Having spent the better part of a year at home with little or no travel, connecting to culture, identity, and community is more important than ever before.
As consumers, the demand for purchase is altered. Consumer decisions have the power to nurture local talent and artisanal traditions, carving an original path in a stagnant market. However, building the bridge between traditional crafts and the future of technology is no easy feat. As we move even further into the “new normal,” regional brands must reassess and pivot toward the new needs of the buyer in order to gain visibility. Do regional designers have a renewed social responsibility to look inward and nurture artisanal crafts in order to benefit the economy and the future impact on an upcoming generation of artisans, or is it time to bridge the gap between art and technology?
“We need to be mindful of our surroundings when putting our work out there, and this extends to the types of fabrics and the production methods we use, the labor that manufactures our clothes, and who we choose to work with at every stage beyond that,” explains designer Engy Mahdy, from streetwear brand One and Four Studio.
Zineb Britel, Moroccan born designer and cofounder of artisanal footwear brand Zyne, has a mission that far surpasses product. In order to preserve traditional craft, the brand focuses on small, local ateliers and suppliers to ensure benefits for the local economy. “Our mission is to educate and train Moroccan women, while building a sense of confidence and self-worth in the community. By using traditional crafts and techniques in order to preserve and promote our Moroccan heritage, our hope is that these techniques can continue to be passed on from generation to generation.”
Protecting what is slowly becoming a dying art, according to Laura Pujol, co-founder of artisanal footwear brand Zyne, also lies within the hands of the consumer. “Not only is it the responsibility of the work and the design, but of the community and the consumer to learn how the product is made and by whom in order to make educated choices. As a Moroccan brand, we have artisans with tremendous skills. The human hand has all but disappeared in the current climate and it’s our job to shine a light and reintroduce it.”
Embracing and reinventing traditional crafts while finding beauty in the conventional and connecting the West to Middle Eastern culture and history, is also pivotal for Sem Sem creative director and founder, Abeer Al Otaiba. “Tradition and culture are such important aspects of our lives because they add an important layer to our design. Focusing on unique handmade detailing is a huge part of that. Our couture pleating techniques, unique draping, and intricate details such as beading add an emotional touch to each piece,” she shares.
“We are responsible as designers to be aware of society around us – the politics and the economic and environmental state of the world,” says Mahdy. The economics of artisanal crafts are not easy, though. Even when demand is high, the profits are not necessarily. The constant upkeep can be detrimental to long-term financial stability –yards of the finest fabrics, a workshop full of highly skilled and trained embroiderers and pattern cutters, not to mention the hundreds of working hours spent on a single item. Perhaps the answer lies within finding a marriage between new developments in manufacturing and design that speak to the heart. “The clothing industry is one of the oldest in the world and the craft runs through so many families and generations. I think that it’s going to be a long while before traditional techniques fully die out. Most clothing is still entirely assembled by hand on manual machines – and that is a beautiful thing. Of course, in some countries, it is still alive and thriving, as well as in the couture ateliers. However, to the mainstream public, it is a faint memory,” says Mahdy. Ultimately the maturity of regional design will rest on quality, innovation, and creating meticulous craftsmanship that defies trends. “The industry is fast-changing within the region and there are now more designers filling distinct gaps and serving different niches. We are becoming more self- sufficient and less in need of Western brands for every aspect of our lives,” Mahdy continues. For her, striving toward a new way of producing is as imperative as design rooted in culture in order for the industry to progress. Her next line of products are fully designed on 3D software and knitted by machine, and while the assembly is done manually, the textile itself is knitted entirely from recycled cotton yarn by machinery, eliminating the need for overworked labor in the production process.“It is exciting because it’s allowing us to use textile in a much smarter and more efficient way,” she explains. “We do not want to entirely eliminate labor as that is their craft and how they earn their livelihood. However, I think the goal with machinery should be to increase efficiency for the worker operating the machine, so I would say man and machine, not versus – it’s a team effort.”
There is a timelessness in heritage craft, laced with a sense of luxury and romance, and a fascination with the human hand that resonates within us all, particularly now. Visibility and commercial success lie in combining the new with the traditional, in creating contemporary, one-of-a-kind, meticulous pieces that remind us that in times like these it is comforting to see that the true essence of creativity thrives. The deconstruction and reconstruction of culture and craft will encourage an open conversation towards regeneration as well as encourage sustainability and versatility in both the way the consumer will think and buy.
Originally published in October 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia