Made in Tunisia


Fadil Aliriza


Sabrina Belkhouja


When Adam Jabeur couldn’t afford to buy a pair of wood-framed sunglasses from the United States, he asked his friend Soulaiman Ghorbel to make him a pair. When Soulaiman couldn’t afford the piece of machinery to make them, he asked his cousin Majdi Ghorbel to make an investment. And when Majdi couldn’t drum up a name for the enterprise, he asked his friend Ashref Chichini to help. One thing soon led to another, and the four twenty-somethings set up Vakay, a handmade and utterly Tunisian brand of eyewear.

We want people to know that we’re a Tunisian brand – when we export it with good quality, people will understand that Tunisia can make a good product

An industrial designer by training, Soulaiman’s first design for the brand, now known as ‘Linebacker’, took loose inspiration from a pair of 3D glasses. With a decidedly vintage look, the ‘Linebacker’ wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Brooklyn – except that these glasses are made from Tunisian materials, by Tunisian hands.

Vakay’s designs combine wood and metal, a decision encapsulated in the brand’s name, which stems from two Vietnamese words meaning ‘and’ and ‘the tree’. The brand uses six different kinds of wood, such as bubinga and zebrawood, to offer seven models of customisable combinations, ranging from the understated ‘Mr. Miles’ to the more overtly stylish ‘Orly Bosco’.

‘We want to make our product different, so we focus on Tunisian artisans and arts to introduce a Tunisian touch,’ says Majdi. Chichini, who speaks slowly and has the look of a designer, sporting bright red shoes, tight-fitting denim and a long moustache that twists upwards like an old vaudevillian, explains that this ‘can be with colours, with patterns or with a type of wood which is Tunisian, like palm wood for example. We want it to be distinguished.’

Chichini and his colleagues are keen to put an even more Tunisian stamp on their products, however try to avoid the ‘cliché’. They hope to introduce more calligraphy into future designs and experiment with local palm and olive woods, as well as cedar – a type of wood that is native to the Levant, the region where many of Tunisia’s ancient Carthaginian and Phoenician ancestors originated.

Vakay, which started about a year ago, is currently on sale at two optician stores in Tunis. Majdi explains that, although they considered online sales at first, they wanted the customer to experience holding the product before buying it. Given that Vakay’s glasses are handmade, tactility is an important part of its production process.

‘It feels special when you touch the product. You spend a lot of time making it and it feels like your baby – you focus on each detail and how to make it perfect,’ says Majdi. ‘When we choose a piece of wood, for example, we spend a lot of money on the right plank. We see how every texture will be on the sunglasses.’

Majdi explains that the designers personally choose each plank of wood from a warehouse near Tunis’ northern Gammarth suburb, as well as ask travelling friends to bring back new types of wood with which they can experiment. A special supplier then cuts the wood to the right thickness.

Vakay found that some of the equipment it needed didn’t exist in the Tunisian market, such as the machinery used to make grooves in the wooden frames and a sander to angle the wood in just the right way. However, with the combination of Majdi’s engineering background and Soulaiman’s industrial design background, they managed to build their own machinery instead.

The varnish used for the frames is custom-made too; an organic variety, blended especially to feel comfortable on the skin. Vakay also sources its glass locally, from a Tunisian company that uses German technology to ensure high ultraviolet protection, polarised upon request.

While the Tunisian economy is still struggling three years after the recent uprising, with many would-be entrepreneurs struggling to get their ideas off the ground, this wasn’t the case for Vakay. ‘We found a lot of support from people who want to encourage young Tunisians in business,’ says Majdi. The four-person team, for example, was able to make use of a workshop in Sfax after support from the town’s suppliers.

Another supplier was happy to manufacture the organic varnish for them, even though Vakay only purchases small quantities, and local opticians offered advice on how to make the frames’ bridges more comfortable. And, when getting a bank loan for the project was impossible, friends and family put up the cash instead.

Vakay hopes to give back in its own way. The designers have already offered to donate sunglasses to anyone who contributes more than 400 dollars to ‘Save Mos Espa’, a citizens’ fundraising campaign to restore the Star Wars movie set, in Tunisia’s south – a Darth Vader mask in a pair of the brand’s glasses was posted on its Facebook page.

For all the help they have received from fellow Tunisians, the Vakay team know that working within the Tunisian market alone will not yield profits, particularly with a high-end, niche product. Vakay has already started shipping around the world, from Paris and Dubai to Montreal and Abidjan, and, as the orders flow in, the designers are also making plans to expand the collection into other types of accessories, such as wooden jewellery.

‘Historically, Tunisia had a lot of richness in its handmade products, like crafts, or architecture. People forget that. If you look at the market here, a lot of Tunisian handicrafts are made in China. We want people to know that we’re a Tunisian brand – when we export it with good quality, people will understand that Tunisia can make a good product,’ says Majdi.

Chichini adds that many young Tunisian entrepreneurs are looking to the telecom sector and ignoring business ideas that result in a product instead of a service. The designers were recently invited to visit the Tunisian parliament’s national assembly, however, illustrating the country’s support for more contemporary craftsmanship.

‘We want it to reflect a good picture of Tunisia. That we are able to do it, to design it, to build it, to communicate about it, and to sell it,’ says Chichini. ‘This is the challenge.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.

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