Amid revolution, Egyptian designer still makes it to Paris

Putting a collection together for Paris fashion week is a nerve-wracking experience in the best of times.

Just try doing it in the middle of a revolution.

Egyptian designer Marie Bishara did, and it is a stroke of luck that she even got to the French capital with her sophisticated and feminine looks in the wake of the uprising that put paid to Hosni Mubarak's regime.

"It was a great revolution, but all around you needed to keep things going," Bishara told AFP as she unveiled her latest fall-winter and cruise lines. "It needed more discipline. Everybody knew we had a challenge to be on time."

Male staff thus stayed late to safeguard the atelier in Tenth of Ramadan City, an industrial suburb of Cairo, presuming they did not punch out early to protect their own homes after police vanished from the streets.

"Then there were our men who were hand-beading in Khan el-Khalili," the historic souk in the Islamic heart of the Egyptian capital, she added. "We had to alert them so that we could keep on schedule."

In the end, everything got to Paris on time, although the planned show in the freshly renovated home of the Egyptian ambassador to France was scrapped in favour of a more casual presentation for buyers and journalists.

"It was felt that it was better to keep it calm" and low-key, she said.

Bishara, 44, the trilingual daughter of a Coptic Christian textile magnate, studied fashion in France and trained with such venerable French houses as Cacharel and Balmain before striking out with her own brand.

She carved herself a niche in pret-a-porter history when, in 2008, hers became the first Egyptian label to show in Paris, returning every season since to crack the European market.

Coming from a land with five millenia of history, Bishara draws freely from Egypt's rich heritage, from pharaohic times to the glamour of the Egyptian movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s.

She describes her latest fall-winter collection - sometimes fitted, sometimes draped - as "very vapourous; you have a lot of chiffon, a lot of lace" incorporating painstaking handiwork from women in the south of Egypt.

Winter coats feature arabesque detailing from the elderly craftsmen of Khan el-Khalili, while a relaxed tunic that blends off-white Egyptian cotton with turquoise stones is typical of the cruise-line offerings.

Excited by the winds of change in her homeland, Bishara is nevertheless realistic about the challenges thrown up by the downfall of Mubarak's long-running authoritarian regime on February 11.

She knows, for instance, that she cannot count on support from the industry ministry, at least in the short term as the political dust settles, and that she needs to find fresh sources of "good financing" to grow the label.

With 15 boutiques around Egypt, and the backing of the Bishara industrial empire and its 1,500 employees, her group is looking to franchising to expand its market.

She is optimistic, too, about the future for women in Egypt, despite some here-and-now concerns about safety on the streets.

"We should not forget that with the revolution, there are insecurities that need to dealt with immediately," she said. "This is something that worries women."

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