While thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square last month to demand that the government release the blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah from prison, Cairo’s fashion-forward crowd ventured onto the streets for a different reason: to shop.
Across the bridge from Tahrir Square, the well-heeled meandered around the quiet, affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, partaking in the first edition of Cairo’s Fashion Nights, held on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Modeled after Fashion’s Night Out, the annual block party-shopping spree initiated in New York in 2009 by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, the event aims to spur retail spending by luring customers into stores on a dedicated evening. In essence, the shopping experience becomes a big public fashion party.
Besides offering promotions and serving refreshments, stores enticed shoppers with gimmicks. Azza Fahmy, for example, an Egyptian jewelry brand, enabled visitors to live out their supermodel fantasies by hiring a professional fashion photographer to shoot anyone who wanted to model an item from the new collection.
Susan Sabet, the editor of Pashion, a monthly Egyptian fashion magazine printed in Arabic and English, conceived of Cairo’s Fashion Nights as a means of supporting designers and retailers struggling with slow sales and looting in the aftermath of the revolution.
“Everything is fine, let’s go down and shop” is Ms. Sabet’s message to deep-pocketed Egyptians, many of whom have been reluctant to splurge lately. Recognizing that a certain segment of the population nevertheless has plenty of money to spend, Ms. Sabet would rather see them spend it at home rather than on shopping trips abroad.
“Here, it benefits many people,” she said, “designers, manufacturers, material suppliers and retailers.”
Cairo’s Fashion Nights are also intended to restore confidence in Egypt and woo back Western and regional investors. “I want to show them that things are fine in Egypt,” Ms. Sabet said. “We are safe, we can host these events and people are still buying. Not everyone with money ran away.”
Was anyone worried about participating in a fashion extravaganza while political debates heat up before parliamentary elections next month and anxiety about Islamism and crime rates runs high?
“It will be interesting to see how people react” a stylist, Kegham Djeghalian, said before the event.
Still, neither he nor other participants worried much. It is surprisingly easy to block out the chaotic Cairene metropolis in the embassy-lined streets of Zamalek — “The only neighborhood where you can still walk the streets carefree,” said Vivian Abdel Messih, managing partner of Amuse, which she describes as a “lifestyle concept store.”
Her only concern was about her employees making it home safely late at night. “We all have cars,” she said, “but they have to ride public transportation and in these times I am worried.”
Because of these considerations, the event ended at midnight, two hours earlier than planned. No major incidents were reported.
“Let’s be realistic: Less than one percent of the population can afford these clothes,” said Dina Said, a designer featured at Amuse, “and anyone else would not even be aware it is taking place.”
Rather than perceiving Cairo’s Fashion Nights as being out of touch in a country where many people are preoccupied with political activism or simply putting food on the table, its organizers and supporters view it in the context of major fashion events worldwide.
“We don’t have an Avenue Montaigne or a Bond Street, but Zamalek has a high concentration of up-market stores that showcase talented designers,” Ms. Sabet said.
The notion that Cairo has the potential to become a fashion capital thrills Fares Rizk, an Egyptian-born artist who was visiting from New York, where he lives now.
“I’m very happy that people are comparing Zamalek to Manhattan,” he said. But before he could get too carried away, Ms. Said cooly reminded him that they still had a long way to go before anyone could really make such a comparison.
“It’s exciting, but it’s not super exciting, like it is abroad,” she said. “Karl Lagerfeld hung out with visitors at Chanel in New York. Can you imagine that here?”
Mr. Djeghalian noted that other places far off the global fashion radar, like Pakistan, have a fashion week and that Egypt deserves one, too.
While he conceded that Cairo lacked enough designers to produce a whole fashion week, “Cairo has long been fashion-conscious, so it makes sense to have something like Cairo’s Fashion Nights.”
Thanks to the presence of their loyal V.I.P. clientele, the atmosphere at some of the more established boutiques, including Azza Fahmy, resembled that of fashion parties anywhere.
A few stores were so crowded that visitors congregated on the sidewalks to get some air. But much to the dismay of emerging designers selling at retail spaces nearby that crowd failed to stroll around the block to make discoveries.
Trying to mask her disappointment about low traffic to the store where her collection was on sale, the designer Amina Khalila, 24, said: “We are not accustomed to hopping from one place to another yet. Here, people need to perceive a trend in something before they are willing to try it.”
In the less-established boutiques, the emphasis seemed to be more on reveling than on shopping, as young people dressed to the nines — some trendily and others outlandishly — and ran around drinking Champagne and wine at their friends’ boutiques. Most attendees said they had come to support their friends in business or merely out of curiosity. To Ramzi Ebeid, 33, an interior designer, the evening served as a release.
“I think a lot of people are feeling really suffocated and are fed up with putting all their plans on hold since the revolution,” he said, so now they are just “trying to have fun.”
The surrealistic atmosphere of Cairo’s Fashion Nights was enhanced by the presence of the “fashion police,” played by Mr. Djeghalian, who patrolled the stores on the lookout for fashion faux pas.
Lackluster styles warranted an “X” sticker signaling his disapproval, while creative outfits earned the lucky few a coveted checkmark sticker.
Cairo’s Fashion Nights seems to show promise. Why not harness money being spent on fashion to support the local economy during a difficult time? That idea appeared to resonate with shoppers. More than one said she had participated in the event “for Egypt.”
Designers and retailers welcomed support from the community, even if it proved more symbolic than visible on their bottom lines.
Underwhelming turnout notwithstanding, Ms. Sabet was “very pleased with how it went over all,” adding that it was a learning experience and expressing hope that “it will be bigger and better next year.”
Published on the New York Times website on November 9, 2011 and in the print edition of the International Herald Tribune on November 10, 2011.