Arab millennials have a new favourite fashion brand | 1843 – The Economist 1843

Nafsika Skourti’s atelier sat among the squat, sun-bleached structures of downtown Amman. From the outside, it looked like any run-of-the-mill business in the bustling capital of Jordan: stone pillars, black nameplate, whitewashed doors up a short flight of stairs.

The clothes inside, however, were anything but ordinary – for the Middle East at least. In one corner hung a barely there brassiere adorned with a rhinestone choker. It was meant to be worn to a party and was called the “as-if bra”, in homage to “Clueless”, a cult film from the 1990s in which the main character utters “As if!” about characters’ clothing choices. Along a wall in the boutique stood a rack of “naughty trousers”, each with a chunk of silky fabric cut out of the upper thigh and a metal ring in its stead. They recalled a garter belt and stockings, and were fancy enough to wear to a cocktail soirée but risqué enough that the wearer might hope her in-laws weren’t in attendance.

“Our customers are Arab millennials, and they’re wearing crop tops and corsets,” said Stephanie Skourti, the 30-year-old who founded the company with her sister Nafsika, 31. They preside over a four-room shop and design studio. “The as-if bra is one of our bestsellers. We didn’t expect that.” Ranging from $100 for a T-shirt to $3,000 for a custom-made dress, in the past five years the fashion brand has attracted a certain sort of clientele: monied, privileged and not afraid to push sartorial boundaries.

Dress codes in Jordan are modest, at least in public. Western clothing is common in Amman, but you won’t find crop tops or mini skirts on sale in the local branches of H&M and Zara. Many Jordanian women wear the traditional jilbab, a floor-length, long-sleeved dress, sometimes fitted at the waist but revealing little else. In private, however, things are very different. Female-only or mixed gatherings behind closed doors are a chance to loosen up, particularly for more liberal, affluent Jordanians. It’s on these occasions that the Skourtis’ designs come into their own. “Most of our clients socialise at parties in private homes, with lots of alcohol,” said Stephanie. “You can wear whatever. Maybe when you’re in the car, if you’re wearing a miniskirt, you wear a coat on top so you don’t reveal too much.”

On a sporty cotton T-shirt, crystals spell out “The Lowest Point on Earth” and frame a photograph of Mariah Carey floating in the Dead Sea, clad in leggings and a leopard-print corset. “People here are proud of that fact”, said Nafsika, referring to the T-shirt’s text, “but sometimes this truly does feel like the lowest point on Earth.”

Jordan is more liberal than most of its Middle Eastern neighbours – women don’t need to cover their heads in public and can freely drink, smoke and mingle with men – but for two women starting a company, obstacles abounded. One landlord refused to rent office space to the Skourti sisters because they turned up to negotiate without a father or husband.

“It’s rude if you scream at a supplier who really fucked up,” said Stephanie. “They’ll say, ‘A woman has never spoken to me this way.’”

“They’ll slam down the phone,” added Nafsika.

The sisters have twice been investigated by customs officials. The company’s spring/summer collection in 2019 was given the name “Soft Only”, and was inspired by conversations the sisters had with their junior designer about how gay men in Jordan use Grindr, a dating app. (He explained that some men write “Soft Only” on their torsos to show that they want male companionship rather than sex.) The phrase inspired a series of T-shirts featuring shirtless male torsos, snakes and measuring tape. The allusions to penis size were not lost on Jordan’s customs officials, who destroyed the samples that arrived from Georgia and China, where some of the label’s clothes are manufactured. Stephanie had to beg customs to release the other garments in the shipment.

From the workroom in the back of the atelier, Stephanie unearthed an oversized denim jacket adorned with Arabic text and photos of Petra, a national monument of carved tombs and temples that dates back to 300BC. “Here it says, ‘Closer to heaven’, and here, ‘Buried under the foundations of the temple’,” she translated. “When it got to customs, they were like, ‘What is this kafir, this script against God?’” Again, the jackets were destroyed. For now, the Skourtis have found a workaround thanks to a friend who offered to smuggle them into the country in a suitcase. “We’re taking it one step at a time,” said Stephanie. “Customs can be a block, but anything that causes a reaction is a good thing. It means you’ve hit a button.”

Stephanie perpetually had one earbud in her ear, as if ready to jump on a conference call at any moment. Nafsika can lose herself in analysing the shape of a sleeve, or whether the leg of a pant drapes correctly. The fabrics feel similar to many high street brands but it’s Nafsika’s shapes that set their clothing apart – the cut-outs, slits and asymmetric lines would stand out anywhere.

In recent years Middle Eastern fashion designers have started to come to international prominence. Ellie Saab and Zuhair Murad, both from Lebanon, regularly dress Hollywood celebrities. Buoyed by this success, several zeitgeisty fashion lines have sprung up across the region. In Jordan, Nafsika Skourti’s closest analogue is Tania George, a more casual, pop-art inspired brand that repeats graphic prints (a sand-filled hourglass, Frida Kahlo’s face) across matching sets.

