No piece of clothing was more famous than the pullover of famous singer Amr Diab in his well-known Tamali Ma’ak ‘Always with you’ video clip from 2000. This black and turquoise pullover was the reason why garment factories inside and outside Egypt (in India and China) copied and mass produced this style with different sizes to meet the growing demand of the young fans of Amr Diab, the king of fashion in Egypt.

No piece of clothing was more famous than the pullover of famous singer Amr Diab in his well-known Tamali Ma’ak ‘Always with you’ video clip from 2000. This black and turquoise pullover was the reason why garment factories inside and outside Egypt (in India and China) copied and mass produced this style with different sizes to meet the growing demand of the young fans of Amr Diab, the king of fashion in Egypt.

“The media dictate what we wear,” says Prof. Ahmad Bebers, a professor in the department of clothing and textile in the Faculty of Home Economy at the University of Hilwan. “Whatever the media focus on, whether a work of art or a song like Amr Diab’s, dictates the direction of the garment industry … Clothes are created by designers,” he added.

Fashion mannequins

Amr Diab’s pullover was similar to the fashion mannequins made by Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin (1747-1813), the tailor of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and wife of King Luis XV who would send them to her sisters to introduce them to the newest styles designed by her skilled tailor who was considered to be the first to develop the basics of ‘haute couture’. On these mannequins, Rose put her high-class embroidered designs which were popular in the French court and aristocracy and set the tone for fashion at the time.

When the French revolution erupted and Marie Antoinette was executed, Rose fled to England and resumed her activity. The mannequins resumed presenting fashion, which became simpler and avoided affected embroidery and all that was aristocratic to reflect the spirit of the French and industrial revolution and the beginning of the Age of the Machine.

In 1790, the Englishman Thomas Saint invented the first sewing machine and in 1829, the French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier came up with a more practical. Finally in 1851, the American Isaac Singer invented his famous machine, which brought sewing into household chores and made it possible for families to have better clothes at lower costs.

The fashion mannequins entered the palaces of Mohamed Ali’ sons and the clothes were made in Europe and brought to Egypt. Then, tailors came from Europe with their Singer machines to make clothes for the well-to-do families, focused on the principles and art of haute couture, which represents the origin of the French fashion. That was evident in the clothes under the reign of Khedive Ismail (1862-1879) who aspired to make Cairo another Paris.

“We are affected by the French fashion trends,” said Prof. Bebers about the general features of fashion in Egypt. “However, it is adapted to suit the society’s moral code, to be more decent and colours are changed based on the public’s taste,” he added.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the garment-related professions started to emerge. There were tailors specialized in designing and sewing foreign styles for males and females separately, tailors who made clothes for ordinary people for both sexes, people who were specialized in sewing scarves and veils and others in shirts in addition to embroiders and other professions including dying and fur selling. Most of the workers in these professions were Armenians and Greeks. They organized themselves under the Association of Tailors, which was established in 1901 and headed by the Greek Dr. Bestes.

While the garment industry remained based on tailoring, the ready-made garment industry was specialized in producing underwear, pullovers, undershirts, socks, and others and was dominated by Armenians who founded six factories. The Kredian Tricot Factory was founded in 1937 and the Factory of Pierre Bidigian and his partners a year later. Other complementary industries such as button making and the different kinds of stuffing were also active and many factories were established such as the Belijian Brothers Factory in 1945.

In March 1951, the Modern Fashion Company was established. It was composed of a series of shops (Benzayoun, Adas and Ravioli). Its main activity was selling different kinds of goods and cloths including fabrics, garments, sheets, furniture, home appliances and metal and wooden furniture. Then, it was linked to the General Egyptian Institution according to the Decision of the president of the United Arab Republic 887 of 1967 on reorganizing the public institutions. The company is currently subject to the Public Business Sector Law 203 of 1991.

When the Free Officers Revolution erupted in 1952, the interest in industry rose and the public sector dominated the garment industry, which prospered under the private sector and continued to work efficiently under President Jamal Abdulnasser.

Venus Clothing Company

“In 1957, my father founded the company with 25 sewing machines,” says Ahmed Ramadan, the owner of Venus Clothing Company in Giza. “At the time, we exported our production to Russia and France.”

“I was helping my father at the company despite my young age. The demand was high and supply and production were low and there was no smuggling— the company’s business prospered and the number of our machines reached 200,” he added.

Under President Anwar Assadat, the private-sector production of ready-made clothes increased and the public sector continued to expand for social rather than economic reasons, mainly in the textile sector.

Currently, the fabrics industry represents about third of the added value of the transformational industry and about 3% of the GDP, which makes it the third largest contributor to the GNP after tourism and the Suez Canal. It also represents 28% of Egypt’s non-oil exports according to a study by Dr. Ahmed Farouk Ghoneim, a professor of economics and political sciences at Cairo University.

For Ramadan, 1997 – 1998 was the golden period in the company’s history. “Most of our products were exported to the United States which did not impose many requirements at the time. The demand was so high that many people sold their properties to be involved in the garment industry and export for the first time,” he says.

