Hamza, a college student, thinks Tunisian men are interested in fashion, but fear wearing clothes strikingly different from those of their peers. ‘They don’t show it but Tunisian men of all ages do like fashion,’ he says. ‘The problem is that we don’t have quite the variety in shops, which makes Tunisian men look all the same sometimes.’
He continues, ‘my friends often tell me that my style in clothes is that of an artist. Sometimes, they might call my outfit crazy, but they often complement me for my style. I find it funny but also true since I rarely wear what other Tunisian men put on.’ Ahmed, another Tunisian student, likes to wear jeans with tennis shoes and t-shirts. As for Hamza, his favourite pieces are scarves and hats. ‘I have, like, fifteen different scarves,’ he says.
Although designers say the 2011 revolution has opened up space for new talents in Tunisia’s fashion scene, they reported that artistic creativity in menswear is hindered by the tendency of men to conform to similar styles.
‘Tunisian men lack innovation in their dressing and often like the “copy paste” fashion,’ Barka shares. ‘They are afraid of avant-gardism.’ Barka entered the world of fashion through modelling at the age of 15 and grew to love the business. Self-taught, he started his own line in 2004 and specialises in menswear.
Barka’s designs are inspired by modern style with a touch of traditional Tunisian handicrafts, and have won him international attention. His collection Oshy centres around a reworking of sherwel, the traditional Tunisian trousers.
His collections are also often designed to convey a message. Finding a theme is the first step he takes when designing a new collection. The next step is to find fabric and materials, which he often purchases from Tunisia to promote local industries and artisans.
‘My 2011 collection aimed at expressing the vision of “the street ahead of the revolution,”’ he said. ‘The 2012 collection was the New Religious. As for 2013, I worked on a collection called India-Africa, as these two worlds feel similar to me. Life in India and Africa is both dark and colourful.’
Nabila Jlassi, a Tunisian fashion designer, echoed Barka’s claim that men in the country tend not to take many risks with their sartorial selections. Men’s collections often consist of suits that blend Tunisian traditional embroidery with modern designs. ‘When we talk about fashion and men’s fashion in Tunisia, it is often the fashion directed at weddings, and not the everyday casual style,’ Jlassi says.
Leila Mansour, president of the Tunisian Association for the Promotion of Traditional Outfits, and a fashion designer, expressed her concern regarding the situation of artisans. ‘Small artisans cannot afford to make garments inspired by Tunisian outfits,’ she said. ‘The silk, the thread and the fabric are too expensive. I no longer make menswear since it is too expensive.’
Fashion is also a manufacturing industry that contributes to the Tunisian economy. The textile industry is the second most important industry in Tunisia in terms of competitiveness and revenues. According to the Textile Technical Center, Tunisia is the fifth supplier of textiles to the European Union. Yet few opportunities exist for fashion designers to showcase their work; the most important events are Khomsa d’Or and Tunis Fashion Week. Founded in 1996, Khomsa d’Or (the Golden Khomsa) is an annual fashion competition that attempts to revive traditional outfits. Nabila Jlassi won the Golden Khomsa for menswear in 2006. Her costumes are inspired by Tunisian fabric and consist of a mix of modern style with a touch of Tunisian identity. But Jlassi was the first and last contestant to win the Khomsa d’Or for menswear; 2006 was the first and the last year the category was included in the event.
In April 2013, Tunisia hosted its first ‘Festival of Fashion’, an event that aims to promote the textile industry and young fashion designers. The 5th annual Tunis Fashion Week also took place, from May 29th to June 2nd, showcasing the collections of emerging and established Tunisian fashion designers while also promoting the cultural image of Tunisia. Tunis Fashion Week is also an equally important opportunity for models to improve their skills. Barka runs his own training centre for models where they spend three months working on dance, nutrition, sports and walking the catwalk. ‘We don’t really have models in Tunisia,’ Barka explains. ‘Male models are better to deal with than female models as they are in shape and are professional.’
As for those seeking to study design, Tunisia has several fashion schools that are internationally recognised, such as Collège La Salle, which offers an international fashion design programme, and the renowned Esmod Tunisie, a branch of the French fashion school Esmod. Founded in 1988, Esmod Tunisie is a private institution that is considered a leading institution in fashion design in Tunisia. Esmod Tunisie opened two schools – one in Tunis, and one in Sousse. Each accepts around 200 students per session.
‘Fashion in Tunisia is in the process of evolving,’ says Ayoub, a student at Esmod Tunisie. ‘For me, fashion is a way of thinking, and a lifestyle… the industry has witnessed a boom, but I think it needs a drastic change.’ He adds, ‘I chose this school because it is an international school, and it is a leading institution. It has played a role in the evolution of the fashion industry in Tunisia, and I aspire to take a part in improving the image of fashion in this country.’
Although men’s fashion is still a growing industry in Tunisia, it’s one that’s firmly rooted in traditional textiles and, despite the criticism, both designers and wearers believe that it has potential and that there’s plenty of homegrown talent to promote.