PARIS: The rapturous receptions accorded designer Malek Gheni during Tunis Fashion Week in June 2019 led to one local magazine dubbing him “the new genius of Tunisian fashion.” Not bad for a debut showing.
“I was surprised because this was my first collection. It’s a trigger in my career,” Gheni tells Arab News.
Despite that success, Gheni faces many inherent challenges in his homeland.
“Tunisia is a virgin land in the fashion industry,” he says. “There are only three or four very famous stylists. There are no raw materials. We manage with our means. I feel isolated here. There are not a lot of opportunities. Even well-known designers have difficulty communicating and networking with the Arab world and Europe. I work a lot but I feel that, even when you reach the top, it is very difficult to export your work.” In order to tackle that, he intends to develop his address book and above all participate in events abroad.
So, can the native of Nabeul, in north-eastern Tunisia, change the paradigm?
The 27-year-old has experienced a dramatic rise in profile since his remarkable appearance on “Project Runway Middle East,” — MBC’s regional version of the hugely popular fashion show, which showcases young talents from the Arab world in the field of fashion and design.
Gheni gained recognition for his unique perspective — distinctly modern but with a definite historic bent, as was apparent in that debut collection in Tunis Fashion Week.
“In 2019, I presented my first collection with 14 dresses. And the presence of waders on the catwalk was very noticed and appreciated,” he says. “This collection has two distinct styles because I’m a bit schizophrenic: On the one hand, there’s the bling and the sequins, but on the other hand, it was very simple and monastic, with a little touch of embroidery. As for the dresses, they were short, but with very significant geometric shapes, because I am hugely inspired by the architecture of churches.”
While the collection was praised for its modernity, it was actually inspired by the Amish, a reclusive Christian religious community with its roots in Europe but perhaps most-famous in America, that mostly eschews the trappings of modern life.
“I undertook a lot of research. I read a lot. I like to present collections that have a story,” says Gheni. “I wanted to tell the story of Amish women who chose to leave this community to discover the modern world — fashion, as well as bright colors. Hence the presence of strong colors,” he explains.
As Gheni already suggested, religion has long been an inspiration for his work. “In fashion, there are no borders. We feel a connection with other cultures,” he says. “In my childhood, I remember how I felt something when I saw the architecture of churches on television. At Esmod (the French fashion school), all of my collections were related to the theme of the church. My graduation project was also a collection of embroidered dresses and church-inspired designs.
The young designer always aims to push the envelope, as he did in that debut collection by highlighting an element that is often hidden or ignored in fashion shows: shoes. Footwear will continue to be a focus of his work, he says: “I am preparing a collection. My goal is to create a new brand of shoes. I got this passion from my father who is a shoe designer. Collaborating with him will be incredible and of course I will be able to do it with my personal touch.”
Gheni says his ultimate goal is to “leave a signature in the field of fashion for posterity.” To do that, he will continue to allow himself to be guided by emotion and intuition.
“When I’m drawing a sketch, I let myself be guided by playing with the lines and, little by little, it gives birth to a dress,” he says. “It’s as if I’m a puppet.”