Egyptian fashion designer Amna Elshandaweely travels to places such as Siwa as part of her exploration into what it means to be an Egyptian and, deeper still, what it means to be African.
“Every time I travelled around Africa my friends were like: ‘Are you going to Africa?',” she says jokingly. “Like they don’t consider Egypt as part of Africa.”
In the same way, Egyptian society doesn’t consider dark-skinned Egyptian women to be beautiful, explains Elshandaweely, who will be joining us as a speaker at the Design Indaba Conference next month.
“When I went to Kenya, I was really inspired by the Kenyan women and how they change their looks and look really nice.”
She says that although there are dark-skinned people in Egypt, like the Nubian people from Luxor or Aswan, they are not considered to be as beautiful as lighter-skinned Egyptians.
“They have the facial features of the pharaohs, ya’aani,” she says in frustration, before breaking into a smile.
As a dark-skinned woman herself, Elshandaweely has had to deal with the prejudices of colourism in society and in the media. It’s lighter skin and lighter shades of fabric that people consider beautiful, trendy and chic.
“I’ve always had darker skin than a lot of Egyptians and I have curly hair. So every time I walk in the street I always receive comments. It’s either in a funny way or, let’s say, just a not funny way,” she explains.
“People consider white girls who have straight hair as beautiful when I was growing up I started by looking around the world, not just here in Egypt, and I found that there is beauty, ya’aani, in dark skin.”
With her eponymous tribal wear brand and her exploration of African identity, she’s looking to challenge this norm. In one of her earlier ranges, Road to Fayoum, she did something as simple as using dark-skinned models in her catalogues. The aim was to give dark-skinned Egyptians a chance to see themselves represented not only in the models but in the range itself.
Road to Fayoum was inspired by the Egyptian city it’s named after. Its green landscapes and Islamic architecture make it a welcome respite from the country's capital.
Elshandaweely’s fashion line celebrated Fayoum for its uniqueness. In an earlier interview, Elshandaweely said she chose colours that could take the wearer out of Cairo and make them feel as though they were spending spring in Fayoum.
The line garnered a lot of attention and the designer set out to take advantage of that momentum.
But the road was not easy, she recalls.
“I believe that without the revolution I wouldn’t have been the person I am today,” she says, adding that even though it played such a big role in her choices, it’s challenging not to be disheartened in the aftermath of the uprising that left its citizens exhausted.
“A lot of people feel like it’s changed for the worse. For me, it was an experience that added value to a lot of people. We, as young people, we believed in tomorrow.”
Fashion designer: Ahmed El Shandaweely Art director and stylist:
Ahmed Soror Make-up artist:
Rama Abdelrahman Photography and film-making:
* Amna Elshandaweely will be speaking at this year's Design Indaba Conference. For the full conference speakers line-up and info, visit www.designindaba.com