroidery with “more sophisticated, more tailored dresses, adapted to the tastes of the modern woman.”
She says the concept is increasingly popular. Stylist Ilyes Ben Amor agrees.
“The ethnic trend is in vogue at haute couture houses and on international podiums,” he says.
It is a celebration of the “warm and daring colours of traditional clothes, which spread joy and freshness, contrary to all that is dark, full of sadness, like the niqab,” the face-covering Islamic veil, he adds.
Some designers see taking inspiration from the country’s past as a statement against religious extremism. Tunisia has experienced an ongoing jihadist insurgency since a 2011 revolution toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“Our only weapon against fundamentalism is our identity, our culture, our craftsmanship,” says Fatma Ben Abdallah, head of the jury of the annual Khomsa d’Or fashion show.
The show, set for May 18, will host both amateur and professional artisans and designers. Organised by the National Crafts Board, it aims to revive the traditional dress in Tunisia, with the dream of crossing borders.
Ben Abdallah has ambitions beyond that, hoping to organise international fashion events to showcase Tunisian designs. It will be a challenge — to date, there is no official data on revenue from the clothing sector or its export potential.
“We have a very rich heritage, talent and taste,” she says. “But we lack resources, and without the support of the government, this dream cannot be realised.”
Three-time Khomsa d’Or prize winner Ilyes El Andari agrees.
“The traditional dress is the showcase of the country. It deserves to be more supported,” he says.