Local retailers have started to adapt. “Two or three years ago these young designers would have been selling online only, on social media,” said Susan Sabet, publisher of Pashion, a Middle East fashion magazine based in Egypt. “Retailers wouldn’t stock them because they wanted the big international brands. Now these stores have realised that these kids have a lot of followers and clients, so stocking them will attract traffic.” Other young brands that have benefited from a robust social media following include Reemami, from the United Arab Emirates, makes structural blazers and dresses, and Mrs Keepa, based in Dubai, which makes loud crop tops and trousers.

The Skourti sisters grew up in Amman, looked after by their maternal grandparents while their mother worked as a trademark and patent agent. (Their father was Greek, and met their Jordanian mother in Germany when doing graduate degrees, but divorced before Stephanie was born.) Stephanie and Nafsika grew up around what they call “sheltered Arabian fairytale princesses” whose fathers bought them everything their hearts desired. “When we were younger, everybody was just everybody, it’s only when you become older that you become more aware,” said Nafsika. “Who has a boat, who doesn’t,” said Stephanie. “We definitely did not have a boat. Far from it.”

Their mother encouraged them to draw and paint instead of showering them with dolls and toys. “Every painting Naf did would go on the wall,” recalled Stephanie. She also nurtured their entrepreneurial spirit: before they were teenagers the sisters had written a business plan for a decorative-gift-box company (it failed to launch). Amman had only one cinema at the time, so their mother forked out for satellite TV. MTV served as what Nafsika calls a “cultural umbilical cord”, feeding the sisters 1990s pop culture in the form of Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, who, they said, remain muses to this day.

Eager to experience life abroad, the sisters went to university in Britain. Stephanie studied law at Warwick and Nafsika did fashion design at Central Saint Martins. Nafsika’s final-year collection featured shirt dresses and garments that could have easily been worn on the street. But it wasn’t selected for the end-of-year showcase, denying Nafsika greater exposure to the fashion industry. “Mine wasn’t showcased because it was too wearable,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The silhouette was too close to the body, it wasn’t sculptural or avant-garde.”

So Nafsika made another plan: to get an internship at a fashion house in Europe and work her way up. Then her father called from Greece. The financial crisis had forced him to liquidate his family’s considerable assets – houses in the country, a BMW, a Mercedes-Benz – and he couldn’t bankroll his daughters anymore. “To get a job in fashion, you need to intern for free,” said Nafsika. “I didn’t have the luxury of working for free in London.”

Stephanie was a lawyer for Goldman Sachs in London at the time, and escaping to meditation retreats in Berlin. “I was like, ‘You’re travelling all the way over there to get away from your shitty job?’” recalled Nafsika. Stephanie left her job and moved to Berlin; Nafsika moved back to Amman and wallowed in her sense of failure. Urged by her uncle to do something, she started working for a local designer who taught her traditional Middle Eastern embroidery.

Then a well-connected childhood friend, Zamantha Haddad, asked Nafsika to make her a dress. She wanted to wear something unique to a winter wedding. “It ended up being a beautiful, floor-length, backless navy blue gown,” said Haddad. People took photos and posted them on social media. “Then my friends started calling: ‘I want a dress, I want a dress.’”

Around the same time, in 2014, a French talent scout happened upon photos of Nafsika’s Central Saint Martins collection and showed them to buyers at Opening Ceremony and Colette, two edgy fashion brands. The buyers were keen. The scout kept calling Nafsika, asking her to bring samples to Paris Fashion Week. Nafsika said she was too busy designing dresses for her friends and she couldn’t afford to travel to Paris. Haddad found out: “I showed up at her house at midnight with $2,000 and said, ‘Just go.’” Nafsika packed up the items that she thought had doomed her fashion career and corralled her sister into coming down from Berlin to help persuade the buyers. “She probably thought, ‘Paris Fashion Week, how bad can it be?’” laughed Nafsika. “I had her scrubbing off ‘Made in China’ labels off the clothes hangers.”

Haddad, who is 30, has since become a formal investor in the brand along with other Ammanites who are part of the Skourtis’ social circle. The brand has attracted more established international investors as well as backing from an Amman-based venture capital fund. Because of Jordan’s lack of fashion-design professionals, the Skourtis routinely fly in skilled experts from Europe and Asia for months at a time. The pattern cutter responsible for Meghan Markle’s Stella McCartney wedding gown in 2017, who is based in Britain, cut the fabric for one of Nafsika Skourti’s bestsellers: the revenge dress, a blood-red number with a thigh-high slit.

In 2014 the sisters produced 62 items for retailers; since then the company’s clothes have been stocked at Harvey Nichols department store in London and Riyadh, Les Suites in Paris, PAD Lifestyle in Edinburgh, and shops throughout the Middle East. Around half of the garments are sold locally and made to measure, and the other half are sold abroad. “The naughty trousers were an instant hit,” said Laura Larbalestier, group fashion-buying director at Harvey Nichols. “We sold out in the first week.”