At the time, despite the growing demand on clothes imported from Egypt, “Egyptian textile was scarce and the market ran out of it. The demand was so high to the extent that we imported lower quality textile and fabrics to meet the export orders,” says Ramadan.

With the advent of the new millennium, Egypt’s imports of textile and fabrics started to increase alongside the increasing cost of the local production of clothes and their low quality, which negatively impacted Egypt’s clothes imports.

Europe and the United States, which were the biggest clothes markets, started to raise their quality standards and conditions, and the United States applied a quotas system on its clothes imports from the producing countries, which changed annually. That reduced the size of Egyptian clothes exports to the United States, which resorted to other countries including Turkey, India, Bangladesh – famous for their high-quality clothes.

Due to the increasing cost of raw materials and importing textile, the Venus Company’s production fell. Then, Egypt signed the Agreement of the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) with Israel, which exempts Egyptian products whose production involves using a percentage of Israeli products of tariffs and abiding by the applicable quotas system. That opened the doors of the American markets to the QIZ products. As a result, The Venus Company stopped exporting clothes.

“The company refused to work with QIZ,” says Ramadan, ascribing that to his total rejection to deal with Israel. “Therefore, we started to target the local market and our production of netwear, underwear, lagoon trousers, light T-shirts and others started to increase. However, the quantities of clothes smuggled from china started to increase in 2005 and thus the company’s production started to fall again.”

Although the French JeuneAfrique Magazine expected in 2009 that Egypt would become, in the coming three years, the biggest producer of ready-made garments and textile in the Mediterranean countries and probably in the world, the clothes imports started to dwindle. However, the commercial balance between the exports of textile and ready-made clothes remained above the imports until 2010 – 2011. However, after 2012, the size of Egypt’s exports of ready-made clothes was suddenly smaller than the size of imports, making  negative commercial balance for the first time.

Local market issues

“The local market lacks raw materials,” says Dr. Tarek Saleh, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design, at October 6 University. “The industry depends on the local raw materials, namely the local cotton, most of which is exported. There is no management for the Egyptian raw materials and the textile machines are not modernized,” he added.

The local market, says Saleh, depends on fabrics imported from eastern Asia, which reduces the scale of its industrial activity. Any attempt to produce raw materials in Egypt would not be feasible, as the cost would be three times that of the imported fabrics. In his view, that can be ascribed to the lack of industry in dying materials in Egypt, which represents 40% of the fabrics’ cost.

When the dying materials factories moved from Europe, which was the main producer, to southeast Asia for environmental reasons, the cost of artificial fabrics fell as the dying materials were available at the same place without incurring any transport and import costs in addition to using advanced technology in producing artificial fibers, which made the value of imported fabrics three times lower than the local ones.

Dr. Saleh stresses the lack of efficient marketing strategy of Egyptian products and the ability of Egyptian consumers to buy international products via the Internet with cheaper prices than the products sold at the international brands agents.

He highlights the lack of investment in manufacturing machines including textile and dying machines and clothes accessories machines, let alone neglecting labor in the textile and clothes industry in terms of wages and training.

Due to the deterioration of local production of clothes and increasing the prices of electricity provided to the industrial facilities, the Venus Clothes Company changed its activity to providing training and consulting services in the ready-made clothes and textile industry.

“Despite the deterioration of the local clothes industry, there is still a need for labor,” said Ramadan, stressing that this labor is concentrated in the micro-projects or the so-called ‘Under the Stairs Factories’ which are unregistered and work without licenses which undermines the opportunities available in the market to the middle-sized Egyptian companies.

Nevertheless, Ramadan believes that training this informal labor maintains the quality of the ready-made clothes and opens the door to new workers instead of the ones who abandoned this industry due to low wages and the rise of service professions which bring quick profits such as working on three-wheelers.

Although there are no accurate data on the number of workers in this industry, some estimates suggest there are 400,000-1,200,000 direct labor and 800,000-1,200,000 indirect labor in relevant sectors.

Fashion in Egypt

Prof. Bebers concurs with Dr. Saleh and Ramadan on the importance of training labor, saying that: “The textile workers are not provided with full care. Media do not pay much attention to fashion designers,” stressing another problem in the local clothes industry.

Bebers believes that Egyptian consumers lack a certain “culture” with clothing, which he says consists of paying attention to the interior design of clothes, whether the regular designs or the slim ones which just suit the body, and taking the washing instructions into account.

“There is no one single national Egyptian costume. Does the farmer’s costume alone represent the national one? If the answer is yes, we are ignoring the Bedouin and Nubian costumes. However, we can say that there are common features of Egyptian clothing style. For example, it is characterized by embroidered clothes especially in the Bedouin tribes and Al Sharqia Governorate and wearing the black color during mourning, compared to wearing the white color in other Arab countries,” he added.

Egyptian consumers, says Prof. Bebers, tend to like classic and formal styles and are, somewhat, attracted to the international brands. “However, we can say that the defining feature of Egyptian fashion styles is decency.”