With soft, pulsing music, life-size fashion sketches, and wearable works of art taking shape on scattered manequins, Foued Mhirsi’s design class is like a sartorial hub in an upper class suburb of Tunis. The school year is winding down, and the fashion students are busy working on their end-of year projects. Mhirsi moves among them, offering a tip here and a word of encouragement or suggestion there. For 12 years he has been a teacher at Esmod Tunis, a branch of one of the oldest fashion schools in the world, based in Paris. Working at Esmod, he said, rejuvenates him every year with the student’s “youth and creativity.” With Tunisian couture greats like Azzedine Alaïa and Max Azria to inspire them, it’s no wonder that there is a fire in their eyes as they bend over a blank piece of cloth.
“Tunisian fashion was already changing before the Revolution,” Mhirsi explained. “Because of the internet, young designers were aware of every facet of international fashion. The majority of them participated in the Revolution…and this was realized in their fashions. They earned this freedom of expression.”
The past year has been an important one for the Tunisian fashion world. In April 2011, Tunis held its first post-revolution Fashion Week. The story was picked up by British Vogue, who reported that in the wake of the uprisings, the event almost didn’t happen. In August, Tunisian model Kenza Fourati, the first Muslim woman to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, caused a debate on artistic freedom in Tunisia when she appeared on the cover of a Tunisian magazine clothed only in body paint. Fellow Tunisian model Hanaa Ben Abdesslem generated less controversy in January as the first Muslim face of global cosmetics giant Lancôme. Then in March, Yves Saint Laurent unveiled it’s new creative and image director- Hedi Slimane, the Tunisian rock-inspired designer who is credited with starting the slim-line suit craze in menswear.
Mhirsi explained that Tunisian fashion design has always been special in that it combines modern style with inspiration from the past. He cites Azzedine Alaïa as someone who “holds on to his heritage in his details,” using traditional embroidery techniques and blending them with modern styles. His observation is that young Tunisian fashion designers have this quality as well, and the potential to become greats. “What we lack,” he said, “are sponsors, who believe in these young creatives enough to invest in them.”
Ahmed Talfit is a former student of Mhirsi’s. When asked about him, Mhirsi said that he “manages to escape the ordinary.” His extravagant feminine designs have already earned him fame here, including with Ben Abdesslem, who considered him as her favourite Tunisian designer.
Talfit spoke about his new collection, which he will debut on April 14 at Tunis Fashion Week.
“My new collection will be very modern and oriental,” he said. When asked about his inspirations, the designer named Alexander McQueen and fellow countryman Azzedine Alaïa.
Talfit explained that the number of young designers in Tunisia is quite low, but he is optimistic about the future. He pointed to fellow creators Salah Barka and Ali Karoui as examples of those who are passionate about improving fashion in Tunisia. “We are carving the first path towards success,” he said.
At 24 years old, Talfit has worked hard for what he has achieved. While still handing in assignments at Esmod, he opened a workshop for his designs. In interviews, he is generous and humble, a quality that Foued pointed to as being one of the most important characteristics of his former pupil. When asked how he felt about supermodel Ben Abdesslem considering him as her favourite Tunisian designer, Talfit said, “It makes me proud, not only for me, but for all Tunisia,” deflecting the praise onto his country’s collective talent.
Street fashion blogger Moez Achour celebrates Tunisia’s sartorial talent in a different way, taking photographs of well-dressed Tunisians and posting them to his website The Fashion Playlist. “I was fond of The Sartorialist (a New York fashion blog), which is considered as one of the best street fashion blogs,” he said. He goes to “posh areas” of the city, as well as well-known clothing stores, and asks people if he can take their picture. But Achour’s website takes a different spin from typical outfit blogs- he adds a playlist of songs to fit the mood of the ensemble. “The concept is still new and not easily understood by Tunisians,” he said. But, as a photographer passionate about fashion, he tries to post one article per day to shed light on Tunisian’s fashionable set.
Achour’s next project will be at Fashion Week Tunis, photographing models before the shows. The annual event is in its fourth year and is scheduled for April 11-14. It brings together collections from French, Tunisian and other Maghrebin clothing and jewelry designers. The location is the historic Acropolium in Carthage, a former cathedral with a view of the city. Hend Gasmi, one of the organizers of the Fashion Week Tunis, said that the four days will be full of surprises, and will be attended by celebrities and actors eager to soak up the creativity. Who knows, but that the next Alaïa is watching their creations being paraded down the catwalk from backstage?
Tunisia Live will be live video streaming Fashion Week Tunis. Follow us @Tunisia_Live for live updates from the catwalk shows.