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Okhtein, Cairo. Womanhood in Egyptian manufacture and design

Two sisters set to carry forth their existing work in disseminating and redefining the narrative of what it means to be an Arabic woman in the world of today

Okhtein in Cairo

Drawing allusions to the astrological twin sign Gemini, are Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf. They are sisters and owners of the Cairo based brand Okhtein. With a pivot to handcrafted bags and a soon-to-launch jewelry line, the Raouf sisters mimic the twins Castor and Pollux of the constellation. Each sister brings in a breath of air to the handcrafted goods produced by the brand. An allure and melding of two worlds. Okhtein has since launched themselves into the global fashion world. Elucidated through expressions of modern design styles as well as the coalescence of Egyptian artistry, they source items from the environs.

The brand lunched in 2014. The Raouf sisters have come a journey since first founding their workshop in the confines of an office building belonging to their father. Aya took over the space with no hesitation. This was an opposition she took as a means to congeal her career as a designer and creator. She, in fact, defied the conventions of being in a nine-to-five office job. As Aya explains, «Mounaz took on a role in an advertising firm for the span of two years upon graduating. Having witnessed this, seeing therefore how exhausting it was for her to be in an office job, I took a stance and decided on stepping away from that to doing what I wanted».

The Raouf sisters completed their tertiary education at the American University of Cairo. Aya graduated with a degree in communications and media arts. While, Mounaz in marketing and the arts. As the sisters explain, they have since shared a proclivity to design curation and to the creation of accessories. Bags in particular. This is a trait that they have honed, that dates back to their childhood. «It is common practice here in Egypt and in the Middle East for parents to gift jewelry pieces to their children. Each time we visited the jeweler, we would bring in designs of ours. We worked with the artisan in charge to ensure whatever we wore best reflected our identities».

Okhtein’s inception

When it came to the naming of the label, the sisters elucidated it to being a hurdle. Having collated a combination of names derived from their own, they, in fact, were unable to come to a collected consensus. Having a name that best suited each sister while describing the ethos of the label did not conclude as they had planned. Mounaz explains, «When coming up with the name of our label, we looked to Western fashion houses. Chanel, Christian Dior and Givenchy to name a few». It was through this process that the two sisters derived Okhtein. The name holds the literal meaning of sister in the Arabic language.

The name holds a sense of dichotomy in its identity. Showcasing design flares synonymous to designers and creators in Europe, while maintaining a sense of homeliness through expressions found across the Middle East. A trait that reflects the identity of the two sisters. «The name, Okhtein, is varied in the Western fashion landscape. As a name and label, it is fresh. The designs stand out from the existing brands. In the Middle Eastern world, people recognize it due to language comprehension and a familiarity to the items used when making the bags».

Upon deciding the name of their shared label, the sisters then proceeded, with their team of artisans and craftspeople, to designing bags that catered to the market of users around them. The Raouf sister’s involvement in the arts characterizes the designs of Okhtein. Mounaz was a painter prior to her role in the advertising agency. She states that she has since exhibited her works in Egypt and locations across Paris. The same is for Aya. She, in fact, with the assistance of her sister, would design and hand-make bags for themselvesin their youth.

Founders’ background

«In Egypt, there is a lack in the cultivation in the study of fashion in colleges and universities. Aspiring to form a fashion label with no experience in the craft was daunting». With the support given by their mother, the sisters went forth to learn the craft of bag making from the craftspeople around them. An effort that took the span of one year leading up to the formation of Okhtein. 

In its infancy, the Raouf sisters utilized social media platforms to further solidify Okhtein’s presence in the fashion stratosphere. Structuring Okhtein’s online presence by catering to the visual appeal that was prominent at the time assisted in the assimilation of the brand on a local scale. «Over time, we garnered a following, that led to global recognition. It was a payoff that we accrued through our online persona. After a short period of time, we were collaborating with celebrity stylists like Sarah Slutsky».

The Raouf sisters explain that there was a trend in the ‘blogger-culture’. A phenomenon that was a craze in the 2010s, where individuals would go onto online spaces and share aspects their lives. Some bloggers had a following for their style and the types clothing they wore. Aya verbalizes that their perseverance in following this trend through advertising and selling items of Okhtein on their social platforms has led to their sustenance. The Raouf sisters’ insistence of settling Okhtein within Egypt and producing goods within the country ties back to the ethos of the brand. 

Okhtein flagship store at El Cairo, interior view

Lampoon review: Redefining the narrative of items in Egypt

This was a decision taken by the sisters. The aim was to redefine the narrative of items being produced in Egypt and the Middle East. «There is a mistrust in the production and design of goods taking place here. When we mapped the outline of Okhtein, we intended on representing Egypt in the fashion world. A disposition that is well-guarded and cultivated in the Western world». A means to set themselves apart through the output of their designs, Aya and Mounaz drew insight from the art of their surroundings. An aspect of Egypt that they explain to be abundant in nature.

