Gender in the Workplace
By: Mohamed Kouta
In just four years, alumnae Aya and Mounaz Abdelraouf redefined what it means to be a ‘fashionista’ and a female entrepreneur in Egypt.
Although they have now received international recognition, with world figures such as Beyonce sporting their signature designed bags, breaking into the scene did not come easy to them.
Despite the rumors, the sisters did not start off with a large amount of capital; they actually had very little financial or institutional support and struggled to fit into the artisan industry in Egypt.
Met with tense class dynamics, the two women found it difficult to communicate and earn the respect of the local production force.
Okhtein‘s Aya and Mounaz sat down with The Caravan to talk about the difficulties they faced, as two young women trying to start their own production line in a male-dominated textile scene.
How did the idea behind Okhtein come around and turn into such a huge success?
Aya: The idea started four years ago and to be honest it was never going to be an accessory brand, it was called Matryoshka Designs.
Mounaz: Actually, when we were both in university we knew that we were going to do something together in design. We did not specifically choose fashion at the time. It was more of an open design space, like let’s do a collective, let’s think about art spaces, interior design. That’s how we came up with the idea of Matryoshka.
Mounaz: The idea behind the Russian doll is that it comes in different sizes, its […], so it works well with interior design.
And how did that turn into Okhtein?
Mounaz: We always had this artistic nature to us so it only felt cool to start with furniture design and home decor. For an entire year, we did research and realized that we are passionate about fashion, because we’ve always done our own dresses, our own bags; so I was like, “you know what, let’s start with bags because you and I love bags”.
We did not have any background in product design, in fashion. We both wanted to study fashion and art but didn’t get the chance. We instead studied marketing and advertising here, so we had a really good know-how on how to sell. This part we have covered.
The hardest part was translating the designs we have in our heads and turning them into actual products.
We had no idea what leather was, patch-making, nothing. We were very inspired by designer Azza Fahmy because she has told us “listen girls, don’t let the fact that you did not study this demotivate you”.
Basically, what she would do is that she would go down to workshops and learn craftsmanship from artisans.
How did you manage to afford it and set it up?
Aya: We didn’t start with much capital. It was the money we saved. We get a lot of comments, like you probably started this with three million pounds, but not at all. It was from our savings. At the beginning, we also did not have a big support system. No one saw the vision that we shared. [Everyone] was like what are you doing?
What obstacles did you face? Was it easy to go learn from artisans, as women?
Mounaz: No. First of all, it took us a year to find an artisan that had the same mindset as we did. We didn’t want to go to a factory or an existing workshop to do our designs for us because we wouldn’t have had the control over them. They could’ve easily stolen our designs, they could’ve easily been lazy and not done work for us. So our vision was to start our own production line, which was the most difficult thing on earth, because there are certain tools, certain machinery that we didn’t have.
So, we hired an artisan to give us the know-how, to tell us exactly how to build a workshop out of nothing. The thing is, we didn’t really have capital. With the little money we had, we got five pieces of leather and the artisan ruined three out of five.
We were stuck with just two pieces of leather. Aya was crying, I was devastated. I was like “that’s it, we will give up, it’s been a year, we paid a lot of money, we hired this guy who apparently has no idea what he’s doing.”
He [the artisan] called his friend, another artisan, who told him he will come help him, his name was Mohamed.
The first second Aya and I met Mohamed, we told him we have a vision about the bag we wanted. In less than four hours, the bag was created, after one year of many failed attempts.
It was really hard to find the artisan at the beginning. We would talk to many artisans but they were like “who are you to give me instructions?” Especially since we were very young and that we are women.
Aya: We’re women, we’re young. Trying to explain something that I’ve researched, from very simple research off Google, introducing techniques I found online to artisans, they would always be like “what is this? I don’t understand this”. Male ego, it was really hard to deal with.
How did you respond to that?
Mounaz: It was very challenging. My mom told me “listen, you have to fight for it.” She said a woman is worth a hundred men. It’s sad to say this, but if I was a man doing this, I would’ve gained a lot more respect.
Aya: My mom said “don’t stop, don’t be shy, speak up.”
Did you ever have challenges with them [artisans]?
Mounaz: There were a lot of times where we were robbed. We were manipulated. Unfortunately, at the very beginning, we had to let a man, our dad, intervene. Whenever they would give us hell, our dad would come in.
Aya: It was the only time he would step in.
Mounaz: But we were still really annoyed that we had to resort to that. We promised each other that we would let our dad do that once but never again. If they don’t respect me the way I respect them, then I will let go of them.
We had to learn their language. They’re sena’eya (artisans), from a completely different caliber. I told Aya I will not let [their father] interfere again and that her and I needed to learn their terminology. When they find us speaking the way they speak, that is when they will respect us
Aya: We are all sheltered in this AUC bubble. You’re always with your friends, then you want to work in a multinational company.
Breaking this bubble is very difficult, and this is what we had to do in our first year.
How did you go from that one bag that the artisan made in four hours to Beyoncé, all in four years?
Mounaz: We work 24/7. We were giving a workshop yesterday and I asked the people who attended to introduce themselves. Eighty percent of them said they started their own brands but then stopped. I asked why they stopped, which is when we started hearing problems.
I told them all these problems are issues we ourselves faced, and even much worse, but the difference to go global in four years is the will; it’s the determination to know that nothing can stop you.