The Skourtis’ 2019 collection sent up the privileged milieu in which the sisters grew up. It included a T-shirt dedicated to the “crazy busy schedules” of manicures and waxing appointments that their clients complain about, and a button-down shirt printed with horses and castles in hues that recalled My Little Pony – a knock at the daddy’s girls who aspire only to ride off into the sunset with Prince Charming. Were they afraid of alienating their client base? “They think it’s funny,” Nafsika said with a shrug. “When they see the schedules shirt, they’re like, ‘OMG, LOL, that’s my life.’” It may look like an ordinary T-shirt but to those who know Nafsika Skourti, it’s a wink and a nod, a way to broadcast the wearer’s wry sense of humour as well as her ability to spend more than $100 on a T-shirt.

As well as gaining international appeal, the sisters are feted in their home town too. Queen Rania of Jordan wore a grey Nafsika Skourti jacket with zigzag embroidery to welcome the president and first lady of Germany to Amman in 2015. The patronage of the supremely respected queen consort to some extent insulates the Skourtis from the ire of customs officials and more conservative Jordanians. (Queen Rania has not been photographed in the brand since then but the sisters say she has worn their clothing in private.)

The Skourtis want to train Arab hands to do the embroidery, screen-printing and beading work they need. Ghaid, a 21-year-old Iraqi refugee, emerged from a back room of the atelier to show Nafsika the denim jacket she was constructing. “She just got her papers,” says Nafsika, appraising her work. Ghaid smiles and nods. “You’ve gotta learn English,” Stephanie said, reproachfully. “You’re moving to Australia.”

“She’s been on the waiting list to go somewhere for years,” said Nafsika. “It’s like being on the waiting list for a really, really expensive restaurant,” she added. “You’re just waiting for that fucking call.”

In Jordan, Nafsika Skourti’s designs act as a challenge to traditional gender dynamics – for those who buy them, at least. The company currently caters to affluent, liberal Arab millennials like them. But the sisters believe that if they can make a mark on the global fashion world, perhaps other Jordanians may find the courage to be creative and challenge gender norms too. They said that even conservative women have embraced their designs, including the abaya-clad Syrian refugees who bead and embroider clothes in a minimally appointed house near their atelier. “She said she’d let her daughter wear this dress,” Nafsika said, holding up a black mini dress with sequin pinstripes and gesturing at Um Sleiman, a refugee that the sisters hired in May to enable her to travel back to Syria. “Well, at a women’s only party.”

The Skourtis will go on fighting their corner ­– even if it means arguing with armed soldiers while wearing skimpy shorts. Stephanie found herself in this situation this summer after she tried to stage a photo shoot at a state-owned salt factory on the Dead Sea without the necessary permits. “Every time we have a confrontation with customs, it’s an education,” she said. “It’s me educating Jordanian men. I don’t give a shit if I’m uncomfortable while I’m doing it. We’re not going to change.”

“Next time we’ll get the permits,” said Nafsika.

Their attitude has influenced their peers too. “It’s a brand that shows what strong women can do,” said Salma Malhas, an 18-year-old Jordanian actress who stars in “Jinn”, a Jordanian supernatural drama on Netflix, and made headlines when her character refused to have sex with her boyfriend. “Jordan needs more of that.”

In July 2019, to celebrate the completion of their new collection, the sisters decided to throw a party in Wadi Rum, a vast, rolling red sand desert 325km south of Amman. Wadi Rum is controlled by Bedouin tribes who needed a certain amount of convincing – and compensating – before outsiders were allowed in to carouse. In the weeks leading up to the party, the sisters made multiple trips, seeking out the right tribe and landscape for the concept they sketched out: an “invisible room”. After the sun set on the last Friday in July, guests – friends and investors, some in Jordan for the first time – rumbled through the desert in open-air Jeeps wondering where the hell they were going, unable to see farther than the few feet ahead illuminated by the headlights. Sand got into people’s eyes and mouths, fancily crafted hairstyles got ruined. Thirty minutes later, someone spied a glow in the distance. The phones came out, the Jeeps slowed to a stop, the guests gasped, scrambled down and rushed toward a cube of light that had materialised in the middle of nowhere.

Underneath a frame of thin, glowing white tubes, a translucent acrylic table has been set. There were flowers, there was wine, there was smoked Jordanian meat — it was as if a dinner party from the pages of Vogue had been airdropped into the desert. The Bedouins sang folk songs and danced, smiling curiously at the crowd, until Stephanie hooked up her laptop to a Bluetooth speaker, which started blasting out Britney Spears. Nafsika jumped on a chair with a hand-rolled cigarette and surveyed the scene, nodding, satisfied. “Everyone said we were fucking crazy,” she said, mid-smoke. “But we did it.”

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