«We constructed Okhtein through the art that surrounded us. Egypt is synonymous with the pyramids to the rest of the world. On a geographical sense, the country belongs to a number of continents and regions. Northern Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Arab world. Okhtein’s designs reflect this but the constructions of modern designs become the narrators».

Each sister brings forth an individual assiduity to Okhtein. Mounaz’s ardor for jewelry and bags and Aya’s minimalist design language has brought forth designs regarded in the area of camp and kitsch. Bags are tapered in design, finished with statement-piece handles made in brass or metals synonymous in the Egyptian climate. Alongside to bags are belt bags and small-leather goods that maintain Okhtein’s boisterous identity. Hardware that boast lines and patterns, dots and circles that suggest the craftsmanship’s nature of being Egyptian adorn the items.

Okhtein has since designed eyewear and a soon to launch jewelry line. «There is a bag that will be out in our following season that has a clutch type of holder that women can wear as an accessory». Balancing the workload between each other, the sisters would take over the design or completion process from each other to weave in the essence of their styles into the items created. 

What it means to be a modern woman in the Middle East

Aya and Mounaz, thirty and thirty-one years old respectively, are opposing the conventions and gender norms of what it means to be a modern woman in the Middle East. «When we founded Okhtein, we were in our twenties. Men upheld businesses of sorts. While, the typical woman had to marry upon the completion of her schooling years. We felt that life had meaning than to fulfil someone else’s dreams and to live by archaic norms». The Raouf sisters has worked to disseminating their beliefs. This includes the hiring of women artisans, giving talks to young and aspiring women and carrying forward a redefined womanhood through their bags.

«We have named a number of our bags after women who have been shunned upon in Egypt. There is bag paying tribute to a belly dancer here in Egypt. The profession is frowned upon. We named it to honor a woman as such who went head on against what was expected of her». They go on to share the influences of womanhood being exemplified through the materials used – metals describing a woman’s strength and leathers showcasing the delicate nature of a woman.

Now having amassed a following, Okhtein has since catered to the likes of Emma Watson, Beyoncé and Joey King, to name a few. Due to the cult following prompted by endorsements from celebrities, Okhtein has since moved their atelier away from the city of Cairo, employing ateliers and artisans based across Europe and other parts of the Middle East to suffice their influx of orders.

«Okhtein has had an exponential growth over the years. Artisans based in Egypt, in fact, could not keep up with our orders. This was the reasoning behind the shift to planting our production houses in Italy, Spain and the UAE». Aya and Mounaz share that having moved their production house, their bags worn by renown figures and taking part in competitions held by Vogue Italia and Vogue Arabia, Okhtein has since been stocked in Bloomingdales, Harrods, and a number of designer fashion retailers across the UAE and the European Union. 

The design of Okhtein store

Walid Zedain designed their current abode that resides in Cairo. He is a French Lebanese architect and interior designer based in Beirut. Two parts mark the design of the store, featuring the use of brass. An origami-like pattern characterizes the ceiling above. It is an homage that describes the ever-changing landscape and facets of Okhtein and its owners. «Our journey as designers inspired Zedain. The separation of the store in itself indicates an everlasting journey of us as sisters, designers and Okhtein’s journey as a brand».

As of 2021, Okhtein has since partnered with Bidayat. Alsara Investment Group, a body founded by the chairman of Valentino, owns this subsidiary. «Our brother Mohamed has joined Okhtein. She took the position as partner and CEO of the brand as of 2019. With his expertise in finance, we have paved way for Okhtein’s sustenance and growth on a worldwide scale».

The Raouf sisters’ creation of bags – used to express one’s identity and style – will soon be an accoutrement to the possibility of their ready-to-wear line that they foresee launching in the near future. Incorporating the assistance of NGOs in the area and on an international scale that assist women by providing them with working opportunities. Okhtein’s pieces stand the test of time. The brand therefore works to practice the slow-fashion ethos that they have subscribed to in its infancy.

«Our stance with being environmentally conscious is to showcase two collections a year. We don’t waste used items. We also ensure leftover materials are given life to our small-leather goods items or for our R&D phase of our goods». Further, Okhtein has partnered with suppliers who provide upcycled materials for the production of their bags. In the coming months, Okhtein will be relocating their prime store location to the city center of Cairo. 

Okhtein

Capital Promenade, El-Bostan, Al Sheikh Zayed, Giza Governorate, Egypt

Born and cultivated in the city of Cairo, Okhtein reflects womanhood and the artistic influences present in Egypt. Followed through in the designs of their bags and soon-to-launch jewelry collection, Okhtein carry forth their existing work in disseminating and redefining the narrative of what it means to be an Arabic woman in the world of today. 

Pravin Nair

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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